Think Italy – San Gimignano
Italy is a nation rich in history, boasting a culture brimming with culinary pleasures and a coastline that is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean. This country grew in the shadow of diversity and age-old rivalries persist even today between the cities. A resident of Rome considers themselves a Roman and a Florentine a product of Tuscany before ever making the admission of being Italian. For the traveller, this can present a very rewarding, endless field of interest.
The region of Tuscany stretches to almost 23,000 square meters and houses a population of close to 4 million residents. Histrionically it has been credited as the true birthplace of the Renaissance and some of the most influential artists and scientist of that era called this region home.
We came to San Gimignano following a recommendation from a friend and flew into Pisa airport on the first leg of our trip. Flights to this part of Italy are well catered for, whatever your budget and whether you want cheap and cheerful or something a little more luxurious, most carriers and major airports in the UK cover it as a destination. It’s a two hour flight so we went with the rationale that price was certainly a factor.
We sourced our flights via BravoFly, using their “best-price” tracking facility, a simple process allowing us to see every flight out and back on our selected dates. Booking was simple and made in seconds on the Internet and we eventually went with Ryanair.
In recent times the budget airline industry has received a lot of “flack” for its additional charges but in fairness, additional costs are clearly outlined and though I approached the experience with a degree of trepidation I was pleasantly surprised. Boarding was quick, both the outbound and return journeys arrived on time and with just hand luggage, getting from the plane to the terminal was fast and uncomplicated.
It is also worth noting that Florence may be a better alternative for some travellers but we went with Pisa because the flights proved better value. Wherever you decide to stay in Tuscany, a car is essential. Towns and cities are spread across a vast area and although train and bus services are very reliable – and also cheaper than here in the UK – not everywhere can be accessed by public transport.
Where possible, book your car online before you leave as the prices are much more competitive and over half of what you will expect to pay at the airport desk. Additionally, even if you book and pay for your car online with a debit card, you will need a credit card to collect the vehicle since a holding deposit is required – something that varies between companies and is also affected by the length of your rental. Without one, you will not be able to take away your car, even if you have paid for it fully in advance.
Again, BravoFly offered us the opportunity to book our car travel with the flights, saving us the hassle of hunting around separately for a vehicle.
As a guideline, travelling to San Gimignano by train will take you around 2 hours but this only gets you to the small town of Poggibonsi, which is still around 13 kilometres away. From here you need to get a bus. They come fairly regularly during peak hours but are less frequent in the evenings. The entire trip costs about 13 Euros each way.
A cab from Poggibonsi will set you back in the region of 10-15 Euros and to get from the airport you are looking at anything up to 100 Euros.
If you are intending to stay in San Gimignano itself, there are hotels and apartments available, but some can be expensive and the more popular are booked up quickly.
In the last few decades, Tuscany has proven a popular destination for British and American investors looking to purchase a holiday home and the redevelopment that has taken place has rejuvenated the area. Tourists now have a host of options, from small but well equipped apartments and converted farmhouses to huge castles and estates capable of housing several families under one roof.
Specialist holiday company Tuscany Now, who have decades of experience in the rental property market are well worth considering in this regard. Their portfolio of privately owned villas are tailored to suit all budgets so whether you want something functional and accessible or luxurious and expansive, you’ll discover everything you could wish for.
They found us a beautiful villa about 6 kilometres from the town, called Rosso Fiorentino, a name it no doubt acquired thanks to its red washed front walls that make it stand out from a distance.
This tastefully converted house was lovingly restored by its owners, Marco and Deborah and features everything you could expect from a luxury villa to make your Tuscan stay as enjoyable as possible.
With four bedrooms, ample living space, a swimming pool, gym, hot tub and even your very own pizza oven on the patio (owner Marco made us some traditional pizzas on the evening we arrived which were divine) there’s everything you need to unwind in the sun.
There’s even a chef-for-hire if you don’t fancy the cooking one evening who can prepare you a traditional Tuscan meal.
We attempted to walk into San Gimignano from Rosso Fiorentino and it was a pleasant if slightly precarious experience since some of the journey is on the side of narrow and winding roads that are barely able to take a single car. In total it took us 45 minutes.
San Gimignano itself is a spectacle to behold, perched on a hill and visible from a distance. It features several restaurants of varying standards, most of which are there to cater for the many tourists who visit every year. Although you can find one or two good restaurants I would suggest looking a little out of town in some of the smaller villages where you can traditional food made for the locals.
One thing it does without equal is make the best ice cream you are ever likely to taste. The Gelateria di Piazza San Gimignano is a must for anyone that appreciates fine ice cream and they have won the World Championships for ice cream several years in a row.
The town also boasts not one but two museums of torture and the theme is very much in keeping with the narrow winding alleys and streets that make up the walled town and can be quite spooky in at night. Around every turn there is another eatery or store and some of the higher points provide excellent views of the Tuscan landscape below.
Shows and plays are regularly performed in the summer on the various squares and even late at night, locals and visitors mingle till the early hours. There’s a sense of being locked away in world all of your own when you pass through the open gates into this walled paradise, with its iconic towers and ancient churches.
There’s also a sense of contentment and safety as you walk leisurely through the markets and piazzas, something that cannot often be said for many places these days.
Even in such modern times, San Gimignano presents a simpler, more natural way of life and after just a few hours in the company of this visually impressive town, you too begin to feel it.
Away from the madness of the city and the fast pace of 21st Century living, this is one Tuscan gem that is sure to ease away all thoughts of the real world and transport you to a place and time you won’t want to leave.
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George R Vaughan