The mediaeval towers of San Gimignano – Aiming high in Tuscany

Mediaeval towers of San Gimignano

Suddenly, we can see the town from the bus window. Beyond some hills in the distance, skyscrapers are rising over the idyllic countryside! The mediaeval towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany are the highest buildings far and wide. And since the town of San Gimignano stands on a hill, they are visible from all the ridges and hills around.

Our bus, however, is not heading towards San Gimignano. We are travelling Tuscany on public transport and are beginning to understand why nobody else is. What looks like a couple of buses a day on a first glance at the timetable turns out to be even less. Little numbers next to the departure time indicate “Only on school days”, or “only on Saturdays during school holidays”.

On a Sunday, our best option travelling from Volterra to San Gimignano – about 20 km as the crow flies – would have taken more than 3 hours and 4 connecting buses and trains in a huge circle.

But we came up with a different solution. There’s a famous pilgrimage route to Rome passing through San Gimignano, the Via Francigena. And one of the buses leaving Volterra that day is crossing the Via Francigena! So, we took the bus towards Colle Val d’Elsa and got off at the village of Campiglia.

Some years ago, we have already hiked one leg of this famous pilgrimage route: In Switzerland, we walked from Martigny to Saint Maurice.

Onward transport to the Val d’ Orcia, where we did some fantastic Brunello wine tasting, was much easier, as it was not on a Sunday.

Hiking the Via Francigena to San Gimignano in Tuscany

Hiking the Via Francigena from Campiglia to San Gimignano

From Campiglia it is less than 10 km to San Gimignano, on a pleasant broad hiking path. We pass olive plantations, vineyards, and lovely Tuscan countryside villas. An Italian family on a weekend excursion is picking wild herbs. Walking up and down some smaller hills, we barely catch a glimpse of the mediaeval towers of San Gimignano. But when we reach the last ridge south of town and finally join the road, we get a clear view on the unique mediaeval skyline. Hiking on the Via Francigena might be the best way to approach San Gimignano, we decide.

Shortly before San Gimignano we spot an old abbey near the street and turn to have a look inside. The caretaker comes out of the church shop: Buon Giorno! Are you pilgrims? Sheepishly we must admit that we have only hiked two hours, and in the wrong direction at that! The Via Francigena is the historical route from Canterbury to Rome, passing San Gimignano from North to South.

On the main square of San Gimignano (with one of the towers)

The town of San Gimignano itself is sitting on a rocky sporn. Tall city walls with round towers and battlements protect it all around. Tuscany is a quite hilly area. Thus, even the earliest inhabitants have always settled on the hilltops, and most towns and cities have their origins in Etruscan and Roman villages. Mediaeval San Gimignano also built its city walls on the remnants of Roman walls and probably Etruscan structures.

The mediaeval towers of San Gimignano

Mediaeval towers San Gimignano

San Gimignano’s main draw are its 14 mediaeval towers. In the heyday of the city, a full 72 of these towers crowded the small area inside the city walls. The influential families built those tower houses, trying to outrival each other in status. The city then thrived until the Black Death struck in the 14th century. About half of the population died and San Gimignano never recovered from that time on, neither economically nor culturally. Therefore, its mediaeval centre remained largely intact and from the 19th century the towers of San Gimignano became a tourist destination. And since 1990 the town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View from the mediaeval tower of the Palazzo Comunale, San Gimignano

We start our sightseeing day in San Gimignano with one of the prominent stone towers. After admiring the beautiful frescoes of the Town Hall, we can climb up the 54 m high Torre Grossa. It is the tallest structure in town, and we have a good overview on the town and all the other mediaeval towers of San Gimignano.

High-rises for protection

In the so-called Dark Ages, it was apparently not enough to have strong city walls to ward off invaders. In addition, you wouldn’t know when your fellow citizens might turn on you. Most families who could afford a big house thus also built a stone tower on top. Mind you, they were not meant to have more light in the upper storeys, in a cramped downtown area! In fact, the towers practically don’t have windows at all. They added living space to the house but were mostly meant as fortifications and safe rooms in dangerous times.

Originally, many towns in the region had similar stone towers, but in most cities they were shortened and look like normal town houses now. You can climb on a tower house in the small town of Lucca in Italy. On top you will even find some trees. And the remaining towers of Bologna are some of the highest in Italy, at more than 60 m and definitely a highlight of Bologna.

Mediaeval comics in the churches of San Gimignano

A devil crushing a dammed soul in a fresco in San Lorenzo in Ponte

The tiny Old Town of San Gimignano nevertheless has a great number of old churches. Most date from the Middle Ages. And so do the frescoes remaining on the walls. We marvel at the gruesome scenes of hell and purgatory in the church of San Lorenzo in Ponte. The Duomo of San Gimignano has a separate chapel dedicated to the local saint, Santa Fina. Its walls are covered with beautiful frescoes depicting the life of Santa Fina by the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.

We have already seen stunning mediaeval paintings showing the life of Santa Fina in the museum. With dragons and action scenes it looked quite wild. But we can’t work out what exactly Santa Fina did to achieve sainthood and how the dragons figured in. It seems that due to an illness, the young Fina was unable to move anymore. For six years she lay on a plank in one position. Her mother had to leave her for hours while she went to work or beg, but Fina never complained. She died at a young age and people admired her for her strong faith.

Ice cream and wine tastings

Strolling below the mediaeval towers of San Gimignano, we enjoy Italy and its ice-cream. The master ice cream maker of the Gelateria Dondoli has won several prizes for his delicious ice cream. However, we find the prized ice cream slightly too sweet. But we do appreciate the unusual flavours here, like Rosemary or Santa Fina (with saffron and pine nuts).

In the evening we have a glass of Vernaccia in one of the numerous wine bars. Vernaccia is a type of white wine produced in the area around San Gimignano.

On the day we are leaving, we walk with our backpacks through town and out the Southern city gate of San Gimignano. Some locals elders standing there turn towards us, their faces lighting up: “Via Francígena?” But no, we are just walking to the bus station!

We had a great time in San Gimignano und would strongly recommend to visit not the big tourist town in Italy, like Florence and Milano. But also include smaller towns in your itinerary like San Gimignano or the Renaisance town of Pienza in Tuscany.

How to visit the mediaeval towers of San Gimignano

San Gimignano seen from the Via Francigena

We spent one full day exploring the small town of San Gimignano, and that was more than enough. On the other hand, spending at least one night gives you the chance to experience the town without the day trippers from Siena and Florence. We stayed outside the old town, which was considerably cheaper. It also had the bonus of a view on the mediaeval towers of San Gimignano from our room as well as from the parking area.

Travelling to San Gimignano by public transport is easiest from Siena. A direct public bus runs several times a day. If you are coming by train, you have to change to the bus in Poggibonsi.

***All expenses for our trip to San Gimignano were paid by ourselves. We did not reveive any sponsoring.***

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  1. Such a beautiful place with traditional Tuscan architecture. It’s good to know that one day in town will suffice and that you can get to it from Florence. Your recommendation of maybe staying overnight to see the town without so many tourists is a good one. I’m always happy to get up early to have a place to myself for just a little while.

    1. Dear Angela, I guess it depends how many days you have in Tuscany. If you are short on time, I would suggest doing San Gimignano as a day trip (most convenient would be from Siena). But if you want to spend a night or two in a smaller town, San Gimignano is a good place.

  2. Travelling to San Gimignano is pretty interesting for me. I can see the high towers and great to know the history behind those towers. I would love to visit San Gimignano and Siena together.

  3. I visited San Gimignano about 5 years ago with a tour company from Florence. It was unforgettable! But I prefer your idea of walking the Via Francigena to fully experience what it must have been like for those making the pilgrimage (or attacking the fortress!) centuries ago. There’s so much history wrapped up in this must-see Tuscan hill town. Next time, though, I would like to explore the city self-guided, as you did, and spend some time in a wine bar or even overnight. Thanks for the inspiration and ideas to make a return trip!

    1. Dear Jackie, yes we saw some tour groups as well. They spend only 2-3 hours and do not have much time to explore. If you are short on time it is a good possibility to see the area.

  4. We were so glad we got to visit San Gimignano as a day trip from Siena. We travelled by bus or train but if we return we might rent a car and explore more of the area. It was fascinating to learn more about the medieval towers. And of course to try yet more of the great Italian gelato! Thanks for reminding me why we need to get back to this region of Italy.

    1. Dear Linda, a car is very useful in this part of Italy. We thought about renting one too, but also wanted to do some wine-tasting (not a good idea if you have to drive).

  5. You article reminded me of my trip to San Gimignano, from when I was living in Tuscany. I go there with my small moped and explored every corner of this small town. I might have had a gelato at Dondoli as well. I didn’t go up the towers but I did admire the panorama of them from the hills around the town.

    1. Dear Joanna, going by moped must have been a lovely way to explore Tuscany. Dondoli is the gelato place right at the main square, always crowded. So it is very likely that you had ice-cream there!

  6. Love the colors of the city. And the towers add a special feel to the place. Interesting to know the history behind them. My fun activity would certainly be wine & ice-cream tasting.

    1. Dear Subashish Roy, San Gimignano is worth a stop in Tuscany. The towers give the small town a very special atmosphere indeed. The sightseeing (churches and museums) are not topnotch, but they add some interesting insights into the town`s history.

  7. The towers seem like an ancient version of skyscraper – except that in this case it is pure protection. Interesting how many of them still stand tall. Loved reading about Santa Fina and yes, I do wonder why she became a saint. Interesting read about this offbeat place.

  8. San Gimignano seems pretty charming. I would love to add that in my list and would surely not miss tasting Santa Fina ice cream. It is nice to know about the master ice cream maker there. Also, great to know it can be covered in a day’s time.

    1. Dear Shreya Saha, yes San Gimignano is a perfect day trip from Siena or even Florence. But during the day it is quite touristy. Nicer to spend the night and enjoy sunset and a glas of wine.

  9. San Gimignano sounds like the Tuscan dream vacation. With its small town charm and so much history it’s quite an intriguing spot. The medieval towers would be a big draw for me, the rustic and raw vibes of the town are worth exploring. The story of Santa Fina is interesting and the frescoes adorning the church walls is quite offbeat. Wonderful mix and very appealing, also like your writing style. 🙂

  10. That was a great tale of how you reached San Gimignano the best way through the Via Francigena. And I didn’t even know about those medieval towers, the skyscrapers of Tuscany. I am glad 14 of them are now preserved as a Workd Heritage Site.

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