One Day in Florence

It’s a travesty, but if you’ve only got one day in Florence, the best thing to do is put on your most comfortable shoes and go for una passeggiata. (pass-edge-jah-tuh).  A walk.

All roads may lead to Rome, but when you’re in Florence just about all roads – 8 of them to be precise – lead to Santa Maria del Fiore, aka the Duomo.  We took Via dei Servi.

(note: in case you’re actually following the posts in order, you may be wondering how – or why – we’re back up in Florence after only one day on Ischia.  Let’s just say there’s been a glitch or two, which I am mortified to say have nothing to do with the computer.  In any event, after today’s post, I’ll pick up from where I left off down south.)


Brunelleschi’s Dome rises above the buildings along Via dei Servi.


Look closely and you’ll see that those tiny things at the top of the dome are people. The views from up there are fabulous, but between the line-up and the climb it takes a while so it’s not for a one-day visit.


You could spend a lifetime, let alone one day, examining the façade and still find something new.

The best view secondo me (seh-kon-doh may) – ‘according to me’ – is from the top of the campanile.  As I explained in ‘A New Home for a New G – Boboli Part I’ (Nov. 17, 2013) it’s 414 steps to the viewing platform, but you’ll have plenty of time to recover as you take in the views, from the Mercato Centrale north of the bell tower, to the green expanse of the Boboli Gardens on the south side of the Arno River.


I think I’ve decided that climbing the 414 steps to the top is a once in a lifetime experience.


One disadvantage apparently of travelling with a companion is that your every move, especially your most unflattering moves, may get recorded.


With all the buildings pressing around the Duomo it’s hard to get a shot of the whole massive thing.

The plan was to meander over to the Oltrarno (‘On the Other Side’, Nov. 10, 2013) for lunch, but first a visit to the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s largest and liveliest market.


Along one of the narrow streets off Piazza Duomo that lead to the market.

A couple of big changes had been made since my last visit (‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze, Part I’, Oct. 20, 2013).  The outdoor stalls that used to wrap around the Basilica of San Lorenzo had been pushed back to the area immediately surrounding the indoor food market.


Another change. The building that holds the indoor market had been given a facelift.

The stalls on the ground level were as enticing as I remembered.  It was hard to be just passing through.


Vegetables, fruit, wine, vinegar.


Cheese, cold cuts, olives, prepared salads. All beautifully displayed.

But the biggest surprise was on the upper level.  When I lived in Florence this is where most of the fruttivendoli (free-tee-ven-doh-lee) were located.  As we climbed the stairs, I told my daughter about how I used to go up here to finish off my shopping.  But when we reached the top of the staircase there wasn’t a fruit or veggie stall in sight.  The entire floor had been transformed into an enormous, gourmet food court.  One of the chefs told me it  opened in 2014 and has been a huge success.  No wonder!  There is food from all across Italy and many ‘laboratories’ where you can watch traditional regional specialties being prepared as they are in their place of origin – specialties like la vera pizza napoletana (the ‘true’ pizza of Naples), and mozzarella di buffala from Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.  A virtual culinary tour of Italy.  It wasn’t quite 11 am, but already a few groups were sitting down to tempting-looking dishes – con vino of course.  And while the old market used to shut down in the evening, nowadays that’s when things really get going.  It’s open until midnight and, as one of the vendors explained, waiting for one of the 500 seats is part of the experience.  I was so enthralled with the whole thing I forgot to take any photos.  One more reason to return.

By the time we got to Ponte Vecchio we were starving.  Fortunately, while all the ‘distractions’ in Florence’s jam-packed centre means it can be slow going, if you put your mind to it – no window gazing, no loitering – you can be anywhere in a matter of minutes.  Piazza Santo Spirito was a five-minute walk west of the bridge.


Ponte Vecchio. No matter how many times you see it, always enchanting.


To visit Florence without visiting the Uffizi Galleries is like going to Niagara and not seeing the falls. But if you’ve only got one day, this is as close as you dare get.


The piazza around the Basilica di Santo Spirito is always a lively place.  A small market, lots of students and locals and a wide choice of inviting places for lunch.

We walked around checking out the trattorie that lined the piazza and finally chose one that gave us a good view of the Basilica and goings-on in the piazza.


Insalata caprese.  The first of many we would have on this trip.

After lunch, in keeping with our trip’s outdoors theme, we headed for the Boboli Gardens.  To reach the gardens you pass through the courtyard of Pitti Palace.


As we were passing through the courtyard I happened to look up and something caught my eye. The window on the middle level, second from the left is a ‘trompe l’oeil’. Funny thing about these fake windows. Once you spot one, you start start looking for others.

We didn’t see much of the garden.  As much as I wanted to check out my favourite part, the Isolotto, I was worried about the dark clouds that had gathered while we ate lunch so after we climbed the central axis and had a look around we headed for the Bardini Garden where I knew we could find shelter.  (‘Boboli’s Next Door Neighbour’, Dec. 1, 2013)  We barely made it to the Kaffeehaus before it started to pour.


It may be ‘atmospheric’ but I prefer to see Florence’s historic centre under blue skies. Besides I had just seen it under storm clouds on my last visit to the gardens.

Eventually the rain let up and we left the ‘Other Side’ and made our way to Piazza Santa Croce.  Just in time for an evening aperitivo.


Next – heading south – and staying there!



It’s Been a While

Buon giorno.  Back in September (ouch!), when I said I was taking a break for a while, I had no idea how long that break would be.

First there was a Mother-Daughter trip to Italy.  It was as wonderful as the first trip I’d taken with my adult daughter to France in 2015.  (‘Happy Mother’s Day and the Pleasures of Travelling with a Companion’, May 10, 2015).  If you’re thinking about taking one of these trips, my unsolicited, but heartfelt advice is to start meandering around the internet for places you’d both enjoy and start booking pronto.  I am sure it will be an experience you won’t regret.


Exploring the island of Procida was a wonderful experience, made even more enjoyable with my daughter alongside.

When I returned home, before I could get back to blogging, I first had to work on a new talk – ‘La Sicilia’ – which I had somehow not finished before leaving.  It took me a lot longer than I thought it would.  Goethe best captured the challenge I was facing –  ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.’  While you – and no doubt Italians from other regions – may have a few things to say about the German author’s take on the issue, he does have a point. For such a small area – Sicily may be the largest island in the Mediterranean, but it is still only 1/40 the size of Ontario – a lot happened in the island’s long and often tumultuous history and it’s jam-packed with an astounding number of must-see sites.


The Cappella Palatina, one of seven UNESCO  World Heritage Sites in Sicily.  The same number as in Tuscany.

In addition to the UNESCO sites there are charming fishing villages from a bygone era,  wine tours with (the most important part!) degustazione at vineyards across the island, and olive groves and lush gardens in once-desolate areas.  And the food.  And filming locations for the Godfather movies. And on and on.  My talk was dissolving into un gran casino (cah-zee-no), a rather earthy way of saying ‘a big mess’.  Eventually, to my great relief, it was decided that I would split the talk into two parts.  All of this took me until the end of October when the talk was due.


Along the north-west coastline.

But I wasn’t yet fuori dai guai. Fwoh-ree die gwhy.  Out of the woods.  I had to deal with a few glitches I had run into as I worked on the talk, one of which was that when I went back to see if there was anything in the posts on Sicily that I could use in the talk, an errant finger somehow, one day, pressed ‘Trash’ instead of ‘View’, which is why one of the posts on Agrigento is now missing.  (Note to the wizards at ‘WordPress’ – how about moving the ‘Trash’ button far, far away from ‘View’?)  And then the ‘geniuses’ at Apple decided to mess around with their photo apps.  Whatever happened to leaving well enough alone?


Sicily is a great place for people-watching. Here a fishmonger weighs sardines along an alley in Cefalù.

In any event, to ease back into things, I thought I would spend a bit of time reliving the recent trip and then continue from where I had left off in Sicily.  My daughter, who now works full-time in an office, wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors and close to the sea.  So we decided to go to the Amalfi Coast, Ischia and Capri.

We started in Florence.  An odd place to begin a trip to southern Italy, but my daughter works for Four Seasons and an irresistible perk of her job made it possible for us to stay at the very palatial Palazzo Scala Della Gherardesca, the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence.


The 15th century Cortile di Sangallo, now lobby at the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence, sets the tone.

I agreed to make the detour to Florence only after my daughter reassured me that she understood we would be returning to ‘reality’ once we left the hotel.  (I might have overdone this – there was a lot of rolling of the eyebrows and groaning and ‘Yes, Mom’ before I was satisfied.)


The Chapel is one of several rooms off the grand corridor that surrounds the lobby.

In the evening Il Palagio is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. If you don’t feel your palate is up to a gourmet extravaganza you can still enjoy the room, which, in the morning, is where la prima colazione (the first meal) is served.

We were the first to arrive and I felt totally under-dressed for the surroundings, but the staff were super friendly. Although I had a moment when they insisted – OK, they didn’t insist – they ‘invited’ me to put my old travel bag (which I had put out of sight on the back of my chair) on a stool obviously intended for bags in an altogether different league.


Il Palagio.  Michelin-starred restaurant in the evening, breakfast room in the morning. The floral towers are orchids.

Apart from the interior, which really does give a sense of what the palace-residences of the Renaissance would have been like, the other extraordinary feature of the property – the first ‘city-resort’ in Italy – is the garden.  During the years I lived in Florence I walked by the walls that surround the property countless times.  It’s close to Piazza San Marco and the university, and only a a 15-minute walk from the Duomo.  But I never imagined that hidden behind those walls lay an enchantingly beautiful garden.


The garden is enormous – 11 acres. Whimsical installations like this dispel any hint of stuffiness.

The evening of our arrival the lobby was the site of a lavish cocktail reception.  Regrettably no photos – there were burly security guards everywhere.  I whispered to my daughter that I had never seen so many tall, thin, Italian women.   And I hadn’t.  As we walked by on our way to the garden I overheard a couple talking.  They were Russian.


Cleaning up after what had obviously been a high-end wedding.


Roses, orchids and hydrangeas lay tossed on the ground. Sigh.


Beyond what is left of the altar, Brunelleschi’s famous dome.


It was surprisingly quiet in the garden. There are 145 trees, many of them enormous. Perhaps they absorb the sounds of the city just outside the walls.


An orchid blossom dangles precariously on the edge of the upper basin.


How long before it will be swept over the edge to join the mass of petals and flowers below?

Of course as we wandered around, me covetously eyeing all the flowers destined for the garbage bin, it was my daughter’s turn to get all antsy.  ‘You can’t pick them up, Mom!’ she warned. ‘I know’, I said, with just enough hesitation to make her keep a close eye on me.


At the far end of the garden, I was setting up a photo of my daughter in front of the living tunnel when one of the clean-up crew came over and handed her a fabulous spray of orchids.

‘We can’t keep these!’ she said as I eyed the orchids in her arms.  After I’d taken a few shots, she walked over to the young man to return the lovely ‘prop’.   ‘No, no! he protested, they’re for you!’  During the trip I got (somewhat) used to these innocent, little gestures of gallantry, which given the fact that in each case, I was standing right there, keeping a steely eye on things, is all they were.  Still, even though she’s all grown up and quite capable of looking after herself, the old ‘Mamma bear’ instinct was hard to suppress.

She didn’t keep the flowers – probably didn’t want the staff thinking her Mom had taken them.  Besides, we had no place to put them.  They definitely wouldn’t have survived the train ride to Sorrento.  But it did seem a shame.


A White Wonderland in May. In Tuscany. My guess was that this is where the dinner had been held.

We strolled around the garden a while longer and then headed over to the pool.


Where did those dark clouds come from?


Pee Gee Hydrangeas close to the pool are a perfect match for the medallion on the wall behind.

The pool was beautiful, enormous – and for someone who hates the cold – most wonderful of all – heated!  Unfortunately those dark clouds were the real thing.  We’d been in the pool only a few minutes when it started to rain.  Soon it was pouring.  My daughter lingered, but I got out and grabbed my camera. As I dashed for the closest bit of shelter it occurred to me that the pool attendant’s hut was not a place Four Seasons guests were normally expected to be found.  In any event, my daughter soon joined me and we huddled there while the attendant dashed around rescuing guests’ possessions, including – over our protestations – our Aperols.  I would have loved to get a photo of the raindrops bouncing off the pool surface and the mist rising from the warm water below.  But there was no way I was going to risk getting my camera wet. It will have to remain one of those uncaptured moments.

Luckily the rain didn’t last too long and we were able to eat in the casual – relatively speaking – outdoor restaurant in the garden.


I almost didn’t order the primo del giorno. Pasta of the day. Prawn and porcini seemed an odd combination. That would have been a mistake. It was straordinario!


When our waitress brought our secondo I looked at her in disbelief. She assured me it was una porzione divisa in due (one portion divided in two) as we had requested.  My daughter and I looked at each other and started eating.  Delizioso!

Next – A short visit to some of my favourite sites in Florence

Una Passeggiata a Siena

First glimpse of Siena's centro storico.

First glimpse of Siena’s centro storico.

To say that relations between Florence and Siena have been strained for some time is truly a dir poco (to say little).  They spent most of the Middle Ages at war fighting for control of Tuscany.  Eventually the Florentine troops, backed by the powerful Medici’s, won that war, but in modern times Siena appears to be winning a new contest – the claim to be Tuscany’s most beautiful city.

View from my attic room at the Palazzo Ravizza

View from my attic room at the Palazzo Ravizza

One of the things that adds to Siena’s charms is the way the countryside – olive groves and vineyards – comes right to the walls of the medieval centre.

There was lots of light but to see the view you have to climb the staircase leading to...

There was lots of light but to see the view you had to climb the staircase.

Who knows where the stairs once led to.  Love that notch in the door.

Who knows where the stairs once led to. Love the notch in the door.

Whatever the official outcome of this latest battle, and as much as I love Florence, in the last few years Siena has grown on me.  With all that art, and all those tourists and street vendors in Florence’s tiny historic centre it’s easy to end up, if not quite stricken with Stendhal Syndrome – a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations (!), first experienced by the 19th century French author, Stendhal, while gazing on Florence’s art – at least longing for a little less.  Of everything.

One thing I’m sure even the most ardent fans of Florence will agree on is that, of the two, Siena has the more beautiful piazza – perhaps even the most beautiful in Italy.


Siena’s City Hall, which stretches across one end of the piazza, is also one of the most beautiful in Italy.

And no matter from which direction you approach the piazza, there is always lots to see along the way.


You can’t go far in Siena without going up and down a few hills.  One night as I was enjoying an aperitivo of Vernaccia at one of the bars around the margins of the piazza, I overheard a tourist talking about a wine tasting he and his companions were going on the next day.  “I wonder how many hills we’ll have to climb.  I don’t think we believe him (the guide) anymore.”


Keeping things horizontal.


The menu was tantalizing, but it was martedì (mar-teh-dee).  Giorno di riposo – the day of rest.


Most towns have a section of wall dedicated to politics. There were quite a few candidates for the position of sindaco (mayor).


Someone didn’t care for Falorni. Tucci My totally uninformed guess as to the results? Corsino. In a culture where hyperbole is often second nature, his simple message – Courage. Real change. – stood out.


It’s impossible not to stop and admire the displays in the food stores. Ironically, they are so artfully done that in some stores gawkers have become persona non grata. On my last trip there was a sign inside this store – No Photographs.


Fortunately I had taken this shot – first day on the job – on a previous trip.


Another temptation. Cuoiocwoy-yoh.


WE RECYCLE AND SUPERVALUE. 3 EURO FOR EVERY OLD BRA.  All old bras will be recycled to create insulating panels.


If shopping isn’t your thing, it’s fun to see how many emblems of the contrade, the neighbourhoods that compete in the Palio, the crazy horse race I mentioned in the post on Villa Cetinale, you can spot.  Above – The Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar.


The territory (!) of the contrada of the owl.

The oca needs no introduction.


And then there’s “I spy the She-wolf”.

The symbol of Siena is the She-wolf suckling the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. According to legend, when the twin brothers were all grown up, they rode off astride black and white steeds to fulfill their destiny.   Romulus founded Rome and Senius, the son of Remus founded… Siena.





When we reach Via Banchi di Sopra we’re very close to the piazza.


Finding your way in the labyrinth of Tuscany’s medieval towns and cities is made even more challenging when the names of the streets get changed. ‘Già‘ (in this case!) means ‘formerly’.

In medieval times, banchi – ban-key – (market tables) lined the two alleys that encircle the piazza – one of the alleys is on a slightly higher level so it was called Via Banchi di Sopra (above) and the other was called Via Banchi di Sotto (under).  If the owner of a table did not pay the rent for the space his table occupied, or as sometimes happened, competition for customers got out of hand, thugs would smash the offender’s table, leaving the poor wretch with a banco rotto, (broken table) from where we get ‘bankrupt’.

As I continued towards one of the narrow passageways that open on to the piazza, I began to hear an astonishing sound.


First glimpse of my favourite Italian piazza – Piazza del Campo.


In places like Siena, the juxtaposition of modern and medieval worlds creates some surprising, often incongruous, effects, like this all-girls Swedish marching band belting out Mamma Mia in the centuries old piazza.

Piazza del Campo. siena's user-friendly main piazza.

Time for a break.  Maybe I’ll just plop myself down in the middle of the piazza…


…or join these ladies resting at the foot of the tower.


Then again, perhaps a glass of something cool at one of these tables – prime viewing spot for watching life unfold in the piazza.










Interesting. But is it a garden?

From what I had read before leaving home, the next garden I was going to visit was unlike any I’d visited so far.  First of all, it’s new – begun in 1996 – and second, it’s the creation of an American – Sheppard Craige.   Il Bosco della Ragnaia is in the hills south-east of Siena.  An Italian website describes it as a giardino-bosco.  Giardino is “garden” and bosco is “forest”.  I’m not sure what that means.  A “garden forest” or a “forest garden”?


It’s only about 35 km from Siena, but with all the ‘P’ stops (not that kind), it took me over an hour.


In mid-May just a hint of green in this field.

In mid-May just a hint of green in this field.


I was annoyed at all the little sticks behind the wild lupines. They ruined the pastoral feel. But when I looked
more closely I saw that the sticks were actually markers for baby cypresses.  Maybe they weren’t so ugly after all.

I wasn’t the only one making slow progress.  Around one bend I saw a van – one of those luxury 10-seater things – parked on the side of the road.  A half dozen or so people were just getting out.  All of them carrying cameras – attached to which were some enormous lenses.  Trying to keep my eyes on the road I glanced around.   Then I saw it.

The lone cypress.

The lone cypress.

There wasn’t really anywhere to pull over.  The van had taken up what little flat space there was.  I pulled over as far as I could, scraping the bottom of my car on something in the process and got out.  They were American – New York accents.  They sounded pretty friendly – joking around.  One wanted to know when the next meal was.  Apparently a full two hours had gone by since they had last eaten.  But I was intimidated, embarrassed by my “kit” lens and “starter” camera.

Then I reminded myself of what Mark Truzs, the instructor of a workshop I had taken in Toronto, had said:  “After you’ve eaten a great meal, do you go charging into the kitchen to check out the pots and pans?”  (This was of course a workshop for photo enthusiasts, not professionals.) “It’s what you do with what you’ve got.  It’s what you see.   Your take on things.”   Thank you Mark.


I took a bunch of photos and headed back to my car, hoping I wouldn’t find oil leaking from the bottom of my car.  Almost afraid to look, I peeked under the car.  No oil.  As I set off again I silently thanked the big equipment folks for showing me the shot.


Further south the rolling hills began to give way to the Crete Senesi, the steep, chalky ridges the area is named for.


I love the lemony yellow ginepre. Broom. What kind of name for a flower is that anyway?

After a dozen or so more stops for photos – good thing I was on my own – I arrived.  Actually, I drove right past the entrance on the first go, but when it comes to finding these gardens I’ve almost come to expect that.  Just beyond the parking lot there was a sign.   On the left side was the head of a wild creature – half-human, half-animal.  It struck me as strangely familiar.


“If not here, where?” is the last line of the prayer of the Sages who, in a long-forgotten past, ruled the woods.

Bosco means forest or wood.  Ragnaia refers to nets that were once used throughout Italy to capture birds.  What is being captured in this place?

On the right at the top was a series of letters.  Some kind of puzzle?   I’m not very good at puzzles, so decided to just take a photo for the time being and have a go at it later. Besides, the sun was out and blue skies all around.  Who knew how long that would last?

The rest was pretty straightforward – apart from a few missing letters – which, if you look really closely, you can see haven’t just fallen off or faded away.  They are deliberately missing.  A clue to that first line.  You may have seen through the puzzle right away.  I didn’t get it until I saw the letters enlarged on my computer screen.  Like I said, I’m not good at puzzles – even “easy” ones apparently.

IMG_1495 - Version 3

The rest started off in fairly standard fashion:   Welcome.  Opening hours (year round from dawn to sunset).   And then there were a few “rules”.  Not so standard.  Especially in Italy.

Respect for the environment is a measure of your participation.   What does this mean? What if I respect the environment – a lot – but feel more comfortable “observing” rather than “participating”?

Smoking is absolutely prohibited, out of respect for the forest and your health.  That bit about our health – definitely not written by an Italian.

Children under the age of 12 must be accompanied.   Given that the property is in the middle of nowhere, or at least as much in the middle of nowhere as one can be in Tuscany, this seems somewhat redundant.

You are invited to use the path on your way down and be careful.  A more professional translation would probably begin with “Please use…”.  But I have never felt comfortable translating.   How can “Please” and “You are invited to” possibly be the same thing?

All interpretations of the garden are welcome.  Nice.  But hold on.  It turns out that your interpretations are welcome  – as long as they are of the libero sort – as in uno spirito libero (a free spirit).   But what if you find yourself entertaining interpretations that are not “libero”?

And finally the Latin motto  –  Audere semper.  (Always dare.)

Definitely not your typical Tuscan garden.

Along the path to the garden, or forest, or whatever it is, are giant terracotta pots.  It’s impossible to walk by without having a peek to see what the creatures around the rim are looking at.  (Nothing.)

Giant terracotta pots lined the path to the garden, or forest, or whatever it was.  It’s impossible to walk by without having a peek to see what the creatures around the rim are looking at.  (Nothing.)


At the risk of being labelled a nature hater or some kind of enemy of the wilderness, here’s a confession:  whenever I have the good fortune to spend a precious few weeks travelling around Italy or France, I have little – make that no interest in spending time in forests.  I live in Canada.  If I want some quality forest time, all I have to do is get in the car and drive a hour or so north.  Why would I travel thousands of miles, spend a fortune on airport taxes and surcharges (even when I use points), endure the hassles and indignities of airports and customs – you can add your own pet peeves – to go for a walk in a forest?  So the first area I came across didn’t do much for me.



OK. I can go with this thought. For a while.

Stairs led to a hidden valley.  As I made my way down, paying careful attention, as “invited”, I thought about those Visitors’ Rules.


Even though I don’t like translating – or maybe because I don’t – I’m always curious to see what other people come up with, so when I got back home, I decided to have a look at the English version of the website.  What I found there wasn’t just a case of  “Lost in Translation”. It appeared that not all visitors had come in the spirit envisioned by Mr. Craige when he first opened his creation to the public.   Not only was the current English version of the rules decidedly less poetic, there were a lot more of them.  Visitors now entered at their own risk.  There was to be no camping.  No yelling or loud noises.   Capital letters pointed out that this was a PRIVATE PARK.  Dogs had to be kept on a leash.  And as far as  accompanying children under 12, forget it.  If any of your progeny haven’t had their 14th birthday yet, don’t even think of bringing them  They are not “desired”.

It's wonderfully peaceful in the valley.  No for the moment.

It’s wonderfully peaceful in the valley. No yelling or loud noises for the moment.

With all the shenanigans that must have led to the new rules, you have to wonder why he continued to open the garden to the public.  But to paraphrase Judith Wade Bernardi,   “If no one sees your garden, what kind of garden is it?”

It may come as a surprise, but up until the mid 1990’s few people had ever been inside most of Italy’s private gardens.  It was Signora Bernardi who changed all that.  Originally from England, she had married an Italian and made Italy her home.  Wishing to give something back to the country that had welcomed her so warmly, and borrowing from the grand gardening tradition of her country of birth,  she set about promoting Italy’s rich garden heritage. She was terribly diplomatic of course.  She had to be.  Most of the families she approached belonged to Italy’s aristocracy and unlike their counterparts in Britain, were, for the most part, in pretty good shape, financially.  Why would they want to allow the public to go traipsing through their bits of paradise?

What do I know? (Montaigne)

On the “Altar of Skepticism” a quote from the French philosopher, Montaigne:
“What do I know?”

When she had twenty-two garden owners on board, she founded I Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens).  The website describes the organization as “an initiative born to spread the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage of privately owned gardens in Italy.  We believe that one can’t fully love and look after one’s environment if one ignores the history of man’s relationship in the past with nature.”  By 2013, that list had grown to 92 gardens.

What we observe isn’t nature itself…

... but nature as revealed to our questioning.

… but nature as revealed to our questioning.


Twin pillars along the central axis (an essential feature of the Renaissance garden) face each other.  On one side – INVECE (in-vay-chay) – instead.  On the other – DUNQUE (doong-quay) – therefore.


Toward the end of my visit I caught up with Sheppard.  He asked what I thought.  I said it was unlike any garden I had seen so far in my travels around Italy.  That I had visited a lot of different kinds of gardens – Renaissance, Baroque, Medieval Walled gardens, Romantic “English” Landscape gardens; winery gardens; front door gardens.  A pretty wide range.   He asked if I thought it was a “garden”.


As I was gathering my thoughts, he told me that he had invited Signora Bernardi to visit in the hopes that she would add Bosco della Ragnaia to the Grandi Giardini list.  She didn’t.  Her view was that given the absence of flowers, it could not be considered a garden.


Maybe we’re looking at “Philosophical Horticulture” or “Horticultural Philosophy”.

From the edge of the forest, the first view of the sun-filled meadow.

From the edge of the forest, the first view of the sun-filled meadow.

I felt badly for him.  This may also come as a surprise, but deciding what is, and what is not a garden, can be an extremely contentious issue.  Consider all the lawsuits this question has given rise to.  Try googling “front yard gardening lawsuits” and see what comes up.  I was happy/relieved to see that, at least in one case, reason prevailed.  Charges filed against the Oliveira family in Toronto, whose alleged illegal activity consisted of planting a vegetable garden in their front yard, were dropped and the local bylaw amended.

Flowers! On the path down to the meadow.

Flowers! On the path down to the meadow.

One case in England went all the way to the High Court.  A 65-year old found himself with a criminal record after cutting down a few trees on his property.  The Lower Court had found that a section of his three-acre property was no longer a garden.  It had become a “woodland”.  It turns out you need a license if you want to cut down woodland trees – a license which he of course did not have.  Luckily for him, the High Court ruled that the OED definition  of a “garden” used by the Lower Court – “an enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruits or vegetables” – was too narrow.  One of the justices even went on to say that in view of “the current fashion for wild gardens and meadow areas”, when you are trying to decide whether you had a garden or not, you had to consider “the relationship between the owner and the land and the history and character of the land and space.”  (The Telegraph, Caroline Gammell, July 4, 2008)  I wish I’d known about this ruling when Sheppard asked me about his creation.

There is only one way to really learn.  Just do it. “We learned how to make it by making it.”

There really is only one way to learn. Just do it.
“We learned how to make it by making it.”

Sheppard mowing the meadow.

Sheppard Craige mowing the meadow.

“The Centre of the Universe”.  Stand in the middle of the circle and see for yourself. Statues throughout the property are by Sheppard’s wife, Francis Lansing.

“The Centre of the Universe”. Stand in the middle of the circle and see for yourself.
Statues throughout the property are by Sheppard’s wife, Francis Lansing.


Last view of the .... “garden”?

Last view of the …. “garden”?

When Ignorance is Bliss – Villa Cetinale

Entering the gardens of Villa Cetinale

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Cetinale.  The villa, clock tower, and beyond the potted lemons, the limonaia and chapel.

I had only been back in Toronto a few weeks when a headline in the New York Times (Toronto Star Sunday supplement, June 22, 2013) caught my eye.  “Estate Laws Rankle Daughters of Nobles”.  The article was about the tradition of transferring titles and estates to the first-born – the first male-born child.  It’s called promogeniture and female members of Britain’s aristocracy were contesting it, no doubt encouraged by a law, recently passed, which, for the first time ever, made the line-up for the monarchy gender-neutral – meaning that William and Kate’s baby – boy or girl – would be third in line.  As we know now it was a boy, so the new law is still largely symbolic.

One of these clipped boxes is meant to represent a pavone (peacock).  The one on the left maybe?

One of these clipped boxes is meant to represent a peacock. The one on the left maybe?

One of the names in the article rang a bell – Lord Lambton.   He had died in 2006, leaving his entire estate to his only male offspring, Ned, whose birth had followed those of five daughters.  (There were no more children after Ned…)  Three of the five daughters had launched a lawsuit for a share of the multi-million dollar estate, claiming that since their father, having fled England in the 1970‘s under the cloud of a scandal that rivalled that of Profumo, had spent the last third of his life in Tuscany, the laws of Italy – which does not have primogeniture – should apply.

Going around the left side of the villa the first garden we come to is the so-called “English Rose Garden

Going around the left side of the villa the first garden we come to is the “English Rose Garden”.

Since I don’t follow the comings and goings of Britain’s aristocracy, the name had to have something to do with the gardens of Tuscany.  The hills overlooking Florence are covered with villas and gardens owned by wealthy British ex-pats.  Maybe it was one of the gardens near Fiesole that I had to pass up on visiting because of all the time lost to the rain.  I started googling “Lambton” when up popped “Lambton, Tuscany”.  The garden was in the hills,  but instead of the hills overlooking Florence, it was in the hills just a few kilometers south-west of Siena.  Villa Cetinale (chay-tee-nah-lay).


As I got closer to the entrance to the “Italian Garden” I could see that someone had taped a notice to the gate.  Apparently the istrice, the much-beloved symbol of one of the 17 contrade of Siena (more on that in a later blog) was not welcome in the garden.  By the way, in the Italian version the porcupine is not simply eating all the bulbs, it is ruining the entire garden! 

As in the 16 other con trade, symbols of the porcupine, are proudly displayed throughout the Contrada dell'istrice.

Instead of corporate logos, symbols of the contrade are proudly
displayed on buildings throughout the centro storico of Siena.

If I had known about its recent history, would I have found the gardens as beautiful?  Enjoyed my visit as much?  Is it possible to like a work of art, while disliking the artist who created it, or what the artist represents?

Cypresses, clipped boxwood in a monochrome palette of green.

Cypresses, clipped boxwood in a monochrome palette of green.

I have always preferred visiting a garden – especially the first time – knowing as little as possible beforehand.  A seemingly contradictory position, since I also believe that knowing something about the historical context and individuals behind the creation and design of a garden leads us to a deeper understanding and appreciation.  But I like to do most of the research afterwards.


In any event, what with the white knuckle drive out of Siena and the usual challenges of finding these gardens, by the time I reached Cetinale I had forgotten almost everything I had ever known about the place.


Once again, because of the brutto tempo (“ugly” weather), it was just me and the gardeners
who had clearly been giving their trimmers a workout in the Italian Garden.


In the distance the Romitorio (Hermitage)

Tall, brooding, black green cypresses.  Geometrically trimmed box and yew.  All colours beyond green banished.  This garden came closest to the image many people have of an “Italian Garden”.


The Italian Garden takes us around to the back of the villa.  This is where the “Green Avenue” that leads to the Romitorio (Hermitage) begins.



Halfway there.

The Romitorio was inhabited by monks until the end of the 19th century.  Presumably by the time you had climbed the 200 steps to the entrance you would be in a suitably humble frame of mind.  I wasn’t really forward to that climb, but since it wasn’t raining and it was still early in the day, it was difficult to rationalize not checking out such an important monument.



The beginning of the Santa Scala (Holy Stairway).

As I got closer I almost caught myself wishing for a sudden downpour.  There was nothing in the map I had been given to suggest that one should proceed with caution up the steps, let alone forego the pilgrimage altogether.   It certainly didn’t look as if anyone, saint or otherwise, had been up those steps in a very long time.


There was no-one else around.  What if I tripped and sprained something.  Or worse, what if my camera got smashed?  Pathetic or not, I very gingerly climbed a few of what was left of the steps, took a photo and then headed down to safer ground.



I had barely gone a hundred yards when I came across this sign. Vindicated!  I wondered why the fact that there had recently been an accident on the stairs was left out in the English version.   And as to why the sign is here, rather than a bit closer to the staircase…


Opposite the notice was a charming, wisteria-covered building.  In the top left corner, a trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) window.

IMG_1443 - Version 2

It was the first I’d seen since a trip a few years ago to the Cinque Terre, along the Ligurian coast near Genoa.  Santa Margherita di Ligure, a coastal town nearby, was filled with them.

Many of the buildings in Santa Margherita di Ligure, a coastal town just a few kilometers to the west of the “Five Villages”, are decorated with these surprisingly realistic faux windows.

Some of them are so cleverly done you have to take a really good look to tell the real ones from the pretenders.


On the side wall of the villa the papal crest. Pope Alessandro VII spent much of his youth at Cetinale.

The bosco (forest) was an essential feature of gardens of the era.  The bosco at Cetinale was not however, your run of the mill forest.  It was called the Tebaide (Holy Forest) in memory of a region inhabited by Christian hermits during the Middle Ages.  Here, along the winding  “pathway of penitence”, the 17th century pope, Alessandro VII, could retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life and contemplate issues of a higher order.

Beyond, an essential element of important gardens of the era, is the bosco (forest).

But before the spiritual forces of the bosco could work their magic on me, I was distracted by more earthly concerns.  One of the most important Sienese traditions – and many would say it is by far THE most important – is the Palio – a horse race in which each of the 17 contrade (neighbourhoods) competes.  ‘Competes’ is a rather benign word for the reality of this violent race which, for centuries has been held twice yearly in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.  

What does the Holy Forest at Cetinale have to do with a mad race that is virtually incomprehensible to all but the locals?  The only times in all those centuries when the race was not held in Piazza del Campo were during the two World Wars when it was cancelled and several years in the late 1600‘s when, because of the ongoing war between Siena and Florence, it was held in the “Holy Forest”.  The receptionist had told me to keep an eye out for stone contrada symbols from those days.

She had mentioned a tartaruga (turtle).

She had mentioned a tartaruga (turtle).

And a winged dragon.

And a winged dragon.

Hard to tell.  Could the side bits be what's left of the wings?

Hard to tell. Could the side bits be what’s left of the wings?

Further along statues of saints and hermits lined the paths.  Although they were not a source of contemplation for me, nor did I feel inspired to pray to them, I would soon be glad of their presence.


Votive chapels represent the "Seven Sorrows of the Virgin".

Votive chapels represent the “Seven Sorrows of the Virgin”.



As I went deeper into the forest I kept seeing bits of pink along the path.  Perhaps a wedding party had passed by recently?  Finally I took a really good look.

Wild cyclamen.

Wild cyclamen.


It was all quite lovely and peaceful. Absolutely conducive to meditation.  But after a while I began to feel uneasy.  It wasn’t just the dark clouds.  I had been following the path for quite a while.  Much longer than it should have taken.  I must have been going round and round in circles.  I could make no sense of the map I had been given.  I  could see the top of the clock tower, so technically speaking, I wasn’t lost.  I just couldn’t find the way out of the forest.   I may not be the world’s best map reader, but I do have a pretty good sense of direction and don’t get disoriented that often.  I use the sun a lot.  But there was no sun today.  Finally I recognized the first saint I’d come across.   Instead of turning right at this point as I had been doing, I had to turn LEFT.


When I had passed by the amphitheatre on my way to the Santa Scala earlier, it hadn’t made nearly as much of an impression as it did when I caught my first glimpse of it from the edge of the forest.


I hurried back along the “Green Avenue”, which of course seemed even longer than before, took a few more photos near the villa …



And then made a mad dash for the car as the heavens opened.

Market Day

If I’m going anywhere near Siena, I always try to be there Wednesday morning, when vendors set up their stalls around the Fortezza Lizza on the edge of the historic centre.  Outside of Florence, this is the biggest mercato settimanale (weekly market) in Tuscany.

Mercato della LIzza, Siena

Siena’s weekly market is also known as the Mercato della Lizza, for the medieval fortress it wraps itself around.

Pieces of cardboard are laid out in front of the shoe vendor's stall for trying on

The shoe vendors set out pieces of cardboard for customers to try out the footwear.


There may be something you can’t get here, but I have no idea what that might be. The real question is – How do the vendors keep track of all this stuff?

It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wondering around – it’s enormous.  I kept getting lost on my first visit.  But not for long. All you have to do is look up and the walls of the fortress will help you get your bearings again.


In this age of standardized malls and supermarket chains, there is something very appealing, very real about this market.   I love checking to see if the same vendors are still doing the circuit.


I suspect – I hope – the people who operate the stalls are the owners.

Some of the trucks/stores are quite elaborate affairs. This salumeria (deli) is equipped with a rotisserie where whole chickens and potatoes are roasted.  The aroma is so-o-o tantalizing, I’m tempted to place an order like the locals do and come back to pick up my pollo arrosto later on.


A couple of years later in May, he has a new look, but it’s still the same vendor.


The only change I could see was at the fish stall.  If you look closely at the photo below, you can see that the pescivendolo (peh-she-ven-doh-low) under the sign promoting baccalà  (cod) is the same fellow I had photographed two years earlier.   Since my previous visit they had installed a rather un-Italian electronic numbering system.

The sign next to the queue monitor advertises the route – Siena on Wednesday at the Fortezza; Friday – Colle Val d’Elsa (where I go for crystal, not fish) and Saturday in San Miniato.



A spikey aphrodisiac.

The vegetable displays are gorgeous.  Many strange properties have been attributed to the carciofo  (car-cho-foe) throughout the ages.  It was one of the most popular aphrodisiacs of the Renaissance.  The edible part of is actually a tight flower.


For only 12 euros, you can buy 15 of the aphrodisiacal plants for your veggie garden.


At the fruttivendolo , make sure to ask for pesche, pronounced pes-kay, not pesce which is pronounced peh-shay and means ‘fish’.

While the locals come to the market to do some serious shopping, they also make time for catching up with friends.


My favourite part is the section devoted to plants, which is right next to the Bar del Mercato, a good place to have another morning cappuccino.  It’s a colourful little place and was full of customers when I arrived shortly before 10 am.

As I waited for my turn, a signora ordered un caffè, which here means not caffè americano, the watered down stuff, but  espresso – too early in the day for that kind of jolt for me.  An older fellow wanted un vino bianco con un po’ di acqua gassata (white wine diluted with a bit of mineral water – wouldn’t want it straight – it’s only 10 am).  As the barista prepared un caffè corretto da esportare (a “corrected” coffee for take-out – corrected in this case with a bit of scotch), the fellow next in line asked for un cappuccino e un caffè.  The barista kept on filling orders – including mine – but the cappuccino e un caffè did not materialize.  When he realized he’d been bypassed in the queue (there really is a queue – it may not look like one to the untrained eye, which sadly leads to many misunderstandings and bad feelings among tourists – but that’s another matter) the fellow called out, “Hey, where’s my cappuccino?”


Don’t mess with the barista.

I almost choked on the cappuccino I was already enjoying, at what happened next.  While even I, a straniera (foreigner) for whom Italian was a second language, had clearly understood the yet to be filled order, the barista, it turned out, had not.  With a remarkably straight face he looked the fellow right in the eye and said,  “Siccome mi ha parlato con la bocca piena di brioche non ho capito.”  (Since you spoke to me with your mouth full of brioche I didn’t understand.)

Travelling nursery

Travelling nursery

There are garden centres outside the city walls, but the market has everything for the typical city dweller – annual flowers for the front door, seedlings and herbs for the orto (vegetable garden), cut flowers for indoors and gifts.



In late fall, cyclamens and pansies for the front door.



As I mentioned in an earlier post (Are Gardeners All a Little Crazy?  La Mortella, Part I), one of the advantages of being an Italian gardener is there is no need to struggle with all those Latin names, since they are essentially the same as the ‘common’ Italian names.

Who can resist a lettuce called "Marvel of the 4 Seasons'?

Who can resist a lettuce called “Marvel of the 4 Seasons’?

When you've bought everything you need, then there's the challenge of getting it home.

The market has just about everything you need.  The challenge is getting it all home.

The market in Siena may be one of Tuscany’s biggest, but my favourite is the Saturday morning market in the village of Greve-in-Chianti.

Piazza Matteotti. There are no cars on Saturday mornings when the weekly market takes over the piazza.

Piazza Matteotti.

Piazza Matteotti is such a lovely piazza.  All those graceful arcades and creamy façades.  Too bad they let cars park here most of the time.  There is a huge parking lot only a five-minute walk away where everybody has to park anyway on market day.


The first time I went to Greve’s market was in the fall – although you’d never know it by all that sunshine and the light clothing the locals were wearing.

The fruttivendolo (fru-tee-venn-dough-low) is one of the busiest stalls.

The fruttivendolo (fru-tee-venn-dough-low) is one of the busiest stalls.

The chrysanthemums are a dead give-away that it's fall.

The chrysanthemums are a dead give-away that it’s fall.

“Dead give-away” is really a dreadful play on words, but only if you know that the chrysanthemum is the #1 choice of flower to take to cemeteries and that the #1 day for going to the cemetery is la Festa dei Morti (Celebration/Holiday of the Dead – how do you translate these things?) at the beginning of November, when almost all of Italy heads to cemeteries to pay their respects to departed loved ones, bringing with them, as gifts for the dead … chrysanthemums.

Beyond the mums, cyclamen and my favourite blue flower - plumbago.

Beyond the mums is a huge selection of cyclamen and my favourite blue flower – plumbago.
3 euros. It’s enough to make a Canadian gardener cry.

Heading home with le spese (spay-zay).

Heading home with le spese (spay-zay).

I wondered if the market would be much different in May a few years later.


When I got up Saturday morning I was almost afraid to look out the window.  It had poured rain the last couple of days.  I was never so happy to see a sunrise.

By the time I got to Greve the market was in full swing and the fruit stall as busy as before.

By the time I got to Greve the market was in full swing and the fruit stall as busy as before.


In spite of the weather, stalls selling everything from clothes to kitchen gadgets filled the piazza.

Travelling Nursery

No matter how many of these ‘Travelling Nurseries’ I see, they still delight me.

Pondering lettuces for the winter orto (vegetable garden)

Pondering lettuces for the orto (vegetable garden)

Quale? (qwah-lay) - which one?   I'd go for the plumbago but...

Quale? (qwah-lay) – which one?
I hope the ash from that cigarette doesn’t land on one of those flowers.  I’d go for the plumbago, but…

... looks like she's going to take the

… looks like she’s going for the portulaca.   Bright colours seem to be her style.

Towers and Tourists

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.


San Gimignano seen from Pescille at dawn just before the street lights are turned off.

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.


Piazza della Cisterna at dusk.

On my most recent visit I stayed at a place that was just a short walk through the vineyards away.


San Gimignano seen from the grounds of Guardastelle.

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.

I never tired of the cypress-lined road leading into the property.

The three days I stayed here I never tired of driving along the cypress-lined road into the property.


I was on my own, so stayed in the main villa…

… but if you're travelling with friends or a partner, I think one of the cottages would be wonderful.

… but if I had been with friends or a partner, I would definitely have gone for one of the cottages.

The pool looked so inviting but in late October there were no takers - at least while I was there.

The pool looked so inviting, but in late October I never saw any takers.

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.


The vineyards are lit up with the last rays of sunshine as the rain approaches.

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.


One morning, from the breakfast room we could see wisps of fog floating across the vineyards.

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.


Even on a dark, fall day the countryside was beautiful.

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.

…and so are the olives.

In mid October, the olives at Guardastelle are ripe …

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).


… and so are the grapes.

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.


Some of the vines were so laden with grapes, it was a wonder they didn’t break.

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.


The grape juices in this container are ‘in the act of becoming’ Vernaccia di San Gimignano, DOCG.

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.

Old friends in the piazza just outside my favourite entrance point.

Old friends in the little park next to Porta San Giovanni, my favourite way to enter San Gimignano.

Porta San Giovanni, my favourite gate for entering the city.

Walking through Porta San Giovanni first thing in the morning, the Middle Ages seem so close.

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.

The pottery in the stores along Via San Giovanni is beautiful, but if you're looking for a souvenir from San Gimignano buy something else.

There are so many stores selling ceramica along Via San Giovanni you might be fooled into thinking pottery and not Vernaccia was the town’s main product. Some pieces are truly beautiful, but if you’re looking for a souvenir from San Gimignano, buy something else.  Most of what you see is produced in Deruta – even the pieces with ‘Made in San Gimignano’ on the bottom.

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’.


Twin Towers of the Salvucci family.

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 (the Scabby One.)

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.

If you can manage it, climb up to the top of Torre Grossa (Fat Tower) for this view.

If you can manage it, climb up to the top of Torre Grossa (Fat Tower) for a view of the centre and surrounding countryside.  Via San Giovanni provides the only (somewhat) straight line in town.

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.  


From up here you even get a view of the garden terrace at the gate leading to the first of San Gimignano’s two piazzas.


Back at ground level in May 2013.  Through the arch is Piazza del Duomo.

Piazza della Cisterna, the centre of social life.

Piazza della Cisterna, the centre of social life.  The steps around the cisterna (well) are often filled with visitors eating gelato.


Most of that gelato comes from the Gelateria di Piazza, the mini kingdom of Master ice cream maker Sergio Dondoli, twice winner of the Coppa del Mondo del Gelato (Ice Cream World Championship – who knew such a thing existed?


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.


A short passageway (by the arch on the right) joins Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo.

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.


A huge crowd was standing on the steps of La Collegiata.


Of course. It was a Sunday in May – a big month for communion.


A modern Italian family – papà with baby and mamma – wait! you can’t possibly call the apparition in those heels a ‘mamma‘!


If I were her, I’d be hanging on to that stroller for dear life. How does she manage on the cobblestones in the rest of the town?

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.


Buon appetito!