San Gimignano, a walking tour
Many of you know that Gina’s in Italy right now conducting a practice run for her upcoming wine tour business which she plans to begin next year. She’s reporting back with highlights of her trip so far …
Our first full day in San Gimignano included a nice walking tour of the medieval city. We were to meet our walking guide Gianni Stanghellini (www.walkabouttuscany.com) in the heart of San Gimignano at the Piazza della Cisterna at 11am. The walking tour was in two different parts, the first being a stroll through the city’s winding streets to learn of its history and importance at the height of its power. Then we would break for lunch at one of Gianni’s favorite eateries before heading outside the city walls along vineyards and quiet back roads. Sounded pleasant enough. When I called Gianni to confirm our tour, he was concerned the hike might be a little strenuous for some, and mentioned they could opt out after lunch or get a taxi along the path. This should have been a sign for us, but we all felt pretty fit and ready for a sun-drenched walk.
I recommend hiking up to the high point of San Gimignano for the panoramic view from La Rocca di Montestaffoli e Mura (fortress). On our way to the best viewpoint from the fort, we walked through a small olive grove, then a narrow, steep, stone staircase that opens up on to a platform. This was the place where the guards could spot their enemy and be best prepared to defend their city. For our group, it was a breathtaking view of the Elsa Valley and its endless hills. Gianni mentioned that San Gimignano was an important city with a flourishing economy in the Middle Ages. They were able to trade with neighboring cities thanks to the pilgrimage road called “Via Francigena” (which we were about to walk part of) that connected the city to Pisa and Siena.
We had one of the most amazing lunches at a small osteria called Locandi di Sant’ Agostino in Piazza Sant’ Agostino. Our table enjoyed a fresh fruit plate of melons, apples and apricots; panzanella salad, bruschetta and pici with wild boar sauce. Pici is a thick spaghetti-like pasta available only in a small part of Tuscany. It is the dish I miss and crave most when I’m in Seattle. We washed all this amazing food down with the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is one of Tuscany’s oldest and most noble grapes. Some versions of Vernaccia (Tradizionale) are macerated for long lengths of time with its skin to draw out the most out of the grape. It can be full-bodied with a floral bouquet, but our bottle today was crisp, with light acidity and flavors of lemon rind and almonds (this style is Fiore).
If we had known what was ahead of us on part two of our walk, we might have re-considered the wine and amount of food we consumed at lunch (maybe we should have had more wine). I’m going to now refer to our “walk” as a hike, because it better describes our experience. We entered the hike on the Via Francigena, a dirt road that runs the perimeter of the hilly city walls. On this path were many vineyards and farmhouses with vistas of the valley. We were all giddy and in awe of the beauty, snapping pictures every few feet. “Oh no, now this is the best view of the town,” we would exclaim around each bend. Gianni visited with us answering questions about Italian culture, customs and history. For example bruschetta is pronounced “broo-ske-tah” never broosheta, also that the whole bread and olive oil dipping thing is American, and Italians only have bread with vegetables and meat and they never butter the bread. That would explain the looks whenever my brother-in-law asked for the customary treat before our meal (where’s the bread & olio? he would always wonder).
After the first couple of kilometers, the hike soon became more grueling, especially with the 90 plus degree weather we were in. Flat dirt roads became uphill climbs and steep rocky descents with the Tuscan sun showing no mercy. Our main comfort was knowing that we were walking the same path as the ancient Etruscans and it sure beat our daily grind back home. We were not only loving the abuse, but we paid for it! Like Venice, I cannot explain in words the beauty we shared along our hike. In my 5 trips to Tuscany I was now seeing a whole different side of this province, and the whole group felt the same way. We struggled through the last hill, pushing ourselves up to the city walls to Porto San Giovanni gate, our final destination. We cheered each other on through sweat drenched clothes and panting gasps of air. What an amazing experience that was worth every step. We said our goodbyes to our wonderful guide Gianni and as we parted ways we promised him if he ever makes it to Seattle, we would treat him to a nice leisure hike up Mount Rainer. (Gianni resides in Siena, with over 10 years experience as a walking tour guide. He holds a PhD in Geology and teaches young kids about the environment in the off season).
More soon …
When I emailed Gina to see how their day ended, I got:
“We had arranged for an Italian cook to come to the Villa to do a 4 course for us. We were all so tired though, and still full from lunch, the dinner was a real blur. Except we had the best tiramisu of our lives. It was more like a merange/custard texture that had no shape on our plate, then dusted with high quality cacao. We all agreed it will be hard to go back to the traditional tiramisu we are accustomed to.”