Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Towering over Tuscany

San Gimignano, Tuscany

There was a moment, about three quarters of the way up, as the steps became steeper and the railing a little flimsier, when I considered the ascent a bad idea. My two year old daughter clung to me like unripe grapes to the vine, and in turn I clutched her with one arm so that my other was free to hold the railings.

The steps we had already conquered swirled around the inside wall of a centuries-old stone tower. We had reached a landing, looked down the center abyss to the ground far below, and then up at the remaining climb up an old wooden ladder. It was stifling hot and the air inside the medieval fortification pressed heavy on the body. It didn’t help that I had hoisted an extra 30 pounds up the stairs.

As my daughter and I slowly, carefully slid up the almost vertical ladder – the final lunge up the tower – my hands ached from gripping the worn rungs and her little body. The excitement I had felt with the first step down below was now hard to conjure.

We reached the last ladder rung. Simultaneously my daughter’s little head and my big one poked up through the hatch and into the glaring Italian sunlight. We emerged from the ladder onto the crown of San Gimignano’s tallest tower, the Torre Grossa. I was exhausted, hot and my knees were trembling.
Was the climb worth it? My eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight and as the whole expanse of Tuscany came into focus, hills and vineyard and cypress trees sprawled in every direction, the answer was instantly and profoundly obvious: yes it is.  

Every direction was a postcard panorama. Leaning over one side of the Torre Grossa, I pointed out to my daughter the hills, green and gold in midsummer splendor, rolling and cresting like waves to the horizon. Over on the other side, vineyards pockmarked the slopes, not yet heavy with fruit but close to providing fodder for the region’s local chianti and vernaccia wine. Still in another direction, the rooftops of San Gimignano jutted up and down, every once in a while broken by a medieval tower, like stepping stones leading the way to the walled fortress on the edge of town. My daughter pointed out the piazzas buzzing with activity underneath us.

Since we stood atop the tallest tower in San Gimignano, we had the benefit of looking down on the town’s other towers. Only eleven stone towers still stand out of more than 70 that once dominated the town in its medieval heyday, each a physical manifestation of power, built by the wealthy to show off (and to sometimes drop hot oil on potential intruders).

Every Tuscan hilltown has a unique trait, whether it is a landmark or local cuisine or artisan craft. Because of this, visiting a Tuscan hilltown is an intimate affair, like getting to know a new member of the same family. They are all distinctly Tuscan but also memorable for their own distinct reason. 

The towers are San Gimignano’s calling card, giving visitors a sight unseen anywhere else in the world – Tuscany’s version of a downtown skyline.

Because of this novelty, and the porcupine-like city photos it generates, San Gimignano is frequently a stop on many tour bus routes, making it a crowded place during the high season. But that doesn’t mean it is not worth visiting. Even with crowds, this small Tuscan hilltown has plenty to explore, from its churches, to the great views at the aforementioned fortress, to the small workshop off the main drag that has a full miniature model of the entire town.

As with most every small village or big city in Italy, San Gimignano is most Italian (and therefore most enjoyable), when experienced unscripted. Getting lost among the steep cobbled walkways off the main thoroughfare and sticking around in the evening hours after the tour buses have gone, will allow your eyes to feast on a relaxed San Gimignano. The whole town exhales as the tour buses clatter away.

I was lucky to be staying at a villa within a ten minute drive of San Gimignano, so experiencing it in both ways was easy. The difference was literally night and day.    

We spent several evenings strolling the streets alongside locals and other lucky overnight tourists. Peaceful, small town calm settled over the cafés and piazzas, save for the handful of children running around the central stone well in Piazza de la Cisterna. But who could blame them, with Gelateria Dondoli, one of the world’s premier gelato shops mere steps away. Award-winning in every way, my entire family indulged in Sergio’s frozen master craft on numerous occasions, sampling traditional flavors and the more obscure, like berry rosemary and eggnog vin santo (sweet white wine).

Dinners were unrushed and unforgettable, as most are in Tuscan hamlets. We ate at a restaurant situated in a garden high atop the town, had some quick pizza at a café off Piazza Cisterna, and snagged some wild boar sausage at a small shop.

On our last night, we indulged at La Mangiatoia Ristorante. My fork cut right through a local venison medallion glazed with fig sauce and in-season mushrooms, the savory meat bursting with flavor. Simple pasta dishes, like wild boar ragu and homemade pesto, thoroughly pleased the entire family. In all, the meal was a highlight during a week of culinary excellence in Tuscany. And of course, even with dessert and after-dinner drinks at La Mangiatoia, we had to end the evening at Dondoli.      

To consume the food here takes little effort, even though to consume the views requires a bit of leg work. Nevertheless, San Gimignano fulfills in both regards.

Back on top of Torre Grossa, before we descended, my daughter spotted some bright purple flowers growing out of the tower’s rampart. I picked one and gave it to her. She clutched it tightly, and I clutched her, as we prepared to back down the ladder to the landing and down the staircase. 
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.

I smiled at her, and then we both soaked in one more glance of the striking Tuscan vista before ducking down through the ladder hatch. My response to her was instantly and profoundly obvious: “Yes, it is.”


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