25 March 2009

Favourite places we've visited: San Gimignano

It is with some trepidation that I start a new series of posts about our favourite places to visit - they might just become too popular and lose some of their charm. However, here goes.

Top of our list is San Gimignano, Italy. What a beautiful place this is. We came upon it almost by accident - we were looking for a place in Tuscany when our travel agent suggested San Gimignano. Following that recommendation was one of the best things I have done, travel-wise.

For starters, it is World Heritage listed: and that generally means quality or significance. The whole town dates from the middle ages, and is picturesque in every way. The countryside around is filled with vineyards and fields of sunflowers, and the town is perched on the crest of a hill overlooking it all. All the stereotypical features are perfectly exhibited in San Gimignano: narrow, winding cobbled streets; rough, rustic stone buildings, NO CARS (must be kept parked in a hotel garage or outside the town walls), and a very slow, easy pace. There is a couple of tiny but exceptional museums, beautiful churches, town squares, discreet souvenir shops (restricted to one street, where most of the tourists on day-trip coaches congregate), and good restaurants.

We stayed in the Hotel Leon Bianco, and had a room overlooking the square. One morning, Yvette opened the shutters and watched the town wake up. The smell of freshly baked bread and brewing coffee mingled with the quietness in the air to create one of those indefinable but memorable moments. The day before, as we wandered across one of the squares, we became aware that the noise level had dropped, and that everyone seemed to be walking quietly. There was a harpist in the shade of the arcade at the side of the square playing exquisitely wonderful music, and anyone who could hear it seemed to show the utmost respect and gratitude for the intangible gift of music. We listened for a while, then crept off to our museum destination carrying with us something extra we hadn't brought with us.

Another time, we climbed to the top of the tallest tower (there used to be 72 of them!) to look out over the town and surrounding Tuscan countryside. Wherever we went in San Gimignano it seemed as if there were a thousand tiny treasures waiting to be revealed. Time stood still, but of course it raced by all too quickly.

Of course, the whole driving experience was accentuated in this hill town. I had never driven a car with a manual transmission until I got to Italy. I learned pretty quickly (though not very well) how to basically propel the care in a forwards direction. Once it was underway I was OK, but if I stopped for ANYTHING (toll gates, traffic lights etc.) then it could take me quite a while to get going again. I think the expression is "bunny-hopping"... Well, I did more than my fair share of that in San Gimignano! The 'no cars' rule is strictly adhered to. You can ONLY drive into town to drop of luggage at your hotel. You must then either leave your car in the hotel garage or take it back outside the walls. Our hotel had a garage - and quite frankly I didn't care how much they were charging me for using it, as driving that manual car was very frustrating.

There is one set of traffic lights in San Gimignano. Because the streets are so narrow, it allows a free flow of cars in both directions by alternating which direction has the right of way. I stopped at those lights. I finally got going again after SEVENTEEN changes of lights (surely a record!). It was a pleasure to use the garage! In the morning the hotel staff got the car out for me and I could go forwards again quite happily. On our last morning, however, they got me to reverse out. I'd never reversed at all until then, and wasn't sure I could do it. The garage was little wider than the car - so my room to manoeuvre was severely limited - but I did it (eventually).

San Gimingano had a great mix of culture, history, size, ambience and memories. It is one of the best places we've ever visited. I'll never forget that experience, and I'll never again hire a manual car.

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