Last week was Fidz’s birthday and his birthday treat was a two day trip to Tuscany with an overnight stay in San Gimignano. This turned out to be more of a treat for me as he knows Tuscany quite well whereas I’ve only driven through it on previous occasions but he was keen to make this trip. We set out after breakfast and drove to Bagno Vignoni for lunch, a gorgeous spot on top of a hill which has hot springs dating back to Roman times and which is now a spa. The views from the outdoor pool and hot spring at the spa hotel were wonderful and we both decided tht this would be a venue for our next treat! The Tuscan countryside is truly beautiful with rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves and vinyards. What better way to enjoy this than lying in a hot spring on top of a hill?
San Gimignano is a walled town with narrow streets and is closed to traffic like many medieval towns in Italy. We had to park the car outside the walls and join the throng of tourists going through the city gates to get to our hotel on the main Piazza (Piazza Cisterna) at the top of the hill. Our hotel room overlooked the Piazza and it was fun just watching the tourists milling about the well in the middle. There are several tall towers in the town which offer stupendous views over the surrounding countryside.
To our surprise, in addition to the more conventional sites like the cathedral and museum, we came upon a gallery of contemporary art which was exhibiting works by several artists of international fame and we found out that there is a thriving contemporary art scene in San Gimignano. There was an installation by Anish Kapoor in a small medieval tower as well as one by Luciano Fabro which you can see jutting out over the street to the right in this picture (actually much larger than it seems in this image). It was fascinating to take a walk through the town and see the juxtaposition of medieval and contemporary at various locations.
Dinner was at a homely family-run restaurant where we had ribollita, a hearty soup made with vegetables and breadcrumbs followed by cingiale (wild boar). Not exactly food for spring but the weather here has been cold for this time of year and it was quite chilly. Luckily, when we woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace.
After a leisurely drive via Monteriggione, another beautiful, medieval, garrison town with 14 towers we got to Sienna. Again, the historic centre is closed to traffic so we parked outside the town and walked to the Piazza del Campo, a vast semi-circular Piazza where there are equestrian races, the ‘Palio di Siena’ held twice a year. Ten riders representing 10 of the 17 contrade (city wards) in Siena, dressed in the colours representing the contrada, race bare-backed around the Piazza. Must be an awesome sight and apparently featured in The James Bond movie ‘Quantum of Solace’ which I now want to see! We spent most of the afternoon in Siena’s spectacular Duomo with its associated museum. After a while, I get saturated with seeing art so it was nice to climb up the tower of the museum and see panoramic views of the city. Unfortunately, we then had to dash back to the car as our ticket was running out so we didn’t get a chance to see the other sights but its always nice to leave something for the next time!
We took the scenic route back to Rome through a less travelled part of Tuscany called Crete Senesi, an area of clay hillocks which is more barren (though no less beautiful) than the rest of Tuscany. Here you see fields of poppies and wild lupins with cypress trees planted in long rows as windbreaks. Milk from the sheep which graze here is used to produce pecorino cheese. We really lucked out with the weather as it only started to rain when we go back on the autostrada to Rome. Here in Rome, the weather is unseasonably cold and wet. We are walking around with coats and umbrellas except for the poor tourists who likely came with hopes of sunshine and are shivering in shorts.