In the heart of Tus­cany

The idyl­lic land­scape and an­cient towns ex­plain the crowds

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - with Ann Rickard Read more of Ann’s mus­ings at www.an­nrickard.com

THE an­tic­i­pa­tion of ar­rival in San Gimignano – per­haps the most pop­u­lar of all the beau­ti­ful Tus­can towns – is al­most

as good as the visit.

The beau­ti­ful coun­try­side cap­tures the Tus­can fan­tasy: olive

groves, sun­flower fields, haystacks, cy­press trees, grapevines, the multi-hued patch­work of rolling fields. You are in the heart of Tus­cany, the soul of Ital­ian coun­try love­li­ness. And then the magic of San Gimignano is be­fore you as you

round a fi­nal bend and gaze up to its 14 tow­ers ris­ing to the sky like a mini Man­hat­tan.

Only 14 of the 72 orig­i­nal tow­ers built in the 14th cen­tury re­main, but they are vis­i­ble from far away, as the an­cient hill­top town sits at 334 me­tres above sea level. The tow­ers were built by feud­ing wealthy fam­i­lies and served no pur­pose other than to boast “mine is big­ger than yours”.

Noth­ing much has changed all these years later.

It is mostly the tow­ers today that at­tract so many peo­ple to

this hand­some hill­top town en­cir­cled by 13th cen­tury walls. And a his­tory that dates to Etr­uscan days. The town was a pil­grim stopover be­tween Siena and Florence and pros­pered in the 12th

cen­tury be­fore most of its pop­u­la­tion died in the plague of 1348. A plague today would not de­ter the thou­sands of day-trip­pers,

and just get­ting in­side the an­cient walls is a chal­lenge that starts in the packed car parks be­low the town. You must wait pa­tiently at the boom gate for a car to leave be­fore the ma­chine will is­sue you a ticket to go in, and then you

must search and when you do find a space, it is so tight the driver must let you out be­fore he inches in.

But once through the Porta San Gio­vanni, the main gate in the an­cient walls, it is medieval streetscapes and en­chant­ment. Some of the paved pedes­tri­anised streets are nar­row and some so steep it is “head down, bot­tom up’’ walk­ing. All are crowded and the va­ri­ety of voices and ac­cents is proof

that peo­ple have trav­elled from ev­ery part of the globe to visit this Tus­can town.

First stop should be The Duomo in the Pi­azza del Duomo even though you will want to join the hun­dreds of oth­ers at out­door ta­bles, drink­ing wine, eat­ing piz­zas. The Duomo is renowned for its Ro­manesque ar­chi­tec­ture, its art col­lec­tion and fres­cos. Study­ing the fres­cos is not easy,

many of them de­pict mis­ery and sor­row.

And then head back out into the sun­shine, to the Pi­azza della

Cis­terna, per­haps the pret­ti­est of all the squares in the town. Long ago the square would have been lined with tav­erns and work­shops. Now it is the sense of the medieval in­tact in the an­cient build­ings and tow­ers and red brick paving that peo­ple are drawn to. And the im­pos­ing well that sits in the cen­tre. Built in 1273, the well dom­i­nates the square but is dif­fi­cult to pho­to­graph due to the num­ber of peo­ple hang­ing out around it,

some­thing that has been go­ing on for a thou­sand years. De­spite its rich his­tory, one of the main at­trac­tions in the

Pi­azza della Cis­terna is the tiny hole-in-the-wall Ge­la­te­ria Don­doli. The queue for ice cream of­ten num­bers up to 200 peo­ple such is its rep­u­ta­tion and star power. The owner will come out to ap­pease the peo­ple wait­ing pa­tiently, of­fer­ing them small sam­ples of the de­li­cious prod­uct they will find in­side,

once they get in.

The in­tox­i­cat­ing smell of sum­mer truf­fles was in the air dur­ing

our visit, waft­ing from shops and cafes. This most lux­u­ri­ous of prod­ucts was be­ing shaved on to spaghetti and over piz­zas with a gen­eros­ity that be­lied its price. His­tory and tow­ers and wells and fres­coes are one thing, but a big bowl of pasta car­bonara, silky with its rich sauce and

pun­gent with truf­fles, is quite an­other rea­son to visit San Gimignano.

PHO­TOS: THINKSTOCK

The olive groves and grapevines that flank the im­pres­sive medieval town of San Gimignano in Tus­cany and, bot­tom right, one of the town squares.

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