The Joys of San Gimignano in Spring
The sky was the most beautiful shade of blue, and the morning sun was just visible behind the clouds as my plane touched down at Pisa Airport, Italy. San Gimignano had been on my bucket list for a long time, and as I drove there on a beautiful, bright spring morning, I reflected on its rich history, which gave me an insight into what medieval Tuscany would have looked like centuries ago.
Famous the world over for its towers, the historic centre of San Gimignano was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990. Seen as status symbols by their wealthy owners of yore, these towers also served a purpose. They protected the wealthiest families and acted as a defence against marauders. Several of the towers still remain, along with the town’s medieval walls, churches and monuments.
As you cannot park in the town itself, I found a shady parking spot just outside the city walls where Cafe il Giardino’s aroma of freshly ground coffee drew me inside. Seated at the back of the cafe, I looked out over the most amazing view of the surrounding valley and countryside. I really must give a mention to the very generous cup of steaming cappuccino followed by a delicious crostini (Italian toasted bread). Promising a return visit and ready to tackle the day, I walked around the medieval walls and entered San Gimignano via the main door.
Duomo di San Gimignano
Feeling that I had stepped straight into an ancient history book, this charming town certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. Armed with my trusty map, I made my way up via San Giovanni, stopping to admire the many interesting and curious shops which had just opened for business. Even though there is a small-community feel to the town, I was surprised at just how much there is to see. At the top of my list was the famous Duomo di San Gimignano situated in the heart of the town.
This imposing building is home to the most breathtaking frescoes dedicated to the story of the Old and New Testament. I was amazed to learn that the Duomo itself is still in its original state and has never needed to be restored. Once inside, it’s interesting to follow the storyline depicted by the frescos until eventually arriving at the central part of the entrance.
Looking up to the arches on each side, I was impressed by the portrayal of what might happen after death as depicted in ‘Glory of Paradise’ and ‘Pains of Hell’ which were both beautiful and frightening. Many of these frescoes were seen as warnings to those citizens who broke the laws of God and I can see why—they look like something straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
Coming out into the spring sunshine, I was struck once again by how contained this medieval town appeared, with its ancient walls wrapped around it like a protective blanket. Feeling the need for another coffee and an early lunch, I made my way to a cosy little restaurant I had discovered earlier.
Just off the beaten track and located in the Piazza Sant’Agostino, the Locanda di Sant’Agostino restaurant is a peaceful oasis next to the Sant’Agostino church. Popular with locals and tourists alike, this charming restaurant has a real family vibe to it, with homemade food beautifully cooked with local products—preferably organic.
Deciding to sit outside and watch the world go by, I noticed how this hidden gem has a definite romantic feel to it due to the beautiful churches and hidden location. I decided on a pasta course for lunch with a fresh caprese salad, accompanied by a very good house wine. It was absolutely delicious and the portions generous; considering the location, it was very reasonably priced. Open all year and staffed by members of the same family, it is both welcoming and delightful.
As I was in the area, I decided to visit the Sant’Agostino, which is famous for its incredible works of art. Cool and austere, the church has a single wide nave with three separate chapels that lead off from it. There is a real sense of peace in this beautiful church, dominated by the wooden painting decorating the main altar which represents the Coronation of the Madonna.
Once again I was impressed by the condition of the artwork, most of which dates back to the late 1400’s, and centres around a seventeen-panel fresco cycle on ‘The Life of St Augustine’. In order to really appreciate the splendour of this beautiful church, I would suggest you do so in a leisurely manner—there are some things in life that should not be rushed.
Over the next couple of days, I started to really feel at home in this little corner of Tuscany, with its unique towers and ancient walls. I also wanted to experience the weekly market in the town which takes place on a Thursday in the main square.
Early morning is definitely the best time to really enjoy this market, which is very much a part of Tuscan life. Not used to haggling (which always feels a bit weird to me), I found that it’s just expected and decided to give it a go. It’s all about the approach and if you don’t speak Italian, use your phone and type the price in. I find smiling works really well, with a few words of Italian thrown in for good measure. Stick to your first lower price and then accept a price somewhere in the middle. Finding it really entertaining, I managed to purchase a tablecloth (which I didn’t really need); I just got caught up in the moment, the place and the fun.
San Gimignano 1300
Nearing the end of my week, I could not miss out on a visit to the most amazing museum known as San Gimignano 1300. From the centre of the town as you walk down via San Giovanni, you will come across a large open door with a poster inviting you to come inside. This detailed miniature reconstruction of medieval San Gimignano is exhibited in a stone-walled room, lit by special lighting and a variety of sound effects to create the many town sounds of medieval San Gimignano.
It’s well worth having a guided tour—which doesn’t cost anything—however, you are expected to leave a donation. This in-depth tour left me with a deeper understanding of medieval San Gimignano and its incredible history.
My final port of call in San Gimignano was a visit to the beautiful Galleria Continua, which exhibits in a former cinema and theatre space. Founded in 1990 with the intention to give continuity to contemporary art within an ancient setting, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the gallery had indeed found its own niche in a town dominated by ancient art.
Known as one of the best commercial art galleries in Europe, its unexpected location away from the big cities made it even more appealing—cherishing the link between past and future. As I gazed out at the amazing views from the hidden courtyard located downstairs, I knew I would return to this ancient town which has embraced the future, yet remains unchanged and stays true to itself.
If You Go
If you find yourself in beautiful San Gimignano in spring, I am confident that you’ll be blown away by the breathtaking history of the town, stunning views and homely atmosphere.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Lorna Lamon