Perhaps I have the haunting look of a pilgrim. Footsore and parched, I have just walked the three kilometre semi-circle around the double walls of San Gimignano. After skidding down a rocky path, I dust myself off next to the stone-arched vaults of the 9th century wool-washers’ baths.
A Spanish hiking party is picnicking along its damp, stone edges. As an offering to a fellow traveller who is pulsating in the midday Tuscan sun, they present me with a glistening wedge of watermelon.
I savour its sweetness in the shade next to a stone villa that tumbles into the Chianti countryside. Its backyard is an artwork of fig trees, grape vines and tomato bushes splashed with zucchini flowers. A clothesline is strung between two olive trees. Its bounty of blue and white underpants catches the breeze like bunting.
San Gimignano, in the ever-popular region of Tuscany, is often described as the Town of a Thousand Towers, even though it only ever had 72. Up until the 14th century, tower building kept warring families busy as they tried to outdo each other – Shakespeare got it right with the Capulets and the Montagues. Then came the Black Death in 1384. The towers fell into disrepair and three-quarters of the townsfolk died. The town’s economy, made wealthy on the saffron that grew on its hillsides, soon collapsed. Nearby Florence rerouted the pilgrims who were making their way to Siena and then Rome along the Via Francigena. San Gimignano became a ghost town. Now, it’s 21st century pilgrims who are the wayfarers.
Tuscany is touristy and San Gimignano is part of the hype – Franco Zeffirelli filmed Tea for Mussolini here. It is a romantic hill town filled with ceramics shops and if I could have wheeled and sailed one of its sunflower table tops home, I would have.
Taxidermied wild boars greet you at several shop entrances. Lethally-tusked and motley-bristled, their shiny, piggy eyes invite you to buy a net of wild boar salami, a couple of trotters or a hairy flank. Further into these Aladdin’s caves there are batons of crusty bread, tempting wedges of pecorino, local honey to drizzle over it and bottles of locally produced Vernaccia. All the ingredients needed for a picnic on the hillside.
There are must-see churches, palaces, museums, art galleries and a medieval hospital, but it’s the stumble-upon treasures that give that richer dimension to any town. I veer off the main drag and find a clutch of tourist-less shops. A door is framed by photos of the Tuscan countryside and I’m drawn inside. The owner is sitting at his desk and behind him are award-winning shots that I’ve seen in spreads in National Geographic. It’s Claudio Calvani – winner of over 250 awards. He kindly shows me his work. I ask if he uses filters. ‘Only with three,’ he confesses, ‘the rest are a gift of the Tuscan sun.’
The heat of the day calls for gelato and I head back to the main piazza. Gelateria di Piazza has a queue four-deep behind its glistening, pastel mounds. It’s won the Gelato World Championship four years in a row. The walls are lined with testimonials from actors, artists and politicians. My favourite is a 1993 photograph signed by Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
As the medieval towers cast criss-crosses over the piazza I find a cool spot overlooking the watercolour hills and combed vineyards of Tuscany. With my waffle cone of fig and passionfruit delight melting, I imagine pilgrims sitting here in the shade and eating gelato.