Have you seen a time machine or made a time travel back into history? Do you believe that such a thing exists! Yes, there exists a time machine in Italy. You have to see it to believe it. It is in a place called San Gimignano in the province of Siena, Tuscany, Italy. The visit to the town called San Gimignano takes you back to the middle ages. And then you never want to come back. This UNESCO World Heritage town is a representative town of 10-15th century and it is preserved in pretty much the same state.
So come along for a virtual tour of San Gimignano, You will yearn to go if you have not been there yet. You will surely pine for it, if you have already been there.
The walled city of San Gimignano dates back to the middle ages. Its existence began as an Etruscan village from 3rd century. It was saved from Attila the Hun by the bishop of Modena, San Gimignano, and therefore the city was named after him. The city prospered because of its location on the “Via Francigena” which was the major pilgrimage route to Rome from France and the north as far away as Canterbury. San Gimignano was a prominent resting place for the pilgrims.
There are eight entrances into the city which date from the 12th and 13th centuries. You are standing at the main gate called Porta San Giovanni.
This gate was built during the 13th century and its peculiarity is the external segmental Arch that is surmounted by a guardroom that is supported by six trilobated hanging arches. You will also notice a small bell tower of a 16th century church, “La Madonna dei Lumi” just behind the gate.
On the left side of the gate you see the part of a fortress. It was dismantled in the 16th century and stands as the ruins in current date.
Let’s enter the town.
On entering the gate, you start walking on the stone paved main road “Via San Giovanni”. The road is wide enough to allow two horse-carts pass side-by-side comfortably and also allow people to walk on the sides of the road at the same time. But the road appears narrow due to tall stone-built houses on both sides of the road.
The houses do not leave any space between them and give us the impression of walking on a road enclosed by giant stone walls on both the sides. Albeit the stone walls have arches in the bottom and shuttered windows above them. What lies behind these arches and windows is something that tired pilgrims of Middle Ages must be eagerly waiting for – a place to eat, drink, sleep and shop.
There are cross-roads and alleys along the main road leading to different parts of the city.
They have steps, archways and distinct road lamps. Though very tempting, we are not going a take turn into any of the alleys to explore them. We are walking straight to the city center.
The towers that you see at the end of the road is where the city center is.
San Gimignano is also known as the city of towers. The city has an interesting history of towers. As mentioned earlier, the small town of San Gimignano lies conveniently on one of most important medieval pilgrimage routes. Its inhabitants exploited the situation well. The constant influx of pilgrims made them quickly rich. And then, as always, the families of San Gimignano wanted to show off their wealth to the world. Though they desired to build palaces, the town did not have enough space to do so due to densely constructed houses within the surrounding walls. But the rich families found a way out.
In medieval times a tower was the symbol of economic power, mainly because the building process was not simple or cheap at all. So the rich families turned toward building towers over their houses instead of building palaces. And then began the competition among the merchant families for building higher and higher stone towers over their houses. At the peak of competition there were 72 towers in San Gimignano of which only 14 now remain. The competition reached such ludicrous height that the city council made a law to forbid building a tower taller than the main communal one, known as Torre Rognosa. To bypass this law, merchant families built two towers next to each other. Though each tower was shorter than “Torre Rognosa”, when added together the height of two towers was more than Torre Rognosa!! Thus they went on to prove that they had enough wealth.
Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at those towers and the houses of those rich merchants.
Piazza della Cisterna is the most beautiful square of the town. It was originally lined with workshops and taverns. In the middle there is an octagonal travertine well that gives the name to the square. The well was built in 1273 and enlarged in 1346 by Podestà Guccio dei Malavolti.
The Palazzo Comunale (Municipal palace) of San Gimignan has been the seat of the civic authority in the comune since the 13th century. It is located on the Piazza del Duomo close to the Collegiate Church. The building and Collegiate Church are at the heart of the medieval town, and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Historic Centre of San Gimignano”. The building contains important fresco decorations.
Well, Well. Now that we have reached the heart of medieval town, it is time to return. Like all shows, this time-machine show also has to come to an end. If you can afford you can opt for a detailed version of this show by choosing to stay in this town for at least one full day if not two.
I had to leave and here is one shot on my way back to Porta San Giovanni from where my tour started.
My heart was dying to go back and live those medieval times as long as I can. But the constraints of reality were pulling me outside the walls of San Gimignano.
I step outside the walls of the town and I look around. And I witness the insanely beautiful Tuscan vistas all around me.
And then the Shakespearean debate started playing on my mind. To be, in the beautiful reality of Tuscan landscapes and explore them further; or not to be, and return to the medieval times and explore the towers of San Gimignano, further and further.
What would you do if you were in my place?