The Beautiful and the Bizarre in San Gimignano

A snaking line in the piazza spills out of a small shop with a sign saying “Gelateria Dondoli”, home to the twice awarded Gelato World champion – Sergei Dondoli. Some may be deterred by the long queue, but not us. We have become regulars over the last three days and strut purposefully toward the shop, knowing that the line may be long, but moves swiftly. Within five minutes we have queued up, made our way to the laden showcases of gelato, placed our orders and been served generous cones of the world’s best stuff by the brisk and efficient staff. The man himself comes out to say hello to all the visitors and sportingly takes a picture with us, urging us to ditch the “cheese” and say ‘GELATO’ instead in preparation for the photograph. As we sit in the sunshine filled piazza, lapping at our cones, it’s a luxurious moment that really sums up our trip to this beautiful Tuscan town. Several visitors come into San Gimignano for a day trip, taking in the Duomo, climbing up the Torre Grossa for a selfie and
glimpse of the magnificent view; buying some souvenirs, and eating a meal at one of the many restaurants in the area. Being allergic to haste, we chose to spend a luxurious three days in San Gimignano, filling our time with a languid sprawl of the delicious, the beautiful, and just a touch of the bizarre, in this engrossing town.

The Town: 

San Gimignano is referred to as the “Manhattan” of Italy, a reference to its many towers dominating the townscape. Set amid the gorgeous vineyards and rolling Tuscan countryside, the medieval walled town glows in this magical setting with its towers standing tall against the skyline. The town is named after the Bishop San Gimignano, who reportedly rescued the city from Attila the Hun. The city transports you back in time through its preserved medieval architecture and fortified walls. Charming
alleyways branch of the arterial main street, which is lined with shops and restaurants, broken up by charming piazzas. The paths lend themselves to aimless wandering, gazing into the shop windows filled with everything from truffles, olive oil and wild boar salami; to leather goods and designer clothes. Rich in culture the cathedrals and museums here celebrate the region’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. Though the main town does have plenty of accommodation options, we chose to stay a 10 minute walk away in a lovely farmstay overlooking the vineyards, olive groves and the medieval town. After a day of wandering around the town, settling in with a glass of wine at the farm
to watch the sun set over the rolling countryside was one of our favourite parts of the day. Exploring the city’s heritage La Rocca di Monstestaffoli is the ruins of a 14th century fortress, perched atop a hill. The crumbling shell of the citadel with silvery olive trees makes for a poetic setting and it is usual to spot an artist painting or a musician playing music while enjoying the view of the countryside and the towers in the town centre. A leisurely visit to the main cathedral – the Collegiata – is an engaging stroll through striking frescos across two walls, in a three layered format, depicting scenes from the Old Testament on one wall and from the New Testament on the opposite side. Parts of the frescoes have been destroyed during World War II, but a large amount remains in fairly good condition. The city’s Civic Museum includes the Palazzo Comunale, la Pinocoteca and la Torre Grossa. The art is fascinating, including the 14th century Maestà – Mary and Child on a throne surrounded by kneeling angels and dignitaries; a series of “naughty” frescoes in the Camera del Podestà showing the rewards of marriage through a husband
and wife in the nude in the bath and bedroom; and many other fine panels and frescos of sacred art. If one fancies a glimpse into one of the tower houses, the Torre e Case Campatelli is packed with art and antiques preserved by the Italian National Trust. Over our three days we did a leisurely visit to these sites, along with the Speziara di Santa Fina, a museum/pharmacy with displays showcasing the remedies prepared in this space during the plague in the 1600s; the Archaeological Museum with Roman figurines and mosaic tiles; and the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The towers

The original 72 towers were built by the wealthy families of the region in a “mine’s bigger than
yours” display of power. The picturesque town and the towers have been featured in various movies, like the Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher and Judi Dench starrer, “Tea with Mussolini” where a group of women try to save the town from destruction by the Germans in World War II. 14 towers remain, and one of them – the Torre Grossa – is open to the public to climb and take in the views. At around 177 feet, this is the tallest tower in the town and can be accessed with a ticket and a fully charged FitBit to make you feel worthy of the carb laden meals, in which you are likely to indulge. Unlike the steep spiralling staircase we imagined, there were gradual steady metal steps interrupted
by landings to take in the views. If you need to surreptitiously catch your breath, you can stop to watch the electronic display cascading all the way from the top displaying the tower’s history. The last stretch is up a narrow la
dder and you know you have reached when cries from helpful, yet slightly smug, strangers above tell you to watch your head on the beam as you ascend into the sunshine. Expect gorgeous selfies against views of the Tuscan countryside, even if the pictures are slightly marred by your windswept hair poking you in the eye!

The bizarre

A rectal pear :(
It’s almost hard to imagine this gorgeous town as a setting for a rather strange museum highlighting human cruelty and various practices of torture. Just after the main entrance you notice the Museo della Tortura, or Museum of Torture. There are a few gimmicky bits with some gruesome wax depictions, but a majority of the exhibit is a display of numerous instruments of torture with detailed, and rather graphic, descriptions of their use. Chastity belts, knee splitters, guillotines, punishment collars, crucifixion, the transition from a spiked interrogation chair to an electric chair, and many more feature in the exhibit. Some of the exhibits describe how over time technology or human “creativity”
advanced to more deadly or potent forms of torture. Cruelty is not something you generally associate with “advancement”, but it is true that over time whether weapons, punishments, or torture, the ability of humans to inflict pain or harm on other living beings is really boundless. It is this rather uncomfortable message that is reinforced and explored in the rather gruesome, yet thought provoking, collection of torture devices, ranging from medieval times to the current. If you are intrigued by the bizarre and eerie, there are other options in the area like Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, the now abandoned ruin of a former mental asylum. One can see a series of symbols, poems and words by a former patient, who used the buckle of his vest to etch into the wall his feelings and observations of the asylum.

The food 
Tuscan food is hearty and flavourful. Referred to as "cucina povera", alluding to harder times where nothing went to waste, in terms of quality and taste there is nothing "povera" about this food. Seasonal and local produce still remain the heart of this cuisine. My husband prefers vegetarian food and expected to be living on wine and gelato, which is hardly a punishing diet, but ended up eating very well throughout theholiday. From ribolitta, which is a comforting thick soup with beans, seasonal vegetables and stale bread (nothing goes to waste!) drizzled in generous amounts of olive oil; to tortelli stuffed with pumpkin, sage, shallots cooked in amaretto and Parmesan cheese; truffle paste spread on crispy bread; bruschetta with generous amounts of garlic and olive oil; and more, there is no dearth of great options for vegetarians. For the carnivores there is of course a meatier
range of choices. A wild boar sauce with pappardelle that we lunched on was delicious, a variant of which is served with a wild hare sauce. Saffron is a famous product of San Gimignano and was often used in trade or exchanged as a replacement for money by merchants. One of our most memorable meals had to be in the sunny courtyard of a beautiful restaurant, La Mandragolo, where the thick ribbon noodle drenched in a saffron sauce with Tuscan sausage featured in our conversations for several weeks. Cantucci, the popular almond biscuits of the region, were our staple accompaniments with coffee, though it is also popular with the dessert wine (vin santo). But our sweet fix always came from the decadent range of gelato - from tangy lemon, to creamy banana, tart and sweet cherry or a rich chocolate. The main wine of the region, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, is a white wine that can be bought at the many stores around the town, and several wine tasting tours around the vineyards are available. Just below the fort there is a small wine museum devoted to Vernaccia wine. It has a lovely courtyard where one can sip a glass of the good stuff and watch the

Much like a good glass of wine, San Gimignano should be savoured. A place where time stands still and one should revel and soak it in at a leisurely pace.


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