And the winner of the prize for the best hill-town in central Italy…
If you’re driving down from Pisa on S429, the drive into town on a winding road through Chianti country is beautiful. There are a number of parking areas around the city. I did the obvious, settled in the first available space without any consideration of how far I actually was from the city gate. It turned out to be only five minutes up the hill and we entered through the Porta San Matteo. At the other end of the city is a larger lot (where the tour buses park) and entry is through the Porta San Giovanni. Regardless through which gate you arrive, you will walk to the other through the streets which are named for the gates.
In the middle is the Piazza Duomo. The walk to that point from either end is a walk through a tourist mecca. There are artists, artisans, restaurants and souvenir traps. It may be the busiest little village in Italy.
Perhaps you should start your visit at Tourist Information in the Piazza Duomo, which features an exchange and information on combined ticket purchases. Next to it, the duomo, actually the Collegiate, is well worth the 3.50 Euro price of admission. It is a three-nave church that has been entirely covered with frescoes. Light streams through plain windows high up in the vaults of the church. The steps to the chancel are a handsome red marble and the chancel itself is surrounded by eight side chapels.
One of the side chapels is dedicated to Santa Fina, the patron saint of San Gimignano. The story says that she had devoted herself for five years in detention in prayer when she disobeyed her mother’s orders. (She had been told not to accept an apple from a male suitor.) Her remains are apparently in the chancel.
The most powerful fresco in the church is at the rear. It depicts St. Sebastian pierced with arrows… a lot of arrows. Of course, a beatific, somewhat enigmatic expression remains on his face. The frescos are the work of a number or medieval artists – the result is quite enjoyable.
The second site in the Piazza Duomo is the Civic Museum in the Palazzo Communale Pinacoteca and the Torre Grossa. One ticket… 5 Euros gets everything. While you’re picking up your ticket you might consider getting an audio guide for the whole town. I tried it but found it all a little confusing and didn’t use it much. The museum in the palazzo brings together two things: the building itself is beautiful with its frescoed walls and old council hall. In the pinacoteca or picture gallery are religious works and altar pieces of a number of 14th and 15th century Tuscan artists.
The Torre Grossa is a must-do. It is the tallest of the square’s seven remaining towers. The first few steps are awkward tile but after that, a modern steel-grate stairway will take you to the top. (Don’t hit your head on the bell cage) From the terrace at the top of the tower you will have amazing views far into the countryside of Tuscany.
There are a number of other civic museums and sites in the town… use your judgment, but you are more likely to be distracted by the town's many little shops.