‘Medieval Manhattan’ is a backdrop to Tuscan love
Hotels and restaurants occupy San Gimignano’s buildings dating from an era of aristocratic rivalry and wealth
Decades ago, I visited San Gimignano, one of Tuscany’s most popular hilltop towns. The hotel room opened onto a balcony overlooking the countryside below, carpeted with green fields and vineyards.
It was one of the loveliest spots I had ever encountered. Newly divorced and travelling with my mother, I pledged to return one day with a more romantic travel partner. So, when my second husband asked where I would like to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I had no hesitation suggesting the hotel with a view in San Gimignano.
Known as the Medieval Manhattan, San Gimignano had its heyday in the 14th century, when many of the well-preserved buildings that now house hotels, museums and restaurants were constructed.
Rival aristocratic families attempted to outdo each other erecting ever taller towers that symbolised their wealth and power; at one time, there were 72. Only 13 of these medieval skyscrapers have survived and they dominate the skyline for kilometres around.
At dawn, they appear mystical through the mist, while at night they are illuminated, rising into the sky like beacons, a glimpse of how it must have looked centuries ago.
People with strong legs climb the Torre Grossa — the tallest tower and the only one accessible to the public. Several hundred steps lead to a viewing platform with a 360° view of the small town far below and the Tuscan countryside bleached by the midday sun; a patchwork of green and yellow fields, large farmsteads and villas dotting the landscape to the horizon, which looms up in the form of purple mountains.
San Gimignano suffers from a surfeit of day-trippers, who arrive by the coach load; savvy travellers spend the night — when the town is peaceful, elegant and improbably lovely. After dinner, we mingled with locals and overnight guests in the two interconnecting piazzas before taking a passeggiata along narrow, cobbled streets.
Each evening, we stopped in at Gelateria Dondoli on Piazza della Cisterna, whose 13th century cistern provides an Instagramable backdrop to countless selfies. Queues snaked along the piazza to sample the array of ice creams with inventive flavours as befits the twice winner of the Gelato World Championships. My favourite was a creamy mix of saffron, cantuccini biscuit, almond and honey.
Eating gelato on a hot night, listening to an orchestra perform on the Piazza Duomo, encircled by honey-hued palazzi — this is la bella vita that San Gimignano offers those who take refuge within its gates.
It is not only a destination for romantics, but also for lovers of art. La Collegiata, the town’s cathedral, boasts an extraordinary cycle of frescoes that relate tales from the Old and New Testaments. A more lighthearted secular set of frescoes is next door at the Museo Civico in which the narrative of a relationship unfolds, panel by panel.
A short walk through town, shops spilling out with local ceramics, cheese, wines and artefacts, brought us to the Museo Archeologico.
Most impressive were a collection of Etruscan artefacts, including an array of funerary urns and a pharmacy with the original vases containing medicinal preparations hundreds of years old. On its upper floor, we discovered a contemporary art museum exhibiting a large collection of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
On another street, we were delighted to stumble upon Galleria Continua, an art gallery that opens onto an old movie house that has been preserved. The gallery was hosting an exhibition by Antony Gormley.
Unlike most eateries in town that serve traditional Tuscan dishes, at Cum Quibus the chefs presented a pick-and-mix. Spanish, French and Japanese influences were apparent; there was even a coconut curry.
The eight-course tasting menu plus several amuse-bouches climaxed early, the first course being the most memorable. Sea Salad was composed of blanched vegetables from the restaurant’s allotment – a minute carrot, a sliver of baby leek and a tiny mange tout were perched in a heavenly turbot sauce into which was swirled a red shrimp reduction.
Another highlight was a dish of compressed, pulled duck meat studded with pistachios, brushed with a Campari glaze and topped with a cherry.
Being the last to leave after a lengthy dinner, we encountered the young chefs having a cigarette on the pavement outside. We commended their culinary talent before teetering off into the warm night.
More traditional fare is served at what must be the most picturesque table in town. Le Vecchie Mura is located, as its name suggests, on the walls of the old city. Seated at the edge of a flower-filled terrace overlooking the spectacular, verdant valley as the sun set, a glass of crisp, local Vernaccia in hand, I felt transported to fantasy land.
The Tuscan menu was extensive, including ribollita (Tuscan bean soup), pici (a thick noodle served simply with pecorino), rabbit, wild boar and the favourite steak of the region, Bistecca alla Fiorentina — 1kg of T-bone. which defeated my carnivorous husband.
The next day we sat on our hotel balcony eating slices of leftover rare beef with sun-ripened tomatoes on Tuscan bread, overlooking the majestic view and counting our blessings. In San Gimignano even lunch from a doggy bag is romantic.