While most large cities in the world have the best cathedrals and museums, my favorite places to visit are the smaller towns and villages in a country. I enjoy the slower pace and less crowds, but I also love to see a place with ties to older customs. It is like stepping back in time, and since I’m a history geek, it resonates far more than a famous sculpture or painting. San Gimignano is exactly the type of place I love to explore.
The origins of present day San Gimignano started in the 3rd Century BC, when the Etruscans founded a hill fortress on this site. It received the name San Gimignano in 450 AD, named after Geminianus, the Saint of Modena, who worked to spare the castle town from destructive forces of Attila the Hun.
In the Middle Ages, it became an important stopping point for pilgrims on their way to the Vatican, and San Gimignano prospered. However, in the mid 1300s the Black Death decimated the town’s inhabitants, wiping out nearly half of San Gimignano’s inhabitants.
During the Renaissance many affluent Italian families in Tuscany attempted to prove their importance by building towers higher than those of their rivals. In most other Tuscan cities these towers did not survive to present time; but in San Gimignano fourteen of the towers are still in existence, giving the town its nickname of “The Town of Fine Towers”. In addition, much of the town’s fortification walls are still standing, which is a rarity for Italian cities.
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Tuscany was to explore Italian wines. Wine is important to the history of San Gimignano. The area is known for their Vernaccia, a crisp white wine made from the grape of the same name. While Vernaccia wines date back to the late 1200s in this region, it fell out of favor due to the inherent difficulties in growing and harvesting Vernaccia grapes. Luckily, these wines resurged in the 1960s, as modern growing and harvesting techniques made the grapes a popular alternative to the weaker Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. Today Vernaccia wines are considered some of Italy’s best white wines. You can find an old review I did of a Vernaccia San Gimignano wine here.
Our driver dropped us off the Porta San Giovanni gate, the lowest level of the old town. San Giovanni is the Italian form of “Saint John”.
As we walked up the Via San Giovanni, there were dozens of nice shops, wine bars and bistros. Like other places that cater to tourists, there were street vendors hawking trinkets, but I was impressed by the artisan nature of the shops in San Gimignano. It seemed the class of offerings where better than in other tourist villages like this we have visited in the past. The town proudly displayed their local Vernaccia and other regional wines. My wife had to drag me from several wine shops with good Vernaccia wine samples. The shop owners were knowledgeable and friendly, and had insight into some of the labels that only a local could know.
Near the top of Via San Giovanni we reached the Piazza della Cisterna. This was the primary water supply for the town from the 1300s until the last 100 years.
Adjacent to Piazza della Cisterna is the Piazza Duomo, home to San Gimignano’s “cathedral”, the Collegiate Church. While this church has a plain exterior, the interior of the basilica seemed largely of Romanesque style, with a couple of excellent Renaissance styled chapels as well.
Leaving the Piazza Duomo, we climbed steps to the right of the church to reach the pinnacle of the town, the Rocca di Montestaffoli. Constructed in 1453 after San Gimignano fell under the control of Florence, today most of the fort lies in ruins. Most of the stone walls still stand, along with one turret visitors can safely climb, offering panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside.
Leaving the fort, we walked down Via San Matteo to the gate Porta San Matteo (Saint Matthew.) At this gate we met our driver, and reluctantly left San Gimignano behind us.
We definitely recommend adding San Gimignano to your Italian vacation itinerary. It is an excellent option for a day trip out of nearby Florence, only an hour’s drive away. While one can easily explore the town in a day, the visit will stick with you much longer. Give it a shot!
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