If you are visiting Tuscany and love the old medieval towns of Italy, San Gimignano is a perfect retreat. It’s a small town set upon a walled hill in the province of Siena, around 56km from Florence. San Gimignano’s history can be traced back as far as the 3rd Century BC when it was a typical small Italian village.
The town is famous for the fourteen towers that dominate the skyline and provide a stunning view across the Tuscan countryside. Originally there were an impressive 72 towers, built by the patrician families around the 11th – 13th Centuries. One of these towers, the tallest in town at 54m, has been revamped inside and opened to the public. It is a hard climb, and the very top section involves clambering up a ladder and ducking your head at the top to avoid the huge bell, but the views are splendid in every direction. If you love typical Tuscan hills, dotted with villages, villas and cedar trees then you will definitely want to make the climb.
In the heart of the town you will find the four squares, the Piazza della Cisterna which represents the centre of the town, the Piazza Duomo, the Piazza Pecori and the Piazza delle Erbe. These are great for passing the time and admiring the old architecture thanks to the nice selection of friendly cafes and outdoor restaurants which serve wonderful fresh Italian food.
San Gimignano has the nice advantage of not allowing any cars within its stone walls. This means as you wander around the town there is a peaceful atmosphere that you don’t get in many other towns. Parking is available for tourists and those staying at some of the hotels.
Due to the beauty of the place there are now more than three million tourists visiting the town each year, with many bus tours. Therefore it’s advisable to visit San Gimignano in the late afternoon after the crowds thin out. Even better, stay in one of the lovely rustic hotels within the walled town, using it as your base for visiting Sienna and elsewhere during the day, and explore the town during the morning and evening.
Throughout San Gimignano you can find art of the highest standard, from ornate frescoes to paintings and sculptures. In the imposing 13th Century Sant’Agostino church you can find a wide selection of artworks from some of the main Italian renaissance artists, such as the seventeen-panel fresco cycle on The Life of St Augustine, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli between 1463 and 1467.
San Gimignano is well-known for the production of the Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine. This is one of the most popular white wines in Italy. It is golden yellow in colour with a rich bouquet, and is suitable as an aperitif and also goes well with fish dishes. This wine has very ancient origins, and there are records of it dating back to the 13 C.
Walking around the town is a wonderfully relaxing experience, like going back to the middle ages but with all the modern trimmings. There is an old path around the outside of the walls which provides exceptional views across the Tuscan countryside and the benches provide a perfect place to rest and admire the scenery.