3rd January 2016
San Gimignano – breakfast with the workers, lunch with the tourists and dinner with the locals
When I got up and threw open the heavy wooden shutters I was very surprised to find that my room overlooked the Tuscan countryside surrounding San Gimignano, It was sp beautiful and ethereal with a wreath of mist hanging over the regimented squares striped with rows of vines. I took some images and shouted buongiorno to a woman who looked up as she was walking down the road below my window. My lodgings, Le Romite were originally a convent and the building was full of character and well-placed for the centre of the old town, my destination for some breakfast.
Across the junction above Le Romite I could see the Piazza Sant’Agostino and decided to investigate as this square was the site of the Convento di Sant’ Agostino and Chiesa di San Pietro in Forliano. Piazza Agostino was deserted although occasionally someone would scurry across the paving stones and go into the large church of the convent in one corner. The well in the centre was decorated by a creation constructed with paper cups which I later discovered was part of an art exhibition in five separate areas of the town. After taking some photos, which was not easy due to the shadows cast by a sun that was low in the sky, I walked up the hill to Piazza della Cisterna. All the bars en route were closed and the only one that was open was Ristorante della Cisterna in the piazza of the same name. I had a cappuccino and a brioche filled with jam. The cappuccino cost the princely sum of €3.50 – I should have remembered it would have been cheaper to stand at the bar to have my breakfast. The bar was busy as people on their way to work clustered around the counter exchanging greetings and swallowing a quick coffee before rushing off again.
When I finished I decided to start my tour of the town on the panoramic terrace thinking that was the best place to cope with the rising sun. It was too early for the tourists to be gathering there and I had the place to myself and was able to take photos from all angles.
Next I decided to follow the sign pointing towards the walk around the walls. I had expected this walk would follow the top of the walls but soon realised as I made my way down a steep narrow alley that ait encircled the base of the walls. I found some steps that took me down to a path that threaded its way through an avenue of trees. The air was crisp and clear and carried bursts of bird song towards me. I strolled along in isolation enjoying the beautiful scenery around me. The path was deserted apart from an Italian couple out for an early morning jog.
When the path took me down to the road I crossed over to look at the Porta di Jacopo and the church of the same name. The church was closed but information on the board outside detailed its history and when I did a circuit of the building I could see the remains of the foundations of the original thirteenth century building. I re-traced my steps and decided to go down the hill to see the Fonti Medievali. The cobbles on the hill were wet and in places covered with fallen leaves and my ascent was much quicker than I would have liked when I slipped on a wet leaf half way down and was not able to stop until I arrived at the bottom. The pillars of the old public fountains were reflected in the dark water creating a beautiful image. Feeling adventurous and not wanting to tackle the slippery slope again – although a lady who followed me down in high-heels had marched confidently down with a hint of a slip – I decided to follow a track that took me back up to the town. At one point it seemed I was walking through private property – the house of a vineyard – as the tools of viticulture were scattered around me.
I found my way back to Piazza della Cisterna where I was distracted by the boast that Gelateria dell Olmo made the best ice cream in the world – it had to be tried. I chose a small tub of caramellate con sale rosa dal Himalayas (salted caramel) and sat on a step to enjoy my treat. It was delicious – pieces of rich caramel in a creamy ice cream with the occasional salty sharpness from the pink salt of the Himalayas.
Thinking it was time to do some serious sight-seeing I stepped into the adjoining Piazza Duomo intending to visit the cathedral. A stream of people was coming out of the main door and when I tried to go against the flow and enter the building my way was barred as the cathedral was closing. The lack of a ticket would also have been a problem. I moved on to the Palazzo Comunale which was recommended as a highlight of any visit to the town. Crowds of tourists were making their way up to the entrance on the first floor. Everyone was rushing past the beautiful frescoes in the small courtyard which gave me the flavour of the building and the era when it was constructed.
I left the courtyard by the back entrance and as I was pondering my next move a sign stating San Gimignano 1300 attracted my attention and I walked down the street towards it. Inside the small building (entrance free) I found a ceramic model of San Gimignano in 1300. The detail on the buildings was incredible and I spent a long time trying to orientate myself as there were no names on the buildings and city gates although the most important buildings were immediately recognisable. As I tried to work out where I had been walking earlier a guide came in with his group and launched into an explanation in English. Feigning interest in the ceramic object d’art displayed around the room I was able to follow his explanation and learn something about the city of many towers. During the medieval period towers were an indication of wealth and power but none of them could be higher than that of the most important building in the town, Palazzo Comunale.
By then it was time for lunch and wandering down a narrow side street I found a black board menu parked outside a small door set into a wall. It led inside the Ristorante Taverna Paradiso a small restaurant with tables set out on the ground floor and a mezzanine floor. Just one table was occupied by a family (and their dog) but soon after I was seated the tables around me began to fill up most of the occupants accompanied by at least one dog. I selected the home made pici alla norcina – a traditional Tuscan dish of slow cooked spaghetti in a creamy sausage sauce.
When I emerged into the sunshine once more the streets were even busier the earlier crowds augmented by a large group of youngsters and several groups of school children. The thought of continuing my circuit of the city walls became irresistible and I made my way back to my original stating point and this time I turned in the opposite direction. Soon afterwards I arrived at the main gate through the city walls, Porta San Giovanni.
As I continued in a clock-wise direction I came across two more gates before I arrived Porta Quercecchio. Here I noticed a stunted tower above me with people gathered on its summit – I had reached Rocca di Montestaffoli. I turned off the path and climbed up the steps towards its enclosing walls. The originally the Rocca was a castle. then it became a Dominican Convent and finally a fortress when the town submitted to Florence to protect it from possible attacks by Siena. When I entered the courtyard I found more artistic displays and the steps leading up to the top of the tower and a lovely panorama of the surrounding countryside including the convent of Sant’ Agostino below me and the towers of San Gimignano above me.
When I re-joined the circular path my route took me past the convent and on hearing voices singing I turned off the path to see what was happening. A large group of youngsters seated on the steps singing and passers-by were joining them. It was an uplifting moment and after watching them for a while I slipped inside the church and had a few peaceful moments the youngsters spilled inside for a special service. A choir was singing a beautiful anthem but it was competing with the confusion of trying to seat twice as many people as there were seats. It was time to make my escape and finish my circuit.
As the day was drawing in the landscape around me was glowing under the dying rays of the sun it was stunning and all too soon I found myself back at Porta San Jacopo my circuit completed. It was too late to visit the cathedral or any of the other museums but I felt I had learned a lot and absorbed the atmosphere of this pretty medieval town – at no cost at all.
When darkness fell I had a walk around the town admiring the Christmas lights before looking for somewhere to have dinner. By then the streets were deserted and the shops were closing down but the lights were still twinkling and the old buildings glimmered below them. As it was out of season most of the restaurants were closed and those that were open were empty, except Ristorante Peruca http://www.peruca.eu/web/ which was packed with locals. They managed to squeeze me into a corner and I was soon tucking into a plate of delicious gnocchi in a sausage and gorgonzola sauce accompanied by a glass of local red wine. It was the perfect ending to a lovely day.
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