In the summer, San Gimignano is a town crowded with, and catering to, tourists. The tour buses arrive full of day-trippers and passengers from the many cruise ships docked in nearby Livorno. The heat rises from the stone streets, the tour groups move down the narrow streets looking up at the towers and stopping to buy souvenirs along the way. The gelato shops, especially the award-winning Gelateria Dondoli, do a brisk business. For many visitors, this will be a quick stop on the way to somewhere else - Siena or Florence perhaps. That is how I saw San Gimignano for the first time, some 20+ years ago, on day trip out of Florence. I thought it beautiful and interesting, if a bit overrun with tourists. I had not been back since that long-ago visit.
I recently had a chance to return to San Gimignano with a small group of fellow travelers, this time in late February*. As we drove through the Tuscan countryside, spring had not yet arrived and summer seemed a long way off. Approaching the village, stands of trees stood tall, their white bark striped with grey, bare branches reaching toward a cold sky. Fresh snow blanketed the surrounding hillsides and vineyards, giving the landscape a quiet wintery cast and making the always dramatic approach to this small hill town even more spectacular than usual. I knew immediately that a winter visit to this area would be something special.
The history of San Gimignano is fascinating. Once an important stop on the Via Francigena (the pilgrim’s route between Canterbury and Rome), San Gimignano was a thriving town of wealthy merchants, traders, and nobles until a plague in the 14th century wiped out a large portion of the inhabitants. At its peak, the city had 72 towers, built to display the wealth and importance of the residents (a Medieval “whose is bigger” competition). Today, 14 of the towers remain and San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage site with about 8,000 permanent residents. For a great sense of how the city looked in Medieval times, there is detailed model of the city, including the walls, in the gift shop of the museum, just off Piazza del Duomo.
Arriving in San Gimignano, we entered through Porta San Giovanni and began to wind our way up through the town. The streets were uncrowded (dramatically different than in summertime) and a bit icy, so going slow was required.
The slowness, and the lack of large numbers of tourists, provided an opportunity to really absorb details - the 13th century city walls, the stone streets, Piazza della Cisterna with its central well, Piazza del Duomo (site of the cathedral), the frescoes that adorn many walls, and the snow-covered rooftops of the houses. Standing at the edge of town, the expansive views over the snow-covered valley below were mesmerizing.
Even though some shops were closed for the winter, there was no shortage of shopping opportunities. Stores offered everything from local food and wine specialties - the area is known for saffron, the local Vernaccia di S. Gimignano wine, olive oil, and cinghiale (wild boar - yum!) - to handcrafted soaps, leather goods, and artwork.
After spending a crisp, cold morning in San Gimignano, we were off to the nearby Fattoria San Donato for a late lunch and wine tasting. The fattoria (farm) produces wine and olive oil, rents rooms to travelers and provides wine tastings.
The lunch prepared for us, including salumi (a variety of cold cuts), vedure sotto aceto (pickled veggies), cheese (including an amazing sheep’s ricotta and a local pecorino), and risotto-style farro with vegetables, was accompanied by the fattoria's own wine. The food and the wine were delicious and the hosts provided interesting and informative details about the production and preparation of both.
After lunch we toured the winery, which is small and family-run.
All and all, this was a magical day under a winter sky in Tuscany.
-Post by JMB
* this visit to San Gimignano and the Fattoria San Donato was a small group excursion with Viking Ocean Cruises' “Iconic Western Mediterranean” itinerary, February 2018.
A pretty courtyard in San Gimignano