As my bus whizzes past lush green vineyards across the Tuscan countryside, I cannot help but marvel at the view. The whole scene looks ripped off a classic movie or maybe an Enid Blyton book. No human being in sight for miles at a stretch. Just the countryside, me and of course a mellifluous song, that only I can hear.
15 minutes later, I reach San Gimignano, a tiny Tuscan village. It was love at first sight. There were flowers mushrooming on both sides of the cobbled streets and idyllic houses with windows adorned by flowerbeds; quaint, wooden doors hidden behind ivy creepers and vintage letterboxes hung on brick walls. I am in a village straight out of a fairy tale, a scene where I can picture Rapunzel letting down her hair out of those windows. An elusive fragrance envelopes me as I walk down the streets, not being able to keep my eyes on the road. The villas are inviting and the windows are wide open as if ready to hug.
San Gimignano is 52km from Florence and is ideal for a one day excursion.
As I begin exploring this medieval town, I choose to start with the San Gimignano Street, flanked with huge stone towers akin to castles, on both sides. According to my Lonely Planet Guide, this ancient town was once an Etruscan village, home to affluent and powerful families, who flaunted their opulence by building tower houses. There were once 72 such towers, today there are 14 of these remaining. San Gimignano showcases Roman and Gothic architecture in their full glory.
As I walk through the city towards the Main square, the Piazza Della Cisterna, it starts raining. Taking shelter in a souvenir shop, I befriend Sara who is happy to accompany me while I explore this fascinating town. While my mind is abuzz with several questions, I am most intrigued about the Italian’s fascination for adorning windows with flowers.
Sara tells me it’s a welcoming gesture. No wonder clusters of flowers are found outside Pizzerias, cafés and stores!
The streets are now washed with rain and we venture out. San Gimignano makes for an ideal one day excursion from Florence and is best explored on foot.
What to do in San Gimignano
So what can one do in San Gimignano apart from losing your way in the alluring alleys?
1. Shop on the Main street
From chic footwear to fragrant hand made Toscana soaps, the street has a variety of souvenirs to carry back home. For wine lovers, there is the dry white Vernaccia wine, local to this region. The tower town is also known for its gorgeous ceramics. A pity I couldn’t carry some of that stellar looking crockery back home. Sara tells me the town was also known for its saffron farming.
2. Dine under the Tuscan sun
The freshness of a Tuscan meal, with all its aromas and flavours, is something you will not forget easily. My vegetarian meal at the Ristorante Pizzeria included Pappa Pomodoro [a thick tomato soup], Fagioli Uccelleto [beans] and Verdure caponata [Roasted vegetables]. This was served with lots of fresh salad, topped with eggless cake and downed with a breathtaking view of the vineyards.
Could it get any better?
3. SanGimignano 1300 Museum
This museum showcases a brilliant ceramic representation of how the town looked in the medieval ages. It gives a bird’s eye view of all the towers and an insight to the town planning. The lady at the desk can’t contain her excitement about meeting an Indian and coaxes me to sample some local Biscotti, Canestrelli, and Amaretti. These are cookies cooked with almonds. Delectable and a must try!
4. Wine tasting and exploring vineyards
The San Gimignano Vernaccia Wine Museum, perched at the highest point of the town, shows the journey of wine making in this region. You can see vineyards from the museum and sample local Vernaccian wine in the museum. Additionally, the museum also conducts wine tasting events and day visits to farms.
5. Indulge in an innovative gelato
Visit the famous Gelateria Dondoli in the Piazza Del Cisterna to indulge in some innovative, homemade delights. Whipped by Sergio Dondoli, former gelato world champion, some of his exotic creations include Crema di Santa Fina [saffron and pine nuts], Dolceamaro [aromatic herbs], Vernaccia Sorbet and Champelmo [pink grapefruit].
6. The Cathedral and its frescos
With beautiful frescos, intricate paintings and arty ceilings, the Collegiata Di Santa Maria Assunta or the Duomo di San Gimignano is more than just a religious place. Truly an art lover’s delight, the Cathedral has biblical stories painted on its walls, which sadly cannot be captured as photography is prohibited.
7. The historic centre
No cars are allowed in this town and hence the sanctity of the town is maintained. Walk through the Piazzas, throw a coin in the wishing well, climb up the Bell tower for the glorious views and let the magic of this medieval town wash itself upon you.
I toy with the idea of spending at least three months, in one of these gorgeous villas, living the local Tuscan life. But as all fairy tales have happy endings, this one was no exception. The sights of the countryside are now imprinted in my mind and the aromas of the Tuscan food are etched in my memory.
Satiated, I close my eyes till my journey back to Florence, occasionally sniffing the handmade soaps—perfect souvenirs from the fairy tale town.