Assisi and San Gimignano
Part of: The Great European Road Trip
Greetings from beautiful Tuscany! We arrived in this famous Italian region yesterday from Assisi and were really bowled over by the beauty of the countryside. Umbria was lovely but Tuscany is even better - rolling green hills covered in trees of all different shades of green, grassy meadows with red poppies, olive groves and vineyards.
We're staying in the Villa Ducci outside the hill town of San Gimignano, not too far from Siena. It's in the Chianti area, famous for its red wine and said to be the most beautiful part of Tuscany. There was a British wedding here last night, which was fun. We have a little apartment in the Villa, which is fantastic - not only do we have a lot more space than we did in Assisi, but we have a little kitchen! I have been looking longingly at all the fresh pasta for sale ever since we arrived in Italy, wishing I had a place to cook it, and now we do! We have had fresh, eggy, chewy pasta for lunch and dinner yesterday and today, along with olives, local sausage and, of course, a bottle of nice Chianti (only 5 euros in most stores).
The huge downside to our current place is the internet situation. There is no access in our room, nor can we hook up our laptop anywhere in the common area. All we have is a public computer with rather slow dial-up internet access, for 4 euros an hour.
So unfortunately this means no pictures or much blogging for the entire time we're here, which is five nights. I will try to make up for it a little when we get to our next hotel, which is a modern one in the city of Lucca, near Pisa. In the meantime, I guess I have no choice but to relax and enjoy Tuscany without worrying about homework. ;)
I did at least upload some photos of Assisi from our hotel room there - you can see them on Flickr here. Assisi was fantastic and it definitely deserves more photos and recording of memories, as does Tuscany. But a rambling summary will have to do for now.
We explored lots of great churches, nearly all of which had some association with St. Francis. The main sight is the Basilica of St. Francis, which was built shortly after his death in the 1200s and covered in frescoes depicting his life. We also visited the tomb and church of his good friend St. Clare, or Santa Chiara, and the excellent cathedral with a nice rose window and animal sculptures.
For five days we walked up and down the hilly streets and up and down the stairs to our hotel until we thought we might drop! And on our last full day, we really went all out and hiked up a mountain (along a paved road) for an hour and a half to reach the hermitage where Francis and some of his early followers hung out in caves. We thought it was just outside the walls, and then we kept walking, and walking, and walking.... But it was worth it, and helped make up for the to-die-for panna cotta I had for dessert that night. The next day (yesterday) we checked out of our hotel, which involved carrying our luggage up long flights of stairs to our parking spot by the castle! Whew.
After checking in here yesterday we went to a supermarket called Pam, which was fantastic and filled with fellow holidaymakers (mostly Italian but a few French and British) getting goodies too. It was so much fun. As you might expect, the pasta, olive, cheese and meat sections were especially large and interesting. And we found some of the hearty German bread we've been missing!
This morning we made the 25-minute walk up to San Gimignano, which is a wonderful medieval town. For one thing, it is the home of the best gelato we've had yet! And it's not just us who think so - the gelateria has won the World Gelato Championship several years in a row. They had all kinds of interesting flavors, all made with natural ingredients. YUM. It's on the Piazza della Cisterna, should you ever find yourself in San Gimignano.
But San G is mainly famous for its multiple square stone towers, which were built originally for protection during attack or fire, but later became a status symbol for local aristocrats. This was a trend in other towns too, but San Gimignano has the most still surviving - 17 of the original 45, I believe. We can see the town from our villa and it's an impressive sight - the towers look so much like skyscrapers, but made of stone. You can climb the tallest of them, but we passed today because there was a long queue to do so.
We have been battling major crowds of Italian tourists all weekend, including yesterday morning as we left Assisi. I made one last walk down to the Basilica of St. Francis to buy some books and take a few more photos, and I could hardly move for all the people! When we checked in here they told us it's because Friday was a national holiday, the Festa di Republicca. So it's a long weekend off work and an understandably popular time to take a trip.
But I digress. After exploring most of the town and enjoying our gelato, David set off back down the hill to catch the Formula 1 race while I hung around to visit some churches. Unfortunately most of them were closed for the 12-3 lunch hour, but I did have a nice tour of the Collegiata (the main church, but not a cathedral). It has a very plain facade but a fantastic interior covered in frescoes depicting scenes from the Old Testament on one wall and the New Testament on the other. Among the OT frescoes were two scenes that I've never seen depicted before - a drunken Noah exposing himself (yes, that's in the Bible!) and Eve emerging from Adam's side. Very interesting. I also visited the Museum of Sacred Art next door, which was very good. And finally, I checked out the Archaeological Museum, which mostly sucked.
After a late pasta lunch at home, we took an evening drive through Chianti. It was lovely, of course. Most of it was country driving but we also went through the small towns of Greve (didn't stop, since we couldn't find a parking spot), Radda and Castellina. All were very nice, but not spectacular. The landscape was the star!
Our plans for the three remaining days here include a trip to Siena (hill town with cathedral, churches, castle, shrine of St. Catherine) and a longer trip to two abbeys in the countryside south of Siena. Thankfully that leaves us a day to relax and rest up a little! Then we'll move on to Lucca for five nights, which will be our base for Pisa and Florence. We had some serious rain and thunderstorms our first couple days in Assisi but it has been gloriously sunny and warm ever since (mid-70s F). Hopefully it will continue!