From afar, San Gimignano looks like a modern high rise slum city. Tall grey tower blocks dominate the skyline. And down at street level more slum dwellings hide from the glaring sun. But in its heyday, in the 12th century, this town was rich, thanks to the crowds that thronged along the Via Francigena. Additionally, Italian politics contributed to the town’s growth. Somebody built a tall tower and that led to a healthy rivalry between the grand families to build ever taller towers. A total of 72 towers were built of which 14 remain. Grand churches were also constructed such as the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. The Via Francigena led right to its door and the door was relocated when the Via Francigena was later moved.
The decline started in 1348 when a terrible plague swept through the town. San Gimignano was abandoned and forgotten. Its revival in modern times owes nothing to the Via Francigena. Tourism now drives the economy. And here we are on Saturday 18 August, probably a peak day for tourism. It was only a 15km hop, skip and a jump from Gambassi Terme this morning and we were here by 8.30. Paul reluctantly came with me through the medieval back streets in search of the hostel in the Foresteria Del Monastero Di San Girolamo.
The sisters welcomed us. We showed our pilgrim credentials. All things considered, a room for two for 50 Euro wasn’t too bad. There’s no electricity or light in our room but there is a fan. And it’s right in the town centre.
Pilgrims were the first tourists in San Gimignano so I had no problem doing the rounds. First the Basilica, then the tallest tower, next a quick survey of the local merchants and then a gelato at Gelateria Dondoli, world gelato champion in 2009. The shops are full of local wines, sausages and cheese, especially sheeps cheese which I like very much indeed.
And for lunch we found a charming and authentic little Italian restaurant hidden down a backstreet which was highly regarded by TripAdvisor and had a menu in English.
It will be interesting to see how San Gimignano looks in the predawn hours tomorrow morning when the streets are empty.
San Gimignano in the distance
The Torre Grossa
The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta