We both wanted to see Tuscany. The photos in brochures and guidebooks were stunning and so attractive. We’d had a taster yesterday, driving through the countryside our our way to Chianciano but today the schedule said we would be visiting a small Tuscan hilltop town, San Gimignano.Our route took us through the country roads, avoiding the autostrada which would have ruined the atmosphere. Instead, we drove over hills, passing rows of arrow straight vines. We passed through Montepulciano, a classic hilltop town and our rep told us that the best red wine from the area was called Vino Noble (we were later to have a bottle and it was indeed delicious).
Eventually we pulled into the car park of San Gimignano, a small town set on a 334m high hill overlooking the Else valley. It sits on an old pilgrim route, which assured it’s prosperity. San Gimignano was famous for having a large number of tall towers within it’s walls. They were built as status symbols by wealth residents and while in other towns and cities, the towers have been destroyed by war, here fourteen still survive.
Incongruously, we were in the car park of a supermarket and it was full of people doing the weekly shop! But we soon walked away from that and once we’d entered the town walls, we were in a different world. The single street, more like a narrow lane, was bounded by 3 or 4 storey shops and dwellings. We were fortunate that there were few people there and it made the place more atmospheric. Early on, we visited the museum of torture, a bizarre place to find in such a tranquil setting. But it was fascinating in a morbid kind of way. This is not the place for detail, but it made us think about what people will do to other people in the name of religion, for most of the exhibits on show were related to punishing witchcraft, heresy and paganism.
We walked slowly to the top of the hill, where two markets were taking place. Just before we reached the markets, we found the church. It was large for the size of town and clearly dominated both life and skyline. Expecting touristy wares to be on offer in the markets, we were pleasantly surprised to finds that the top most one was the local produce market, selling fresh fruit and vegetables to the locals. We managed to locate a narrow back alley which, after a few yards walk, opened out to provide a stunning view of the surrounding countryside. The undulating hills were green with cypress trees and the patterns of rows of grape vines. Small fields bounded by hedges filled in the gaps. There were no livestock visible.
We slowly made our way back down again, for we had only two hours here before we headed off to Siena, a larger city nearby. For me, San Gimignano was one of the highlights of the tour so far (and turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip). I could see myself coming back here and it would be a pleasant place to spend a retirement.
Siena was almost a complete opposite and we talked afterwards about how we should have had more time in San Gimignano. I think we visited Siena at a time during the trip that we could have done with a rest day. The mid afternoon heat was stronger here than anywhere else we’d been, and we spent the first 45 minutes sat in a sheltered cafe with a welcome breeze blowing, sampling the local fare. The Piazza del Campo, (the town square) square was bordered on three sides by art galleries and tall blocks of dwellings and cafes. The fourth side was dominated by the Palazzo Pubblica (the town hall) and the Torre del Manga (tower of the eater, named after a local dignitary famed for spending all his money on food).
Unusually for the places we’d seen so far, the Cathedral (Santa Maria Assunta) was located away from the centre of the town, almost in a back street. We found it when we were looking for a place to eat our ice cream in some shelter from the sun.
I’m sure Siena has its charms and secret places but I think on the day we visited we were beginning to suffer from some overload of the senses. Siena didn’t do it for me and that’s probably partly my fault. But to some extent it was because we were comparing it unfavourably to San Gimingano, which matched our ‘ideal’ image of Tuscany.
We arrived back in Chinaciano for a welcome rest before a 5 course meal which was, once again, delicious. As was the bottle of Vino Noble we had with it.