As I wrote in last week’s post, mention San Gimignano in nearby Volterra and you’re likely to get an earful. Don’t go there! Too touristy! Too crowded! Too full of itself! And on and on. I don’t know about the ‘too full of itself’ – I suspect that may have something to do with San Gimignano’s being the only town in the area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – but as far as the other criticisms go, it’s true. It is touristy and it is crowded. Parking is a nightmare. But the same can said of other cities – Florence, Rome, Venice – and that doesn’t stop people from visiting them. Sometimes even more than once.
One time I stayed in Pescille (peh-sheel-lay), a village a few kilometres to the west. On another visit, lured by thoughts of strolling along the medieval alleys at night after all the tourists had gone, I stayed in the centro storico. It was as hauntingly atmospheric as I’d hoped, but the drive to the hotel was almost as draining as the drive along the Amalfi Coast.
On my most recent visit I stayed at a place that was just a short walk through the vineyards away.
Generally speaking I don’t write about the places I stay at. Accommodation is such a tricky thing – people have such different expectations and price ranges. But occasionally, there is a place I enjoy so much, it seems a shame not to mention it. Guardastelle is one of those places.
Guardastelle, from guardare (to look at) le stelle (the stars), is an agriturismo. Often translated in English as ‘Bed & Breakfast’, this is a delightful form of accommodation that came about as a result of the mass migration of peasants who, beginning in the 1950’s, fled the abject poverty of farm life in the hopes of finding a better life in the cities. Many farm houses and acres of land were abandoned and the small farmers who stayed on struggled to make a living.
To avert what would have been a national calamity for a country where l’arte di mangiare (the art of eating) is at least as high on the scale of national values as hockey seems to be in Canada, in 1985 the government passed legislation which allowed the remaining farmers to supplement their income with revenue from paying guests. The goal was to promote local traditions, activities and food. The new arrangement was called agriturismo – a blend of agricoltura and turismo.
The concept has been a huge success. There are many tourists, it turns out, who are interested in a more direct experience with the region they are visiting. I have stayed in many of these farm/hotels and have always found the people who run them so warm, intelligent, generous and deeply committed to the culture and customs of their region that it was always hard to keep in mind that these agriturismi are actually highly regulated businesses.
In order to entice farmers back to the land, the government offers significant financial benefits. The regulations are designed to prevent operators from focusing too much of their energy on guests, a much more lucrative and more reliable source of income, to the detriment of agricultural activities. Before they can even open their doors to guests, the would-be operators must be able to show at least two years of prior farming experience, go through 100 hours of training, and pass an oral exam.
If the idea of an oral exam strikes you as a bit odd, consider that even university exams are oral in Italy. Back in the 1970’s when I was living in Italy and first heard of this tradition, I thought it was totally crazy. How could the judges possibly maintain impartiality? How did the students prepare? Did they really memorize everything? I imagined tear-drenched rehearsals in front of beleaguered parents and nonni. But now, given the rampant cheating on written exams in our universities, I’m beginning to think maybe oral exams are not so crazy after all.
Then, depending on which of three levels of service the successful applicant wishes to offer, he or she must ensure that a minimum percentage of products comes from the farm. For example, for an agriturismo offering the most basic level of service – snacks and light meals, but essentially self-service – at least 51% of the products sold to guests must be produced on the farm. Other categories require a minimum of 60%, which may be supplemented by 25% from other local farmers. There are even limits on the number of guests per night (30) and the total nights lodgings per year (160).
As you may have already guessed, the agricultural activities at Guardastelle revolve around wine and olive oil. One day Fausto, the young owner, took us on a stroll through the vineyards.
The tour ended, as these things usually do, with the degustazione in the cantina. Once again, there are no photos of the wine tasting. The photographer was otherwise occupied.
White wine lovers who come to San Gimignano are usually delighted to find out that the local wine, Vernaccia (vair-natch-chuh), is white. Don’t be put off by the rather ugly-sounding name. This is not just any old white wine. From as far back as the Renaissance, it has been considered by many to be Italy’s finest white. In 1966 it was declared a DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata (denomination of controlled origin) – the first white in Italy to be granted the prestigious designation.
The wine that is ‘becoming’ Vernaccia at Guardastelle is not just a DOC. It’s an even more prestigious DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. ‘Controlled and guaranteed’. Frankly, if you’re just a regular wine lover like me, this is one of those areas that I don’t think benefits at all with translation. You just end up in a quagmire. As in – if the origin has been properly ‘controlled’, what is the point of its also being ‘guaranteed’? Maybe there are controls and then there are controls…. you see what I mean? Besides, it’s about time we visited the town.
San Gimignano was settled by the Etruscans in the 3rd century BC. Its unpronounceable name (gee-mean-yah-no) comes from Saint Geminianus, who defended the village against Attila’s Huns. Its location along the Via Francigena, the most important pilgrim route of the Middle Ages, brought a long period of great prosperity to its citizens.
To provide more space within the narrow confines of the city walls, the wealthiest of those citizens eventually hit upon the idea of building upwards. But, as often happens, over time needs gave way to wants and what those wealthy families wanted was to have a tower as big as, if not bigger than their neighbours’.
By the middle of the 13th century the quest to have the biggest tower had got so out of hand the local authorities passed a law prohibiting the construction of anything taller than the Torre Rognosa. No sooner had the law been passed, than the Salvucci’s, one of the most powerful families in the city, proceeded to erect not one, but two towers that towered (sorry!) above the Rognosa. These were promptly eclipsed by twin powers erected on the other side of the piazza by the arch rival Ardinghelli family.
This must have got the local authorities really hot, because they ordered the tops of both twin towers be lopped off and to this day they remain, ignominiously shorter than the Rognosa.
La Rognosa means ‘The Scabby One’. Having never experienced scabies – in English or Italian – I had to look that one up. It turns out it dates back a few centuries to when the Chief Magistrate moved out of the offices from which the tower emerges and the vacant building was repurposed as a prison. The name comes from unhappy visitors who avevano le rogne – ‘had the scabies’ – with the inmates.
When Santa Fina, the patron saint of San Gimignano died, legend has it that angels rang the bells and masses of violets suddenly flowered on all the towers. Whether you believe in miracles or not, the flowers blooming at the top of the Rognosa Tower when I visited one year in June were nothing short of miraculous.
Then came the devastating plague of 1348. Half the population died. Not even the pilgrims on their way to being blessed in Rome felt safe coming near the city, so the ancient Via Francigena was rerouted.
In the hard economic times that followed, long-standing rivalries intensified, frequently erupting into violence and the once prosperous centre became so weakened that eventually there was nothing for it but to submit to Florence.
At the time it was a bitter pill for the sangimignanesi – there’s a mouthful – san-gee-mean-yah-nay-zee – but it led to renewed prosperity for the town a couple of centuries later. 15th century developers, who were obviously just as canny as 21st century ones, had no interest in the shunned backwater, so architecturally-speaking, it stayed more or less stuck in the Middle Ages, which is what keeps the hordes – and their money – coming.
If you want to stretch beyond your normal gelato comfort zone, Dondoli has created all sorts of less traditional flavours – Crema di Santa Fina (cream with saffron and pine nuts), named for San Gimignano’s patron saint, Champelmo (sparkling wine and pompelmo – pink grapefruit) and Dolceamaro (cream with aromatic herbs). If you’re feeling even more adventurous, there’s Lampone-Rosmarino (Blackberries and Rosemary) or Sangue di bue (Blood of the ox) – spicy chocolate and sour cherries.
It was tempting to take a seat at one of the caffès lining the piazza, but I could hear a lot of noise coming from nearby Piazza del Duomo.
I watched the goings-on for a while and then came to the happy decision that it was time to eat – again! After all, I’d had an early start, and visited two medieval hilltop towns.