Sarah’s Tuscany: San Gimignano

For the next three weeks, I will continue to publish a suite of stories I wrote about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. It began as an experiment in writing in the second person, just to see if I could sustain it through one story…then two, then more. You decide if I was successful.

By Sarah White

The guide book had this to say: “The thirteen towers that dominate San Gimignano’s majestic skyline were built by rival noble families in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries . . . street by street it remains mostly medieval. For a small town, San Gimignano is rich in works of art, good shops, and restaurants.” You found all that to be true. It might have been Disneyland, so nicely did everything conform to the expectations of an American visitor.

Un turista inquieta. If welcome, one feels like a crop to be harvested; if unwelcome, an intruder. Either way, there is the idleness to contend with. Everyone around is engaged in professional activity: waiting tables, making crafts, ringing up sales. Only tourists find themselves with no tool in hand except a wallet. It can be unsettling if one arrives shouldering the American work ethic. But San Gimignano–on the last warm Sunday afternoon in autumn–is to

But San Gimignano–on the last warm Sunday afternoon in autumn–is to turismo what Cooperstown is to a baseball fan. It could not feel more right to be driving up to the walled town, parking the car outside the walls,and  stopping for a quick beer in a cafe just opening as the tower bells announce noon.

All around you flows an incoming tide of people. A quarter of them are speaking Italian; the others German, English, French. Tour guides are jabbing their furled umbrellas at the sky, trying to harness the flow. Through the city gate you go, and follow Via San Giovanni as it rises.

The Tuscan custom of building towns on hills began as an inconvenient necessity. But it offers several advantages to the newcomer: among them is the ease of navigation among the wrinkly tangle of streets. The most important edifice will be at the highest point. The best piazza will stand in front of that. And the way back to your car will never be difficult to find: just allow yourself to trickle down.

You are in no hurry to find out what is at the top here. Take your time, admire the merchandise, or the well-dressed tourists around you. Italian couples have outfitted their 5-year-olds in expensive leather jackets that will fit for maybe six months. Such extravagance! You Americans look like big children, in your sweatshirts and running shoes. The Italian children are vivacious little adults.

Something catches your eye–a cascade of eyes, or rather, empty eye sockets cascading down the thrown-open doors of a little shop. Inside, expressionless ceramic faces dominate one wall, while wild harlequins and witches and fairy princesses and green men –of wood and clay and painted leather–decorate another. Some are made to cover the whole face, others just strips across the eyes. What are they for? Accessories to what Italian rituals, ancient or modern? Are they simply interior decoration? Impossible to discern.

There is one you must have: a tumble of painted leaves in reds and golds across dark leather, a perfect souvenir of Tuscan autumn. “Posso pagare con carta di credita?” You get the phrase out without a hitch, even a satisfying roll to the R’s, a triumph for an Indiana Hoosier who’s learning from Berlitz. Scott has been lurking behind, to see if you need help with the language. Outside, he congratulates you and you feel an absurd swell of

Scott has been lurking behind, to see if you need help with the language. Outside, he congratulates you and you feel an absurd swell of pleasure, as if handing over a credit card and signing a slip in a foreign language constituted an important step toward world peace. A few steps further Jim disappears into a

A few steps further Jim disappears into a pasticceria, a long tunnel of a shop, brightly lit and dominated by a pastry case running the full length of one wall. In it the tiny cookies and cakes are marshaled like squadrons on parade. Rank and file of sugar bombs. Cunning little fool-the-eye marzipan bites pretend to be strawberries, cherries, pears, bananas. Jim the baker has to buy a little of everything, and with Scott translating he asks for details about each. The moment grows into a dramatic production. You walk away clutching your bag of goodies like a playbill after the theater. But enough of the “good shops” of San Gimignano. Guiding yourselves, you come to a piazza with a well, which opens onto another, where steps lead up to yet another, and here a man is playing a flute duet with a boombox—a kind of instrumental

But enough of the “good shops” of San Gimignano. Guiding yourselves, you come to a piazza with a well, which opens onto another, where steps lead up to yet another, and here a man is playing a flute duet with a boombox—a kind of instrumental karaoke. A small group has gathered. You keep ascending. At the highest point, you find a door, an entrance at which you all pay admission to climb the highest of the famous thirteen towers. You hurry up the many flights, round and round the square interior. But Jim never has liked heights, and he stops when you reach the last stage, where the wooden flights are replaced with open iron steps. You share some of the cookies in an unanticipated Last Supper. Then Scott and you take the final flights alone and burst out of the last confine into the open terrace.

The view unfolds. Infinite!

sangimignano
Red tiled roofs roll in all directions, following the ridgetops. Cut into them are canyons where streams of pilgrims babble over the stones. Beyond the city walls, vineyards are lapping.

Back down you go, warm from the climb. You burst into the sunny piazza, now at its hottest. Another street draws you out of the piazza, to duck into a little restaurant for a glass of wine and a chance to sit down. Il Vecchio Granaio says the sign over the entrance.

A waitress seats you in a small room, containing a little round table with a bench hugging the walls. What is this womb-like vault? Scott asks the waitress, a sullen girl clumping by in high stack heels. “You’d have to ask the owner,” she says.

As you leave, Jim gets it. “Granaio. A granary.” You’ve been drinking the local Vernaccia in a converted grain-storage vat. Never find that back home.

 

San Gimignano of the towers and tunnels, a haphazard collection of warm prongs thrusting sunward, cool interiors receptive below. There is something erotic about the place, and in that charged air, without a word, the politics of three is established for the duration of your trip. The equilibrium of this triangle will be its strength. Half drunk on wine and sun, you amble back down the main street now packed with new arrivals heading upward. As you drive away in a golden evening light, you realize why they are showing up so late: the view of the coming sunset from that hilltop will be spectacular.

Half drunk on wine and sun, you amble back down the main street now packed with new arrivals heading upward. As you drive away in a golden evening light, you realize why they are showing up so late: the view of the coming sunset from that hilltop will be spectacular.

Turn around? Tempting.

But you are headed back to the villa and to its fireplace, with a mate and a friend and a bag full of souvenirs. More of that cool white wine awaits you, more glasses made dark with the local reds. Leave San Gimignano at sunset to the lovers.

You three will drink a toast to them tonight, satisfied that if they are lucky–someday–they will know a fellowship as happy as this.

(c) 1997 Sarah White. Tune in next week for the next installment…on to Florence!

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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