Famed for its tourist-pleasing tilt, the Leaning Tower of Pisa attracts busloads of camera-toting tourists. However, the equally ancient but totally vertical towers of San Gimignano invite the truly curious to explore a preserved medieval community
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION San Gimignano is in Tuscany, Italy, 47 miles (75 km) southeast of Pisa
DATE OF CONSTRUCTION
HEIGHT The Torre Grossa is 177 ft (54 m) high PURPOSE Defence and status symbols
Unlike the bustling conurbation of Pisa, San Gimignano closes its gates to the modern world. Both car and 21st-century attitudes must be left outside as you enter this charming hilltop town with its deep medieval roots. Named after the Bishop of Modena credited with saving the town from marauding Huns in the 10th century, this turreted Tuscan gem elevates rather than entertains.
Situated on the Via Francigena route to Rome (see pp96–7), San Gimignano emerged and flourished for centuries as a waypoint for pilgrims on their journey to the Holy City. But increasing prosperity and a growing desire for autonomy demanded fortification, and the first defensive towers were built. By the beginning of the 13th century San Gimignano was a powerful and independent community, and its wealthy (and feuding) families vied with one another in the construction of ever taller tower-houses, to protect them from threats from without and within the city.
For medieval pilgrims headed to Rome, San Gimignano was an architectural anomaly in the rich farmland of Tuscany. Its 72 towers created an almost metropolitan skyline on the hill overlooking the Elsa valley, a sight which must have been both awe-inspiring and fear-inducing for weary travelers.
Sadly, the autonomy of San Gimignano was destroyed in the mid-14th century, in part due to its strategic location. Waves of the Black Plague pandemic ravaged the once-populous town, wiping out over two-thirds of the residents and leaving behind a destabilized society. In its weakened state it soon fell under the control of nearby Florence, and its power and status faded fast.
The period of domination by Florence, and later by Siena, saw many of the mighty towers tumble from neglect, and San Gimignano drifted further into obscurity. But it was this fall from grace that saved the town from losing its medieval Tuscan charm.
The Torre Grossa, nearly as tall as the tower in Pisa, but without the slant, dominates the town and is the only one of the 14 remaining towers that can be ascended. A climb up its stairs transports you back in time, as the view from the top reveals an ancient patchwork of carefully tended vineyards and farmlands spread across the Elsa valley.
The palaces, churches, and squares within San Gimignano give a sense of what city life must have been like in its heyday. The Piazza della Cisterna, for example, with a public well in the center, has been a gathering place for over 1,200 years. A visit to the town’s museums offers insights into its cultural heritage and, in June, the Feria delle Messi festival brings knights, acrobats, and medieval musicians to its streets. But your first glimpse of its tower- crowned hilltop is a thrill that you will never forget.
FORGET THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA?
THE BUILD-UP There is an inexplicable fascination with anything that is large and unstable, and in the case of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, people have been gathering and gawking for over 800 years. Bonano Pisano, commissioned in 1173 to design a bell tower to accompany the cathedral next door, never intended for it to lean. But only a few years into the construction, the foundations began to sink on one side.
THE LETDOWN By 1990, the tower was in real danger of collapsing and structural engineers were brought in to stabilize it. Even though the tower itself is an architectural and historical marvel, its celebrity status depends on its appearing to be on the verge of collapse, so the engineers anchored the tower at the best possible angle in order for this iconic structure to continue drawing huge crowds of visitors.
GOING ANYWAY? If you don’t want a long wait for one of the limited places on a guided walk up the tower, buy a ticket in advance. To miss the crowds and get a clear photo of the tower, try to visit early in the day.
Getting There and Around The closest international airport is at Florence (43 miles/70 km).
Poggibonsi is the nearest station (15 mins by bus). Trains and buses run there from Florence and Siena. From Pisa airport (45 miles/73 km), car rental is preferable to rather complicated public transportation. The drive is quite slow but very scenic.
Where to Eat Housed in a 14th-century building between the Duomo (cathedral) and the Piazza della Cisterna, Ristorante Dorando, with its vaulted ceilings and stone walls, hung with works by local artists, makes the perfect setting in which to experience the very best of Tuscan cooking.
Where to Stay Set in a palace dating back to the 12th century, and ideally located in the heart of town overlooking the Piazza della Cisterna on one side and the Elsa valley on the other, Hotel Leon Bianco has lovely double rooms from US$110.
When to Go The town is busy almost all year, but it’s best to avoid the peak summer and weekend crowds.
The many summer festivals are great fun but the narrow streets get packed with revelers.
Budget per Day for Two
US$180–250 depending on choice of accommodations and dining.