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Visiting the Hilltop Medieval Town of San Gimignano in Tuscany

 Visiting the Hilltop Medieval Town of San Gimignano in Tuscany

Visiting the Hilltop Medieval Town in Tuscany

There are very few places that live up to the picture postcard perfection. However, San Gimignano delle Belle Torre (of the Fine Towers), is one of them.

Why Visit San Gimignano in Tuscany?

Tuscany isn’t short of beauty spots or panoramic views. From Piazzale Michelangelo, which overlooks the city of Florence, to sweeping views across the vineyards in Chianti, a visit to San Gimignano arguably offers some of the best.

Situated on a hill, just 48km from Siena and 56km from Florence, this medieval town is easy to find but hard to forget. From afar, it is possible to see the 14 towers from which the town takes its name and beyond a short drive across the Tuscan landscape, visitors can take a closer look. Parts of the town date back to the early 11th century and it is now famed for its vast range of hand painted Italian ceramics. The main street, Via San Giovanni is lined with quaint, but seemingly endless, shops filled with handmade porcelain jars, plates, vases and garden furniture. Shipped for tourists around the world, very few visitors leave empty handed.

Amongst the show rooms are a number of shops selling linens and local produce such as proscuitto di cinghiale (wild boar), olive oil and Vernaccia, one of Italy’s finest and most popular white wines.

The Main Sights in San Gimignano

Believed to have been founded by Etruscans, 76 towers originally stood on this hilltop town. Today, only 14 of those remain. A World Heritage Sight, the main area San Gimignano is now pedestrianized and it is only possible to explore many of its sights on foot. In summer months, it is teeming with tourists making their way through the narrow winding streets. During high season, it is better to visit in the morning.

To escape the crowds, there are a number of museums across the town including the Museo d’Arte Sacra, Museo della Tortura and the Museo Civico. With paintings from the 12th-15th century by artists such as Lippi and nPinturicchio, the Museo Civico, located on the first floor of the Piazza del Popola is, perhaps, the most popular.

For the most breathtaking views, climb up the Torre Grossa. At 54m high, it is the tallest tower in San Gimignano. To simply enjoy the town from a lower level, head to Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo. Both are stunning piazzas with interesting architecture and buildings nearby. From the Piazza del Duomo, an abundance of magnificent frescoes can be found in the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta. The Piazza della Cisterna was the setting for a number of films, including Tea with Mussolini.

In addition to the numerous bars and cafes here, San Gimignano is also home to the World Champion Ice Cream Maker, Sergio Dondoli . His ice cream parlour is located on Piazza della Cisterna.

Discovering Cortona in the Heart of Tuscany

What to See and Where to Stay in One of Italy’s Oldest Towns
Views from Cortona Credit: Petersandbach

Views from Cortona Credit: Petersandbach

Perched on a hilltop in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, the historic town of Cortona has become a worthy tourist hotspot. Just 80km south of Florence and 600 meters above sea level, Cortona lies beyond a road of vineyards and olive groves and enjoys a privileged location with Arezzo, Siena and Perugia just visible beyond the miles of rolling countryside. Steeped in history, this hilltop town largely stands as it stood over 400 years ago and what was once was a popular landmark for Italians has since gained notoriety amongst foreigners alike; a small scattering of gift shops being the only evidence of tourist trade in the quieter, winter months.

Narrow, cobbled and often steep pavements wind their way through cafes, bars and pasticcerias and occasionally branch out into smaller, darker, even more interesting alleyways or spill out onto one of town’s numerous historical landmarks.

Art and Culture in Cortona

Attracting artists, such as Luca Signorelli, Domenico Bernabeland Severini, since the 14th century, it is fitting that the Tuscan Sun Festival is now held here. One of the largest festivals in Europe, the hilltop town hosts world class concerts where fine art and film meets local culture and history. In 2009, Anthony Hopkins unveiled his own exhibition here. Accommodation should be booked well in advance by revellers hoping to take part in the event which runs from 31st July-5th August this year.

Cortona, Credit italianbestweddings.co.uk

Cortona, Credit italianbestweddings.co.uk

Other concerts and productions are held throughout the remainder of the year at the Teatro Signorelli and the Auditorium Sant’Agostino and markets are held every Saturday morning.

Cortona is rich in history and the numerous museums are a testament to this. The Museo Diocesano in the Piazza del Duomo, and home to a number of 14th and 15th century Italian art, perhaps the most notable of them all. There is also the Museum of the Etruscan Academy in the Palazzo Casali. Erected in the 13th century, it was once home to the family that rules Cortona. It has since had a number of archaeological pieces donated and now holds some interesting and unusual historical artefacts, gems and sculptures. The Farneta Museum also appeals to visitors with an interest in archaeology and palaeontology. Tourists can also visit the 14th century Santuario di Santa Margherita, and Santa Maria del Calcinaio, a Brunelleschi style church from the following century.

Hotel San Michele

Located within one of the oldest buildings in Cortona, Hotel San Michele boasts a central location just a few steps from the main squares, museums, theaters and restaurants. Double rooms are available from around €100.

Le Gelosie Bed and Breakfast

This sophisticated and stylish bed and breakfast is located in the town center and offers views over the Piazza Signorelli. Some scenes from Robert Benigni’s Oscar winning film, La Vita è Bella were even filmed here. Doubles start from €95 and include a continental breakfast.

Getting to Cortona

Florence airport is one hour by car. However, similar to many other medieval Tuscan towns, Cortona is surrounded by walls and driving within these walls is limited to the locals. It is only possible to explore many of the pre-Roman Etruscan monuments and sights by foot.

Life in Italy

Life in Italy, cr-ritamonti.com

Life in Italy, cr-ritamonti.com

Antique Markets in Tuscany:

Creative shopping, understated purchases and second-hand markets have nowadays become a luxury yen, but in the fifties they didn’t exist yet, because the reconstruction after two world wars made any piece of furniture or even simple ornaments strictly necessary.

The economic boom of the sixties, the change in tastes and preferences, the need and wish of renewal, induced the far-seeing few to create some small markets in a couple of cities. From the eighties on, they have become a must-see for those looking for a special piece of furniture, a sofa evoking far-away memories, a lampshade fitting perfectly in the countryside house. We are talking about antique markets, an opportunity to allow oneself a few hours of sightseeing, shopping and even a cultural visit because vintage objects’ vendors are usually experts on local history and traditions.

Tuscany is the region where antique markets and fairs have developed rapidly with Lucca and Arezzo at the top of a long list of cities where, once a month, antique traders, collectors and bric-a-brac dealers display their merchandise in the main piazzas. Tuscany’s best known and prestigious antique market is the one held in the streets and piazzas of Arezzo on the first Saturday and Sunday of the month: this year, Arezzo’s antique market celebrates its fortieth anniversary and, thanks to its prestige, attracts a great number of visitors (about 30.000 over the course of the weekend) flocking from all over the country.

Lucca hosts the region’s 2nd biggest antique market. Its strength (shared by many other Tuscan towns) lies in its setting among the town’s lovely streets where bread chests, cupboards, bedside tables, armchairs and hundreds of other objects are on display, where even a new object looks like a valuable antique. The market takes place on the third weekend of the of the month: in addition to furniture, you can find XIX-century linens, vintage postcards, antique china and World War I memorabilia.

Florence devotes three weekends out of four of each month to set up Piazza dei Ciompi, where shops and stalls selling vintage objects have a permanent home and where antique dealing is a true business. The stalls are set up in the shadow of Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce, but on the last Sunday of the month it extends out to the surrounding streets with vendors coming from outside Florence. On the second Sunday of the month, you can find also in Piazza Santo Spirito; on the third Sunday in Piazza Tannucci and on the third weekend of the month in the Fortezza da Basso’s gardens.

In Pisa, the market takes place in the historic center the second weekend of the month; in Livorno the first weekend in Piazza Cavour, while in Prato and Pistoia the fourth and second weekend in Piazza San Francesco and at the former Breda area respectively. In Siena, another town which seems made for showing antique objects, 90 exhibitors give life to the Collector’s Corner every third Sunday of the month in the Piazza del Mercato.

However, not only big cities have the privilege of being home to the most important antique markets. The Valdarno antiques fair is Terranuova Bracciolini’s pride and joy: in this small town near Arezzo, 130 antique dealers gather in Piazza della Repubblica and Via Romaevery second Dunday of the month.

And, near Pisa, San Miniato (first Sunday), Bientina (fourth weekend), and Vicopisano (second Sunday), near Siena, Buoconvento (last Sunday, along the Cassia road, near the ancient walls) and Montepulciano (Arts and Crafts Fair on the second Sunday of the month).

Economical Eats:

Staying in one of our villas provides you with a kitchen, saving you money on dining expenses. Fresh ingredients from the market are abundant and inexpensive. But when you don’t feel like cooking, you still dine out on the cheap. There are several options that are easy on the pocketbook but strong on taste.

Rosticceria. All over Italy you’ll find little shops called rosticceria where their specialty is flavorful chicken roasted on a spit. Some may have a few tables for dining in, along with vegetable side dishes and a few other items to choose from. Others are just the chicken, which you take to go. You can often get it hot or cold, and they will cut it up on request, so it makes a very convenient picnic food.

Mercato. While shopping for your fresh ingredients for your villa kitchen, don’t overlook the other vendors at the mercato. Here you can find hand-cut prosciutto, a variety of salami and cheese, and the famous porchetta, roasted pork, all of which can make a tasty and inexpensive meal.

Tavola Calda. Literally “hot table”, a tavola calda is sort of like a buffet where you pick from a variety of freshly prepared items which are then heated for you to eat right away, or packaged up for you to take “home”. You’ll usually find a selection of pasta or rice dishes, a few main course items, and a variety of veggies.

Gastronomia. There are gourmet food shops called gastronomia which, like a tavola calda, often offer prepared foods ready to eat. You’ll also find a similar selection in supermarkets and at many fresh pasta shops (pasta all’uovo).

Enoteca. What may sound like a simple wine shop can offer up great value for your dining dollar. For the price of a glass of wine you are given little snacks called stuzzichini. Some with more elaborate eats may charge a small price for what amounts to a big meal.

Business lunch. You can find a quick and inexpensive lunch at many bars. It may look unassuming when you pass by at breakfast time, but come 1:00 p.m., blackboards go up to announce the daily offerings. From simple panini to salads and pastas, you will find ever-changing choices.

1+1 equals savings. If the above choices seem too bustling for you, you can still have an economical restaurant meal. You don’t have to order the full monty; feel free to pick and choose from the courses according to your taste. A good way to save money is to think 1+1 – choosing one dish from either the antipasto or primo menu and then one dish from the secondo or contorno menu. You can also order a plate to share, “uno per due” (one for two).

Street Fairs and Festas:

High arbors of elaborate lights illuminate the streets, folk or rock music fills the air, delicious aromas waft temptingly, while the cheerful chatter of voices rises. Festas provide some of the best cheap entertainment in Italy and can be found throughout the summer and autumn seasons all over the country.

This type of home-spun fun is called a “sagra”. Deriving from the term sacra festa, they are frequently held in conjunction with a religious festival or saint’s feast day and feature some type of religious observation or procession as part of the activity line-up. But for the most part, as with everything in Italy, it boils down to the food. While it may proclaim a saint’s day, the bigger headline is the type of delicacy they will be cooking up. If there is a food item made in Italy, there is a festival to pay homage to it.

Long communal-style dining tables are set up, providing a great chance to interact with the locals. Most sagre have fund-raising efforts for the church or organization hosting the party, so be sure to buy a raffle ticket while you’re there. Music and dancing into the wee hours round out the evening’s entertainment.

You can find out about local sagras by checking the posters glued up around town or by asking at the information office. The lively atmosphere, good food, and congenial company will surely make these festivals a highlight of your trip.

Reproduced with permission from Summer In Italy Villas and Apartments in Tuscany