San Gimignano

The "skyline" of San Gimignano from the road to Volterra

San Gimignano has been referred to as the "Manhattan of Tuscany" because of its "towering skyline". The skyscrapers in this case are thirteen towers remaining from approximately 72 constructed from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. At that time, San Gimignano was in its heyday and a rival to Florence and Siena.

Even so, it was not entirely at peace with itself. Competition between prominent families manifested itself in the construction of dueling towers, each trying to outdo the other. They served as granaries as well as status symbols. They were also sometimes used as defensive strongholds when the feuding bubbled over into outright warfare.

Today, San Gimignano is a very popular tourist destination because of its well preserved medieval architecture. It is a walled city with tall stone buildings and narrow streets. Automobile traffic is not entirely banned, but severely limited. Cars must be parked in the car park outside the main city gate, the Porta San Giovanni.

Towers viewed from outside the city wall

The main street of San Gimignano is the Via San Giovanni which runs from the Porta San Giovanni up the hill past the Piazza della Cisterna and the nearly adjoining Piazza del Duomo, and back down the hill on the other side. Side streets branch out at intervals, but end within one or two blocks.

The Piazza della Cisterna features a thirteenth century cistern on a wide plaza flanked by towers. The Piazza del Duomo is home to the Duomo Collegiato or Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta which was consecrated in 1148. Also in the Piazza del Duomo is the Palazzo del Popolo (People's Palace) with its Torre Grosso (large tower), the tallest tower in the city. As you might expect, the city is largely dedicated to serving its tourist throngs. A large fraction of the old buildings have been converted to restaurants and shops selling a wide variety of tourist oriented merchandise from postcards and pottery to plastic swords. A number of the shops specialize in local wines and food specialties such as wild boar proscuitto.

Piazza della Cisterna

San Gimignano is located in western Tuscany, roughly 35 miles southwest of Florence and 18 miles northwest of Siena. It is easily reached by car from either of these cities, or from Rome. (It is only 210 miles to Rome's Aeroporto di Fiumicino, most of it on the autostrada, Italy's interstate highway system.) Arriving by train is a bit more challenging, as you must take a bus from the nearest train station in Poggibonsi.

We stayed at the Hotel Bel Soggiorno which is located directly on Via San Giovanni just a half block inside the city gate. The rooms were large, airy and comfortable, and not terribly expensive. The view of the Tuscan countryside from the room was very pleasant.


Copyright 2002 Harry B. Rowe