A Farm Stay and Italy’s National Holiday

Cefalù’s glorious sunsets and evening strolls along its narrow, medieval lanes after the hordes had left held a lot of appeal.  But not enough to make me want to stay in the village on my next trip.  It would take a few more years before I’d feel up to driving into that dedalo (day-dah-low) again.

Metonymy is one of those figures of speech that have terribly erudite sounding definitions – ‘the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant’ – but if you can make your way through to the examples, turn out to be very ordinary, everyday expressions.  Like ‘suits’ for business men and ‘counting heads’ when you’re not talking about the French Revolution.

Dedalo – Daedalus in English – was the brilliant architect and inventor to King Minos of Crete.  In addition to the spectacular Palace of Knossos, he also designed the labyrinth which unlike the very real palace was probably mythical, in which the Minotaur was held captive.  In case your memory of this particular myth is a bit hazy, the Minotaur was a ferocious monster with the body of a man and head of a bull that had resulted from the coupling between the king’s wife and a white bull sent to the king by Poseidon.  Said coupling, by the way, had been orchestrated by Poseidon as punishment – of the king!  – for having disobeyed the god’s order to sacrifice the bull.   In any event, to avoid driving into Cefalù I booked a room in what was described on one website as a ‘farm stay’, in the hills a short distance inland.

The courtyard of the Relais Sant’Anastasia, a most unfarm-like farm stay.

I suppose ‘Relais’ should have tipped me off, but it was only slightly more expensive than the B&B in Cefalu.  And there was loads of parking!  On the drive up I’d been thinking of indulging in a pisolino (pee-zoh-lee-no) but as usual, as soon as I saw the place, all desire to waste time napping vanished.

Like many repurposed buildings in Italy it had originally been a Benedictine monastery. And like so many others,  had a subtle and charming elegance about it.

I decided to save the ‘Vista panoramica‘ for sunset.

The piscina (pee-she-nuh) was a beautiful and unaccustomed luxury.

The view from the pool terrace was exquisite, especially the pond which was surrounded with Eucalyptus, one of my favourite trees.  When I asked at the front desk, the signorina said of course guests were free to walk around it.  There was a gate which might need a bit of a tug, but it wasn’t locked.

The planting along the road was so thick I hadn’t even noticed the pond when I’d driven up.

I was so busy admiring the oleanders and the broom and the occasional glimpses of the pond I almost missed what was down at foot level.

Even though it was obviously dead – and had been so for a while – I couldn’t bring myself to come any closer. This is the best I could do with my limited zoom. The iridescent spots on the right are flies.

To say the snake put a damper on my idyllic pond walk is as much a misnomer as describing the relais as a ‘farm stay’, an understandable, but ultimately awkward attempt to render agriturismo in English.  In any event, from my city dweller’s perspective the snake looked absolutely venomous.  But if there were  venomous snakes around, wouldn’t the nice young woman at the desk have warned me?   They say trust your gut.  Well, what my gut was telling me – screaming at me – was that a walk around the pond was not the best thing for a signora to be doing on her own, especially one in sandals and bare legs.

The essence of peace. Who could resist such a view?

Over the years I’v accumulated quite a few succulents in the same blue/green hue of the Eucalyptus leaf.  Set against Sicily’s clear, blue sky it looked even more gorgeous.

For a plant that likes well-drained soil and tolerates drought, the banks of a pond seemed an unlikely place for an Australian bottlebrush (Calliestemon), but somehow it didn’t look out of place.

On the other side of the pond, enormous clumps of Pampas grass were a natural fit.

I made it around the laghetto without any further sightings of reptilian nature, although I jumped at pretty well every little rustle along the leaf-covered path.   Passing by the reception desk on my way to my room I stopped to tell them about the snake.  Oh, that would have been a besce, the young man replied nonchalantly.  But it had a triangular head! I insisted.  Non si preoccupi signora.  There was no need to worry.  Black-coloured snakes, even ones with triangular shaped heads, are not velenose (vay-lay-no-zay).  It’s only the light brown ones you have to watch out for.  It was only much later that it occurred to me that implicit in his reassuring words was the possibility that instead of the innocuous besce, I might have come across a vipera (vee-peh-rah).  A light brown and highly poisonous viper!

As beautiful as it was, the idea of lounging by a pool when there was all of Sicily to explore did not appeal to me at all.  On the other hand, an evening dip followed by an aperitivo on the terrace and then dinner, was to my mind highly appealing.  Sadly one of the (prominently displayed) rules regarding the use of the pool was that after 19,00 it was chiusa (kyu-zuh). Closed.

The pool looked especially inviting in the golden glow of the advancing sunset.

So instead of a dip I went up the deceptively long flight of steps to the Vista Panoramica.

Despite the lovely grounds, the relais was a serious agricultural enterprise with vineyards and olive groves that stretched all the way to the distant mountains

No fertile land was left unused. Terraces – some just wide enough for a single row of vines – had been carved into the low hills.

Even though I had already been converted to the ‘Golden hour’ (previous post), watching the terraced hills which I had found so compelling in normal daylight slowly transform into shimmering drifts of gold was as unexpected as it was beautiful.

As the shadows lengthened, the haze dissipated somewhat and to the north, not only Alicudi, the Aeolian island I had seen on my previous trip to Cefalù, but also its closest neighbour, Filicudi Island, became visible.

As the haze slowly dissipated, it was as if Aeolus himself, the ancient Greek God of the winds, had blown the two small islands into view.

From up here the narrow, country road I had driven to the relais was also visible.  At least stretches of it, as it wound its way through the valley and under the bridge to the sea and Cefalù.  In a few days I would be heading west on that bridge, part of the highway between Messina and Palermo, but for now, Cefalù – a whole 13 k away – was as far as I was going.

The only thing that marred my Punta Panoramica experience was that, unlike the two couples who had climbed up the staircase shortly after me, carrying wine glasses and a bottle, I had not thought to bring along an aperitivo.  I wished them ‘Salute‘ and went down to see if it was  pos-see-bee-lay, despite its being closed, to have a glass of wine by the pool.

Sunset drinks up on the Punta Panoramica would have been lovely, but a glass of wine by the pool was not only possible, but also mica male. (me-kuh mah-lay) Not bad.

After a leisurely day spent exploring a quiet inland village and taking it easy on the ‘farm’, I felt up to driving into Cefalù.  This was not part of the ‘official’ itinerary but I think some part of me always knew I wouldn’t be able to resist spending at least a few hours in what was after all one of my favourite Sicilian seaside villages.  But the following day was June 2.  Festa della Repubblica.  The Italian equivalent – more or less – of the Canadian national holiday, Canada Day, which is celebrated on July 1.  ‘More or less’ because there are a few surprising differences between the two.  First of all, Italy’s National Day is a fairly recent affair, dating back to only 1946, while Canada’s was first celebrated in 1867.  Secondly – and much more significantly – the reasons for the two nations’ holidays are vastly different.  The Canadian holiday commemorates the amalgamation of three independent colonies, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and ‘Canada’ (the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec) into a self-governing ‘Dominion’ of Great Britain.  The rest of what we know as Canada would come along in a dragged out, piecemeal fashion, from Manitoba in 1870 to Newfoundland in 1949.  Italy, however was already a fully formed, if not always united country in 1946.  Rather than the nation’s birth, which had taken place well over half a century earlier (1861), the Festa della Repubblica commemorates the date of the referendum in which, by a slim margin, the Italian people – ALL of them – even the women, a first for Italy – voted in favour of a republic, and the male descendants of the House of Savoy which had ruled the country since its inception were sent into exile.

While the survival of the Repubblica has often been in doubt since then, what was not in doubt was that Italians throughout the land would be off celebrating.  Which meant that there would be even more movimento in Cefalù than usual.  I wasn’t encouraged when the receptionist told me a Dutch couple had driven down the day before but after being stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour they’d turned around and come right back to the relais.

I decided to take my chances.

I didn’t get as early a start as I probably should have.  But rushing la prima colazione on the terrace seemed a travesty.  It was 10 o’clock when I reached the road into the village. The confusione (con-foo-zeeoh-nay) was overwhelming.  But I got lucky.  Or rather, for once my long-ingrained habit of obeying traffic signs paid off.  Instead of following the cars who continued past the ‘traffico limitato‘ sign, I followed the temporary signs that directed me – infuriatingly! – away from the sea and down a couple of streets that of course had no traffic on them to a narrow gate with a big ‘P’ sign.  It was the back entrance to an enormous field that had been set aside for parking.  I paid the attendant 8€ – which I knew was a bargain – and walked out the seaside entrance and past an enormous line of cars, all of which would have driven past the traffico limitato sign.  I told myself I would stay for a few hours, have a nice lunch and leave before the hordes.  I just hoped my car wouldn’t be blocked in when I got back.

With those freshly manicured nails I doubted these two would be doing any swimming.  Besides, if they moved, it looked like they were at risk of a serious wardrobe malfunction.

Italian beaches tend to be very democratic. There are the private sections where you have to rent umbrellas and then there are the public sections where people create their own, often well-equipped oases.

I sat in the shade of the ancient gate and watched the goings on. I noticed a woman giving a massage to a young woman.  I was close enough I could hear the happy groaning of her client.  When she was finished she approached the group on the right under the umbrellas, holding out a laminated sheet. She didn’t speak Italian!  Was she a refugee? She got a lot of takers in the short time I sat there. I hope she charged a decent amount.

Festa for some meant a good work day for others.

In the midst of the day trippers the fishermen continued mending their nets as they always did. What an ‘unorganized’, inclusive scene.

After a while I went for a stroll through the village. To my surprise, not everyone was at the beach.

Maybe the cyclists had come down through the mountains and would have lunch here.

Why anyone would even think of driving through the village on such a day was beyond me, but these two were having a great time enjoying all the attention.

As I got closer to the main piazza the noise level increased exponentially.

The speeches had been given and the processione was about to get going.

Above the entrance to the city hall, three brand new flags had been mounted – the EU, Italy and Sicily. And next to the flags the emblem of Cefalù – three fishes around a loaf of bread.

There was a bit more confusione as they struggled to manoeuvre the flag into the narrow alley…

…and then the band followed the flag…

…down the lane to…

… the ancient port.

The crowds were so thick, and the lanes so narrow, I wasn’t able to keep up with the parade.  After some speeches and a short serenade by a bugler, during which half-naked beach goers intermingled with fully dressed military men and women, the parade people marched to the end of the pier and then came back.

It is easy to object to this scene. But perhaps when we object, we forget the importance of ‘live and let live’.

The flag bearers and band made their way back to city hall and the beach goers, most of whom had stood at attention during the ceremonies,  continued doing their beach thing.

 

The crowds gone, I was finally able to make my way to the end of the pier.

Floating in the sea was the corona, the laurel wreath, in memory of all the soldiers lost at sea.

 

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Floors and a Staircase with Flare and a UNESCO Warranty – Part I, Getting There

If there is one thing I really don’t like – what an odd phrase – anyway, if there is one thing I don’t like about travelling solo it’s not so much getting lost – an annoying, but not unexpected experience in a country where the placement of any road signs that would be at all useful to visitors is often, to put it diplomatically, random.  No, what is guaranteed to turn my usually buon umore into a molto cattivo mood (and in case you aren’t sure, cattivo means ‘bad’) it’s having to turn around and drive back along the same wretched road that got me lost in the first place.  Yet, after two days in the B&B overlooking the Valley of the Temples, I got back on the SS115 and retraced my steps.  On purpose.

There were two more ‘must-see’ sites in the area and I was hoping that the drive to these sites from an agriturismo east of Agrigento would be a little less stressful than from the otherwise delightful Villa San Marco.  (As to why I didn’t stay at the agriturismo first and then continue west to the B&B, that, like the real name of the Temple of Concord, is lost in the mists of time.)

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No temples, but also no screeching peacocks and a view that made retracing my steps worth it.

It was late in the afternoon when I arrived.  I was tempted to go for a swim right away.  The problem with that plan was I had a feeling that after the swim I might be in the mood for a bit of the local white while I dried off and gazed out over the countryside and before I knew it, it would be time to get changed for dinner and I wouldn’t have seen anything of the property.  So instead, I went exploring first.

Unlike at Il Limoneto (the agriturismo I stayed in at the beginning of this trip), where the agri part of their activities was focused on one crop – citrus fruits – here things were much more diversified.  Wine, olive oil, grains and various fruits – but surprisingly, no citruses.   Looking over the railing that surrounded the pool terrace, I saw a dirt lane that led into the fields.

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Olive trees, then the wire hoops of the greenhouses and beyond them, vineyards.

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As it had been at Agrigento, the ginepre was in full bloom, like bursts of sunshine against the clear blue skies.

But it was the agave that really stole the show for me.

But it was the agave that really stole the show for me.

Rising out of the tangled mess of leaves, the giant asparagus-like spears of the agave flower.

Rising out of the tangled mess of leaves, the giant asparagus-like spears of the agave flower.

Close by a that had gone to seed. Odd to think that these black seed pods were the end of the life cycle of the enormous white flower.

Close by, a relative of the agave, a Yucca filamentosa aka Adam’s Needle, covered in seed pods. Odd to think that only a short while ago the funereal-looking pods had been spectacular creamy-white flowers.

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From a distance I thought the trees in the greenhouses were peach trees, but instead it was the much more delicate albicocca (apricot).

I was surprised at all the apricots lying on the ground.  They looked fine, but thinking that maybe there were worm holes or rot or some other problem I couldn’t see I picked up a few.  They looked perfect to me.  Later I asked the manager why so many had been left on the ground.   He sighed.  The company that bought the apricots had very high standards.  Even the smallest imperfection meant rejection.  The sight of all those perfectly good apricots lying on the ground reminded me of the ‘Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins’ I’d seen at Chaumont-sur-Loire the year before.  (July 20, 2014)

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‘Imperfect’ apricots, lying discarded on the ground.  A symbol of pride?  Or maybe gluttony.  Definitely of sinful waste.

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Next to the greenhouses, recently harvested wheat fields and beyond them rows and rows of vitis vinifera.

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By August many of these little green nodules will be plump grapes ready for harvesting.

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On the way back to the pool more agave stand sentinel-like as if guarding the fruit trees behind them.

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The broom grows wild, but the variegated yucca would have planted. Did the gardeners know what a fabulous combo the two would make?

Early the next morning I set off to visit the two sites that had drawn me to this location.  The first was Villa Romana del Casale, a luxurious Roman villa built at the beginning of the 4th century, which turned out to be bad timing given that the Roman Empire would fall, officially, in 476 A.D, only a century later.

The villa was built as a magnificent country retreat for a powerful Roman, who was a member of the senatorial class or perhaps the Imperial family, but nowadays it is best known for its mosaics, the largest and best preserved collection in the world.  Its remarkable state of preservation is mostly due to an otherwise catastrophic natural disaster – an earthquake/mudslide in the 12th century that ended up burying most of it.  This might well have been the rather ignominious end of the once luxurious villa, but for a farmer, who, in the early 1800’s had the misfortune to find a few pieces of mosaic while tending his crop.

The closest town is Piazza Armerina, 3 km away, which is where the survivors of the 12th century mudslide resettled.   Piazza Armerina is 60 km from Campobello di Licata, the town closest to the agriturismo.   A usually reliable website gives the time to cover those 60 km as 1h23m.  A rather long time.  But not as long as it took me – almost 2 1/2 hours.  And I only got lost – or rather, thought I was lost – a couple of times.

To give you an idea of what is involved in getting to some of these places – including UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I thought I’d share with you the directions I optimistically printed out before leaving home.  I say ‘optimistically’ because the road signs were so few and far between, most of the time I just headed in what I thought was the right direction, using the sun as my guide. (Cloudy days are right up there with retracing my steps.)

From Campobello di Licata I was to head north on the SS557, which for some unknown reason, after a few kilometres becomes the SS644; turn right onto the SS190 which heads south-east; turn left at a T – keep a sharp eye out for this because it won’t look like  a ‘T’ from your point of approach; continue north-east along the SS626 – even after it becomes the SP27, which, in a kind of manic equal opportunity event for numbers, morphs into the SS191, then the SP13, then the Sp26, and finally the SP169 which at a ‘Y’ joins up with the numerically senior SP15, and continue along what is now the SP15 into Piazza Armerina. At this point, whether you’ve been driving or trying to follow the directions – or worse, both – you’re probably in the mood for a (large) glass of the local white.  Instead, I (uncharacteristically) recommend a cappuccino or even an espresso.  You’re not at the villa yet.

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View of the countryside surrounding Villa Romana del Casale.

Once you’re in Piazza Armerina, don’t drive past Via Roma as I did on the first go, thinking there was no way a road so narrow and so steep could possibly be the main road to a UNESCO site.  Instead turn left and continue driving.  Don’t bother looking for a sign, if you haven’t already given up on that approach, because Via Roma ends at the town limits and you’ll be on the SP89a.  After a while of driving along this narrow, country road you’ll feel like you have covered a lot more than 3 km, and although you may see a sign informing you that you are now on the SP15 again, you won’t see anything that would encourage you to think you’re still on the right road.  Anything that is, except the line of cars ahead of you that have appeared seemingly out of nowhere – all bearing foreign licence plates.

 

Finalmente!

Finalmente!

TBC

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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… 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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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Buon appetito!