“No, no, I will not move,” screams a woman as she ties herself to a building about to be destroyed by an advancing Nazi tank. A German officer whips out a gun and takes aim but the Allies are hot on his heels. The woman is Dame Judi Dench and this is a scene out of Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini, a film based on a cohort of English and American women who have made La Bella Italia their home. So what was worth risking a life to save?
The dramatic tank incident takes place in San Gimignano, a town often billed as ‘the Manhattan of Italy.’ Given that bland multi-storey office blocks are enough to make anyone shudder this is curious PR, but the sight of towers stretching heavenward in the Tuscan landscape comes as a delight. This fortified hilltop settlement of just 8,000 inhabitants also comes with stunning Renaissance art, tongue-tingling ice-cream and a claim to have inspired the writings of E.M. Forster.
Time to climb
The most iconic feature of San Gimignano is its tower-scape. These structures emerged in the 12-13th centuries as homes of the nobility, partly to combat the lack of horizontal space and also to offer protection from the general round of ransacking. A bit of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ entered the agenda, as each family used the construction process and its results to flaunt their wealth and, quite literally, raise their societal importance. Of the original ‘skyscrapers’ around a fifth remain, making San Gimignano appear like a medieval town 700 years ahead of itself but I felt that passing through the town gates was actually more like a step back in time to a haven of weaving paths blissfully free of vehicles and ideally plotted for a gentle amble.
From afar the towers seem to have an indestructible quality, but up close they are a poignant mix of fragility and defiance. Although pock-marked with dislodged stones, and unable to free themselves from the clenching roots of small plants, the towers tenaciously keep watch over the land. La Torre Grossa, part of the The Palazzo Communale (the seat of secular authority), is the tallest building and the only one that can be climbed by the public. Tackling the wending staircase is worth it for the vantage point over the olive grown strewn Elsa valley but it is a workout for the legs – not for all though. Two little girls got to the top but disagreed over the number of steps it had taken, so they skipped all the way down and up again counting the steps together hand in hand.
The view from La Torre Grossa includes the sites of religious authority in San Gimignano, the churches of La Collegiata and Sant’Augustino, whose austere facades are in contrast to their decorated (worth saving) interiors. Inside there are arcades of black and white striped marble, a vaulted ceiling painted the richest of blues and studded with golden stars and the walls are covered frescoes of biblical scenes. Of particular note in La Collegiata is the image of Santa Fina, a young girl who after contracting an incurable disease lay on an oak board for several years in order to increase her suffering and test her faith. What is so striking about this image is the way it skilfully manages to capture the cusp between the agonising rigidity of Santa Fina’s body and her relief that Pope Gregory the Great, surrounded by angels, has appeared to announce her entry into heaven.
“Permesso,” says a soft voice behind me. I move aside to let an elderly lady, dressed in black and with a candle in one hand, pass further into the chapel. As she kneels, I leave but her whispering prayers rise through the peaceful air and follow as the gentlest of echoes. Even though Santa Fina died in 1253, she is revered for her devotion and fortitude, and it is even reputed that through her grace she saved the town during the times of the bubonic plague. The example of her life is marked in San Gimignano twice yearly when her relics are processed through the street.
Strollers not only pause the steps of San Gimignano’s cisterna (old well) but also visit a more modern watering hole, one of Tuscany’s most famous ice-cream parlours offering fresh flavours such as passion fruit, kiwi and melon which slide cool and refreshing down the gullet on a sweltering day. The ‘Gelateria di Piazza’ also offers a Santa Fina flavour made of cream, locally grown saffron and pine nuts. But gadding about, especially up and down a tower, needs proper sustenance. If ever scared witless by accidentally meeting a wild boar in the Italian countryside (not an unusual occurrence), now is the time to exact your revenge by ordering ‘cinghiale’ which appears on every menu. As for drinks, in contrast to the red Chianti wine usually associated with Tuscany, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano offers a lighter white alternative which makes for a fresh aperitif or a crisp pairing with white fish.
Nonetheless it was a glass of red wine ordered in a simple trattoria that captured our taste-buds. Intrigued by its full-bodied taste, we asked the owner where he sourced it. “Mio fratello,” he smiled proudly, “my brother.” As the vineyard-owning sibling delivered the wine in vats, there was no bottle to buy but the owner cheerfully emptied a flask of mineral water and filled it up with the red stuff for us to take away. So there was no need to hit the clogged tourist wine routes which criss-cross Tuscany to find a gem. Just snooze in the shade instead.
San Gimignano, which has tenaciously met its changing fortunes over the centuries, has always been a place of lofty aspirations. Its beauty is reputed to have been the inspiration for Monteriano, the fictional setting for Where Angels Fear to Tread in which an Englishwoman falls in love with a much younger Italian man. As in A Room with a View E. M. Forster explores the effect of Italy on the values, behaviour and repressed passion of the British abroad. But the skyline of San Gimignano is no imaginary tale. It’s a towering achievement.
Take heart, Hard Luxe Living