In the heart of Tuscany
THE anticipation of arrival in San Gimignano - perhaps the most popular of all the beautiful Tuscan towns - is almost as good as the visit.
The beautiful countryside captures the Tuscan fantasy: olive groves, sunflower fields, haystacks, cypress trees, grapevines, the multi-hued patchwork of rolling fields.
You are in the heart of Tuscany, the soul of Italian country loveliness.
And then the magic of San Gimignano is before you as you round a final bend and gaze up to its 14 towers rising to the sky like a mini Manhattan.
Only 14 of the 72 original towers built in the 14th century remain, but they are visible from far away, as the ancient hilltop town sits at 334 metres above sea level.
The towers were built by feuding wealthy families and served no purpose other than to boast "mine is bigger than yours”. Nothing much has changed all these years later.
It is mostly the towers today that attract so many people to this handsome hilltop town encircled by 13th century walls. And a history that dates to Etruscan days. The town was a pilgrim stopover between Siena and Florence and prospered in the 12th century before most of its population died in the plague of 1348.
A plague today would not deter the thousands of day-trippers, and just getting inside the ancient walls is a challenge that starts in the packed car parks below the town.
You must wait patiently at the boom gate for a car to leave before the machine will issue you a ticket to go in, and then you must search and when you do find a space, it is so tight the driver must let you out before he inches in.
But once through the Porta San Giovanni, the main gate in the ancient walls, it is medieval streetscapes and enchantment. Some of the paved pedestrianised streets are narrow and some so steep it is "head down, bottom up'' walking.
All are crowded and the variety of voices and accents is proof that people have travelled from every part of the globe to visit this Tuscan town.
First stop should be The Duomo in the Piazza del Duomo even though you will want to join the hundreds of others at outdoor tables, drinking wine, eating pizzas.
The Duomo is renowned for its Romanesque architecture, its art collection and frescos. Studying the frescos is not easy, many of them depict misery and sorrow.
And then head back out into the sunshine, to the Piazza della Cisterna, perhaps the prettiest of all the squares in the town.
Long ago the square would have been lined with taverns and workshops. Now it is the sense of the medieval intact in the ancient buildings and towers and red brick paving that people are drawn to. And the imposing well that sits in the centre. Built in 1273, the well dominates the square but is difficult to photograph due to the number of people hanging out around it, something that has been going on for a thousand years.
Despite its rich history, one of the main attractions in the Piazza della Cisterna is the tiny hole-in-the-wall Gelateria Dondoli. The queue for ice cream often numbers up to 200 people such is its reputation and star power. The owner will come out to appease the people waiting patiently, offering them small samples of the delicious product they will find inside, once they get in.
The intoxicating smell of summer truffles was in the air during our visit, wafting from shops and cafes. This most luxurious of products was being shaved on to spaghetti and over pizzas with a generosity that belied its price.
History and towers and wells and frescoes are one thing, but a big bowl of pasta carbonara, silky with its rich sauce and pungent with truffles, is quite another reason to visit San Gimignano.
Read more of Ann's musings at http://www.annrickard.com