Tuscan Towns: San Gimignano

Two days full of Tuscan food, wine, agriturismo fun, and truffles!!! It’s quite a bit to fit into one little blog! San Gimignano was last on our list of Tuscan towns. This town was the one that I was looking forward to the most, and actually proved to be one of my favorites. Little did I know, it is also a major tourist stop so it was quite busy than “normal” but we didn’t let that dampen our explorations. As I mentioned before, truffle hunting was the main reason we traveled north and it was here that we found a local winery that also offered truffle hunts. So we began with truffles and the rest we just discovered as we went along!

After leaving Siena in the early evening, we drove about 40 minutes to Il Vicario-Podere di Monti, our agriturismo for the next two nights in San Gimignano. It was the cutest home, tucked away in the rolling hills, with an absolutely beautiful family running it. We arrived with just enough sunshine and warmth left in the day to take a dip in the pool. Afterwards, we freshened up a little to enjoy a deliciously prepared homemade dinner. I loved everything about this agriturismo- the hosts, the location, the beauty and simplicity, and the meals. I was extra excited (and nervous) as well because after explaining to our host that I was learning Italian, she asked if I preferred to speak in Italian for practice. How thoughtful is that?! I said yes, of course. (She said that my Italian was very good, but I think she was just being modest đŸ˜‰ )

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Sunday was a day for truffles. Yay!! After meeting one of our truffle hunting guides at the winery (who happened to be one of the son’s of the couple who owns the winery), we set off to meet the other half of our crew and helpers (the dogs). We drove about 5-10 minutes and then switched cars to ride with one of the hunters and the dogs because our vehicle was a little too low to the ground and we needed to go down some rough areas. The man couldn’t speak English super good but he was able to explain a lot about truffles, where they are found, and a little about the dogs. He also gave us a little phamplet as well. Here’s a little info we gained and fun facts to share: A truffle is a tuber-shaped mushroom, which lives in symbiosis with the roots of some plants. Three different kinds of truffles are found in the Tuscan areas: the white truffle, the biarchetto truffle or “Marzuolo,” and the black summer truffle or “scorzone.” The tool used to help the dogs dig up truffles is called a vanghino. Since it was July, we went in search of the black truffle. We took the dogs out and they taught us the commands to search for truffles and how to properly dig them out. After were shown the ropes, we were handed the tools and took a turn on our own! In just a short time we had a huge pocketful of black truffles (that they let us keep!). In the end, we were also given a gift of two medium-sized truffles with some quail eggs to take home and cook.

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A little about our new furry friends. A truffle dog is chosen mainly by its breed. In Tuscany, the most prized dog for truffle hunting is the Lagotto Romagnolo. The dogs similar to the ones that were with us can cost up to 6,000 euro! But all dogs can be trained to search for truffles. How do you train a truffle dog? First of all, you have to make the dog understand that searching for truffles is a game, not a chore. There are 3 important stages in dog training. First, at around 60 days of life, the puppy starts to be weaned from its mother and new foods are introduced. Pieces of truffle are mixed in with the new food to accustom the dog to the taste and smell of truffles. Next, after about 10 days, they begin teaching the dog how to search for truffles. They use small pieces of truffle and truffle-flavored treats to encourage the dog to locate the smell. Usually that training takes place in a meadow. Then, after about 20 days, they bury truffles in small holes. In that way the dog begins to understand that it has to dig to find the truffle. Finally, the process is repeated on natural truffle farms to get the dogs used to the natural environment.

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There are 3 rules and behaviour to follow while truffle hunting:

1.Do not damage the forest when digging up truffles. Cover all holes as this will protect the spores needed for new truffles to grow.

2. It is very important that the truffles are found and dug by the dog. When a truffle protrudes from the ground, but is not dug by the dog, it means that the truffle is not ripe.

3. The dog should be treated as a person. Remember that dogs are companions for life.

4. Respect nature and its course, without polluting it.

We ended the truffle hunting experience with nonetheless, a wine tasting and truffle culinary experience with Podere La Marronaia. Sitting outside, the vineyards stretched from the edge of the yard towards the towering outline of the city of San Gimignano. It was such a relaxing atmosphere as the brothers entertained us with various glasses of wine with many pairings of food dishes.

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The old town of San Gimignano is also known as the city of towers. There were once 72 towers here in the early 14th century. Only 16 remain standing. We visited the museum where we saw the hall where Dante delivered his speech upholding the cause of the Guelph League of Tuscan communes and a fragment of “Useppi” from the Comedies. Inside, we were able to climb over 200 stairs to reach the top of Torre Grossa for some stellar views! We ate gelato, bought some of the only white wine produced in the area (Vernaccia), walked along the city walls, brought home some saffron, and got to see some of the prettiest Tuscan balconies.

A flourishing medieval city, San Gimignano rose up in a felicitous position along the Via Francigena where it intersected with the road to Pisa. Originally under the jurisdiction of the bishops, it became a free commune in 1119. It was the start of a rapid expansion that continued into the 13th century. The city’s growth, due to the international trade, the production of saffron (then much sought after in Europe) and the financial speculation and usury, led to the formation of a rich aristocracy of traveling merchants who reinvested a part of their substantial earnings to build towers, palaces, and public works that we can still admire today. Yet this golden age did not last long. In 1315, decimated by the Black Death and continuous famines, torn by the bitter internal struggles between families, the city willfully gave itself over to Florence in exchange for help and protection. Thus began a gradual process of marginalization that allowed San Gimignano to preserve its urban plan unchanged for seven centuries. San Gimignano’s historical center is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

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City walls
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Walking the streets of San Gimignano
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Musei Civici, or the Civic Museum, can be reached by way of the picturesque 14th century courtyard richly frescoed with coats of arms and religious subjects. I fell in love at first sight. It was simply unforgettable and truly unique. The Civic Museums are divided into two sites, the first one being Palazzo Comunale with its Torre Grossa. The Palazzo Comunale itself houses two important rooms with frescoes – the first are in the Sala di Dante (since it hosted the great poet when he arrived as ambassador from Florence to help negotiate a peace treaty). The next floor has the personal chamber of the PodestĂ  showing the extraordinary scenes illustrating the snares of love by Memmo di Filippuccio painted between 1303-1310. While some parts have not resisted the march of time (the entire room is painted), the scenes are a photograph of medieval times, both their dress and societal norms, and their colors remain amazing. Across from this room begins the Pinacoteca, the city’s collection of painted panels by Sienese and Florentine artists from the 13th to 15th century who came to San Gimignanto to create. The most well-known artists here are Filippino Lippi, Bennozo Gozzoli, Benedetto da Maiano and Pinturicchio. My absolute favorite were the paintings of St. Gimignano and St. Fina who both hold and protect the town of San Gimignano in their arms.

[info: http://www.discovertuscany.com/san-gimignano/civic-museums.html ]

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Captivating entrance to Musei Civici
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The Chamber of the PodestĂ , situated within the Torre Grossa, has a fresco cycle painted by Memmo di Filipuccio in the early 14th century. One scene is traditionally (though not unanimously) thought to depict the episode of Paolo and Francesca’s stolen kiss. 

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The Palazzo Comunale: The Hall of Dante. The hall dedicated to Dante, with paintings by Azzo di Masetto depicting jousting and hunting scenes, is where Dante delivered his speech upholding the cause of the Guelph League of Tuscan communes. 

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The towers were the symbol of power. In the 13th century the wealthy local families who were often in ferocious conflict with each other would flaunt their power by having towers built; the greater the family’s power, the taller the tower, even achieving 70 meters in height (a little over 229 feet!). To limit excesses and the risk of such towers collapsing, a 1255 statute forbade the building of towers that were taller than that of the city administration (at the time, Rognosa, 51 meters in height). The most powerful families (the Ardinghelli and the Salvucci families, who were bitter enemies) managed to circumvent the law by having two towers built that when juxtaposed exceeded the limit. There were 72 towers in the early 14th century. Only 16 are still standing, but many of the former tower houses are still visible. The towers, whose upper floors were often inhabited, featured wooden balconies and outside landings. The door was almost always on the first floor, and could be reached by stairway that would be removed each night for reasons of safety. Many stories about the towers have been passed down. The Torre del Diavolo for example, was given this name by its owner who, upon returning from a journey, found that the tower had risen in height and blamed it on the devil. After walking through the Civic Museum, we were able to climb up Torre Grossa, the tallest tower in San Gimignano standing at 54 meters (about 177 feet!). And guess what… it’s a winding staircase of 218 stairs all the way up ending with a short but very steep ladder climb that will have you crawling out from underneath the bell on the roof. Watch your head! All of the towers in San Gimignano were and remain privately owned and closed to the public except for this one, which continues to be part of city hall (which still houses its public officials today).

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Tuscan specialties that we brought home from San Gimignano:

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White wine of San Gimignano

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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