San Gimignano! (aka Medieval Disneyland) and why we go where we go…

San Gimignano is extremely close to Florence. Really less than 1.5 hours away, perfect for a day trip. And it is STUNNINGLY lovely, with a few spectacularly intact Medieval towers:

the towers in the distance.

The teeny city is surrounded by the classic and tranquil Tuscan hills that thousands of postcards and stressed Americans’ dreams are made of. I was there this past Saturday trudging though the steady rain (that only cleared as our bus was pulling out of town). Note I said bus, because it takes not just one, but two busses to arrive in San Gimignano from Florence. You can manage with only one bus if you take a train as well; either way you are thoroughly at the mercy and whim of the Italian public transport system. Once you’ve made it there, you find, perhaps to your surprise that this very small, relatively remote town is not the haven from tourists that you imagined, but rather, is pretty packed with them. Not with Americans though, who seem to safely stay on the well worn path of the trifecta (Florence, Venice, Rome), but with Germans and a few Brits tossed in too. But overwhelmingly, the language you overhear in San Gimignano is German. This lead me to wonder (warning: generalizations ahead) about why and how certain cultures might gravitate towards certain places and why it seemed that Americans were disinclined to visit such a spectacular sight.

a few of the towers seen from a little park directly behind the city center.

It occurs to me that perhaps Americans don’t really go there BECAUSE of the multiple forms of transport required to reach it. In the States it is extremely rare for an individual to gain or have facility with public transport. Unless an American lives in a larger city on the East Coast, it is unlikely that he or she even has a public transport system of any measurable utility in their town at all. Growing up in the middle of the country, aside from the school bus, I didn’t ride a public bus until… I was probably in my early twenties. I didn’t ride a train until my mid-twenties. And I know that my experience with public transport is hardly unique.

another view from the little park

In this way, many Americans (including myself) are at a severe disadvantage when travelling in Italy and Europe more generally. There are lots of places, San Gimignano included, that are very much worth seeing: for their beauty, for their ugliness, for their differences from anything else you’ve ever seen before. The entire community of San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage site, because it is truly singular in the entire world. And two busses keep many, many, many people from seeing it. The Medieval period definitely gets second (or I dunno, ninth?) billing in Italy. The Renaissance, the Classical, and Baroque periods have their dramatic remnants splashed all over the major destinations. Aside from some Palazzi in Venice, the Medieval period is in a lot of ways a blank in terms of the American touristic experience of the country, which is a shame because its remains are every bit as spectacular as any gothic cathedral in France.

the thoroughly medieval courtyard of the Palazzo Communale (city hall) of San Gimignano

Seemingly though, this layer of Italy’s history goes largely unexplored, primarily because it is a little more difficult to access and it hasn’t been deemed culturally essential, as prescribed by our guidebooks and websites. For most Americans Italy = Classical ruins and Renaissance/Baroque art. Medieval stuff is for France. Britain too, maybe. If my German were better I would buy a guidebook in that language, or even broader: maybe a guide in Arabic. Or wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what is deemed culturally essential to see by the Japanese or Brazilians when they visit Italy (or practically anywhere non-English speaking)? Some things: the David in Florence, the Vatican Museums, San Marco in Venice, are almost certainly trumpeted in all guides. But maybe completely utilitarian cultural differences, like common knowledge of public transport, circumscribes our understanding of a different place to the extent of excising an entire epoch.

And yes, the first and last pictures of this post were taken from the bus.

San Gimignano is in the very, very far distance here.

2 thoughts on “San Gimignano! (aka Medieval Disneyland) and why we go where we go…

  1. It wasn’t until my fifth time spending more than a month in Siena that I finally got around to visiting San Gimignano this spring – and loved it. So glad you went! You didn’t mention it, but I hope you tried the gelato. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your blog (glad I’m not the only one who hates flying) and I look forward to meeting you in a few weeks!

    1. Thanks Carolyn! I did try the gelato– that place is amazing. I look forward to meeting you too and good luck with your last preparations; packing is the worst! (Sorry for the delayed reply, I’m still figuring out how to work this thing, and I think I replied in a way that you weren’t notified before, so I’m trying again now. But I definitely appreciate your comment!)

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