The Towers of San Gimignano

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There are cross-roads and alleys along the main road leading to different parts of the city.

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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.

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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.

dsc_8955The scaled down model of San Gimignano during its heyday

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dsc_8889The Two Towers by Salvucci family

dsc_8888Piazza della Cisterna

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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.

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dsc_8922Courtyard of The Palazzo Comunale

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.

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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.

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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.

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What would you do if you were in my place?

 

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Watching the World Pass by

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I clicked this photo on a bright sunny summer day somewhere in Europe. I noticed this gentleman in the window quietly watching the world pass by, something that we yearn for all our life, and I envied him.

A train of thought ran through my mind …

Childhood is full of fun and play. Before we realize, the childhood is over. We are grown up. All our dreams of personal independence (financial and otherwise) and self-reliant living are now ready to come to reality. We want to pause and rejoice the moments of carefree childhood and quietly watch the world pass by before stepping into the next phase of our life. But the lure of personal independence has already put us on the path of working life. There is no time to pause and watch the world pass by. We keep yearning….

The working life is full of ambitions. We love, live and thrive on the ambitions. The ambition to be somebody, the ambition to reach a certain position at work place, and the ambition to reach a certain level in society. The struggle on the way is very exhausting yet fulfilling. The work always takes priority over life. Our ambitions, to reach somewhere, make us firmly believe that one who stops is finished. And so, though we want to, there is not time to pause and watch the world pass by. We continue to keep yearning….

Somewhere down many years of life, we reach the position we strive for. We have saved the money we wanted to save to buy those precious moments to pause and watch the world pass by. We are now standing in the window on a sunny summer day like that gentleman. We have nothing to achieve, nowhere to go, and nothing to live for except watching the world pass by – something we yearned all our life.

As soon as this train of thoughts flashed through, my mind transported itself into the gentleman’s body and I started watching down the window. And suddenly I received the shock of my life as I realized, that actually, I am being bypassed by the world – the world that I yearned to watch pass by! That shook me to the core and my mind was thrown back into my body.

BUT, that realization now keeps gnawing me every day.

 

High Altitude Vacations – Part II

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part I

Expect the Unexpected #1: Altitude Sickness

The first unexpected that one comes across is Altitude Sickness. It is also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). As altitude increases, the effective oxygen in air reduces. Effective oxygen at 8,000 feet is roughly 75%, at 12,000 feet it is 40% and at 18,000 feet it is half of effective oxygen at sea level.

This low levels of oxygen causes altitude sickness. It manifests itself in the form of headache, nausea, and fatigue. This is very common: some people are only slightly affected, others feel awful. But in its acute form excess fluid build on the lungs and causes breathlessness. And in its worst form fluid starts building in the brain and it causes confusion, clumsiness, and stumbling. The first signs may be uncharacteristic behavior such as laziness, excessive emotion or violence. Drowsiness and loss of consciousness occur shortly.

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Shot on the banks of Chandrataal (14,100 feet). One needs to walk about 1 km from the parking lot or about 3 km from camping ground to reach the lake. You can see young people short of breath, with heads down and/or just lying down on the banks of the lake due to altitude sickness coupled with the walk.

Altitude sickness can happen to anybody irrespective of age, sex, or physical condition. Some people get it and some people don’t. If you haven’t been to high altitude before, it’s important to be cautious. If you have been at that altitude before still it is better to be cautious.

The only cure for AMS is either acclimatization or descent. Human body has amazing ability to get adjusted to altitudes, provided we climb only 500m per day. Unfortunately, in today’s world of fast travel we invariably end up ascending more than 500m per day and give very little time to our body to acclimatize.

The alternatives to a slow 500m/day climb are –

(1) Carry a personal portable oxygen cylinder with you. Many tour operators carry oxygen cylinders with them as a precaution,

(2) Use drug like Acetazolamide (Diamox) to accelerate acclimatization. This drug is said to create conditions very similar to high altitudes conditions in our body. This helps body acclimatize faster provided Diamox is taken two days prior to the beginning of ascent.  Unfortunately, I have seen people start taking Diamox only after they start experiencing AMS and then Diamox worsens the condition. Please consult your doctor before using Diamox or any other drug. Take Diamox two days prior, if you have to. Be ready for its side-effects.

(3) Carry camphor with you. Bheemseni Camphor is the preferred variety of camphor. Keep inhaling it. How does it work? Some say it helps decongest your breathing track allowing you to take in more air, some say it attracts oxygen molecules from the air which then you inhale and some others say it’s a placebo effect. Whatever it is, I have always used camphor and it has worked for me.

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Wear a porous pouch filled with camphor pieces around your neck.

Best is to allow body to acclimatize normally by ascending at 500m per day. Talk less. Restrain yourself from exerting and running around in excitement (though it is difficult to restrain).

Expect the Unexpected #2: Medical Assistance

God forbid, no one should need medical assistance at high altitude destinations. Why? Because most of the places are in remote locations without proper medical practitioners in the vicinity. Medical facilities are available in large towns but the remote location you are in may not have it. Rushing to the nearest large town may mean a day’s arduous journey or using air ambulance. It’s doable, it’s costly, but worse is that we lose time.

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Langza village – 13,780 feet above sea level with a population of 150. (Based on the board placed by govt.) The nearest medical center is in Kaza which is 16 km away. Manali is 212 km away and Shimla is 460 km away.
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Roads and heavy traffic on road leading to Khardungla pass
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Long and winding roads that lead you to nearest large town

Many of us move around with our life-time partners like BP, Diabetes, Cholesterol, Thyroid, and so on. Carry sufficient quantity of your regular medicines with you. Make sure you make sets of your medicines according to your daily schedule and split the sets across different pieces of luggage. Luggage pieces have tendency to get lost during travel. So carry at least one set in your hand-luggage.  This set should contain sufficient medicines for entire vacation.

In case you fall short of your medicines, you may not get the same brands in the local pharmacy. Carry the prescription with you so that the local doctor or pharmacist can suggest alternate drug to you. Do not depend on calling your doctor at last moment because expect the unexpected #3.

Expect the Unexpected #3: Telephone connectivity

So you are at 14,000 feet altitude in xyz village in a homestay. You suddenly realize that you have exhausted your stock of BP pills. Your tour companions have extra stock and you can possibly borrow. But tablets are not the same. You want to consult your family doctor because there are three more days to go. You start dialing your mobile-phone only to realize that there is no range.

This situation is not a fiction. Many high altitude destinations do not have telephone connectivity – neither land line nor mobile range. In quite a few places only one mobile operator operates – BSNL – that too if it is post-paid card. (This is true as of writing this blog. Things are changing and improving over the years!!) So carry a BSNL card but do not assume you will be able to always connect. Keep your near, dear ones and, last but not the least – supervisors at work, informed that you will not be reachable for few days.

I know of a very high ranking official in 24×7 global software services organization went for vacation in Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet. He became unreachable for consultation during a crisis situation at work. On returning to work, when he faced his CEO he realized that he would have been better-off by taking refuge for life-time in one of the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet.

Expect the Unexpected #4: Electricity

Many high altitude destinations get electricity supply only for a few hours, that too if they are connected to a grid. So, you may have cell phone range but may not have electricity to charge your cell phone. So carry power banks with you.

Many villages now have solar panels installed. That generates energy to power solar lamps. But you are unlikely to find room heaters in these places.

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Solar panels at Dhankar Monastery (12,774 feet above sea level)

Read on……

High Altitude Vacations – Part III –>

 High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

High Altitude Vacations – Part III

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II

Expect the Unexpected #5: Food

You may be able to adjust with the taste and limited choices of available food at high altitude destinations. But finding food joints while you are on the road is far more difficult than finding food of your choice. For hours and hours you will find yourself travelling through mountains without any soul to feed you.

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River Chenab. You can notice the road winding down from the mountain on right and then going along the Chenab for miles and miles.
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The (one and only) food joint at Gramphu

If you are used to eating food every few hours or your life-time partners (e.g. diabetes) force you to eat at regular hours, be sure to carry food along with you. Always carry sugar packets and Gluecon-D with you. Drink enough water, if necessary add Gluecon-D to it.

Do not be shy to pack few parathas, fruits or poha right at the time of breakfast and carry them along. Your tour companions are likely to laugh at you. But don’t worry. Carry some extra food because these very folks will ask for some share of your food later on. Treat your food as your medicine.

Carry packets of ready-to-eat food products and a good aluminum thermos filled with hot water. Poha and Upma will be ready on the go in 3 minutes. For other food, you may need boiling water for 5 min. Any house on the way will offer you hot water.

Expect the Unexpected #6: Road condition

Following photographs will tell the story for themselves. Expect tyre punctures (sometimes multiple times during the day), landslide and road blocks due to various reasons. Keep slack in your schedule to accommodate all these. If you are on photography tour, you are likely to stop at multiple places on the way. Keep enough slack time for photography as well.

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On the way to Nathula Pass (14,140 feet above sea level)
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Clearing road from the debris of the landslide. You just have to patiently wait and hope that no more debris comes sliding down your way.
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India-Tibet highway. Thrilling, isn’t it?
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)

Expect the Unexpected #7: Weather

The weather can change within minutes. You may be enjoying bright sun now but you may experience sudden showers/snowfalls within next 15-20 minutes.

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You see a rainbow only when the sun and rain play hide-n-seek. Shot somewhere in Lahaul-Spiti region.
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Thick clouds approaching Khardungla pass. Rain and snowfall followed in next hour or so. The locals advised us not spend time at the pass but to start moving towards Leh at the earliest to avoid the rain and snow.

Expect the Unexpected #8: Transport

Please ensure your vehicles are in sound condition. Tyres should be suitable for mountain roads. Make sure there is fire-extinguisher available in vehicle. In one of my tours the stereo speaker in one of the vehicles blew off due to short circuit and door was on fire!! If your vehicle breaks down mid-way, there is very little that you can do except getting stranded till some rescue comes your way. The Unexpected #3 & #7 make the situation worst when you are stranded.

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On the way to Nathula pass but can happen anywhere.

Read on …..

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II