San Gimignano in the Province of Siena must do an excellent job at self-promotion because it’s close to the top of everyone’s list of places to visit in Tuscany, perhaps even Italy. And therein lies the problem. We had been here twice before, both separately and together, and didn’t really enjoy either visit. My first time was 20 years ago in the middle of August and even back then the tour buses were stacked right across the road and this very attractive town was buried under a seething mass of tourists, with not a single Italian among them.
My fault for being here in August I hear you all say and you’re right, but that was when school holidays determined the boundaries of my vacations. The second time was a few years ago in late spring and was a quick in and out just so we could pick up some wine from Enoteca Corsi that has the best selection of the local Vernaccia di San Gimignano . But nothing much had changed in terms of congestion despite it being early in May.
This third trip took place on a gorgeous sunny weekday in late January and what a difference! The town was almost completely devoid of tourists and because of Covid many of the shops and restaurants were closed, but we’ve been in Italy through enough winters to know that the lack of tourists was not purely a result of the current situation.
In fact, in a normal winter a place like San Gimignano is even better than it was for our visit because there are enough people for most businesses to remain open, but not so many as to ruin the ambience of this small town. The completely different atmosphere here in winter, that is also true for our home town of Lucca, has prompted us to write a short article about the best months to visit Italy taking into account both the average daytime temperatures and the typical rainfall you can expect throughout the year. It will be published soon in the Experiencing Italy section under Practical Tips.
Some people reading this are perhaps so used to Italy being crowded that they think nothing of it or perhaps just have a higher tolerance for mass tourism, but our tolerance is quite low and one of the goals of this website is to suggest how subscribers can best experience Italy through the eyes of two people who live here year round. If you want to really experience the country we would tell you come to Italy at least once in your lifetime well before Easter and go somewhere interesting and authentic and be surrounded by actual Italians.
If you can manage that then definitely visit San Gimignano. It’s not a very big place with a population of only about 7,500, virtually unchanged from 150 years ago. It is well situated on a gently sloping hill and even before you enter the town it’s a beautiful place to look at from a distance. We arrived from the north and left to the south and from both directions you see San Gimignano at its best. It must be one of the most photographed towns in all of Italy so you can see lots of other images on the internet, in addition to the ones here that we took, that show the lovely setting of the town and the towers for which it is famous.
San Gimignano is a classic medieval town, full of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. It is a town that all Italians can relate to because it forms a visible link to their history and its famous towers tell the story of the emergence and wealth creation of the merchant class in the Middle Ages. This wealth creation came about in large part from the profitable saffron trade for which the town became famous both in Italy and abroad, as well as its location on the original route of the Via Francigena.
San Gimignano is full of all the history that those of you who know a little bit about Italy will have come to expect. The town has seen it all, from plagues, the Black Death and famines to a visit from the father of the language himself, Dante Alighieri, and of course the interminable conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. I still haven’t worked out who were the good guys between the two but it seemed like a never-ending conflict that played out all over Tuscany, a sort of medieval version of the Bloods versus the Crips and just as parochial and perhaps just as meaningless, at least to a foreigner.
And just like Lucca and other medieval towns in Tuscany, San Gimignano experienced the same status driven competition between its most powerful families as to who could build the tallest tower in town.
The Salvucci family, who were Guelphs, built their twin towers (Torri Gemelle, photo right) in the Piazza delle Erbe adjacent to the Piazza del Duomo and their sworn Ghibelline enemies, the Ardinghelli family, responded with their own two towers in the Piazza della Cisterna. Not exactly twin towers as you can see from the bottom photograph on the right. Behind them is the tallest tower at the back, the Torre Grossa, which was the municipal tower.
San Gimignano quickly became a sort of medieval Manhattan and when you think about it nothing has really changed centuries later with respect to building height machismo, given the endless global competition for the tallest skyscraper in the world. Plus ça change as the French say.
But you have to admire the city authorities in San Gimignano in those long ago times because just when the tower competition started to get out of hand between all the competing families, which amazingly had resulted in 72 towers with heights up to 230 feet in a very small area, the city made almost all of them chop exactly half off the top, scapitozzato as the Italians would say, like some modern day local planning authority flexing its muscles. With hindsight that may have been a little too severe because unfortunately all but 14 of them remain today still cut in half.
And just like the old medieval tower competition there is a similar battle going on today between the two gelaterie in the Piazza della Cisterna. Dell'Olmo (below left) and Dondoli (below right) are barely thirty yards apart and both belligerently claim to have the best gelato in the world.
The winner is clear in my opinion, it has to be Dondoli and it’s claim may not be too much of an exaggeration because it is the creamiest, most decadent gelato I’ve had anywhere in Italy.
If you’ve made it to San Gimignano then you should continue on west to the important historical city of Volterra, in the Province of Pisa. It’s another well preserved and well maintained medieval town and only a half hour drive away. Although some of the same caveats apply in terms of the size of the town and the impact of crowds it is always a degree of magnitude lower than San Gimignano.
The route between the two towns is quite scenic with a distant winter view of the snow-capped Apennines 50 miles to the north.
Volterra was an important Etruscan town and there is a museum in town dedicated to its Etruscan heritage. The museum itself is one of the oldest in Europe dating back to the 18th century. There are also the ruins of an Etruscan Acropolis nearby and the Porta dell’Arco gate to the town dates back to the Etruscan period and is one of the best remaining examples of Etruscan architecture anywhere.
Volterra was also an important Roman town and within walking distance from the center there is the Teatro Romano, first excavated in the 1950s and one of the most impressive Roman theater discoveries ever made.
You can't talk about Volterra without mentioning its long tradition of alabaster carving that goes all the way back to Etruscan times. Alabaster is a soft stone that lends itself easily to carving and there are still some artisans in town who keep the tradition alive. The photograph of the Piazza dei Priori above shows the recent alabaster exhibition displayed and illuminated from the inside over the Christmas period.
Unlike San Gimignano, which surrendered to Florence without a fight, Volterra unwisely challenged Lorenzo di Medici and suffered the consequences when Florentine troops sacked the town in 1472. This was one of the last skirmishes between the Italian city states before the new era of foreign invasions and occupation began twenty-two years later with the arrival of the French.
Strolling around these two towns in January and having a coffee outside in the warm winter sun is like having a private tour through history and I can't say enough good things about it. It's a totally different experience and as far removed from the congested scrimmage of summer as it could possibly be. This is Italy, the other is Disneyland, I'll leave it at that.