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Best Views of San Gimignano Are From a Back Road

January 24, 1988|RICK MASHBURN | Mashburn is a free-lance writer living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

SAN GIMIGNANO, Italy — We hadn't planned to stay on a farm in Italy until we learned every hotel was booked to capacity.

It was the big break of our trip.

Liberation Day was being celebrated and bells in the 15 towers were striking. The town was in a holiday mood and San Gimignano was unbearably crowded. Everything was booked, the desk clerks told us again and again. " Tutti " (full) they said with a grand gesture that seemed to encompass every bed between Switzerland and Sicily.

Deciding that the walled, medieval town of San Gimignano was best viewed from the distance anyway, we headed for lower ground. In Tuscany, however, all roads eventually go up. Atop another hill we saw an old woman by the side of the road where she was cutting flowers.

We used our broken Italian and she pointed with her sickle, nearly slicing off a nose. We soon found ourselves settling into a three-bedroom apartment with real paintings on the walls, chintz-covered furniture and a fireplace almost big enough to stand in.

We canceled the rest of the plans we'd made for our trip; there was no reason to go anywhere else.

Rolling Landscape

The view alone was enough to keep us occupied for weeks. In all directions we found a rolling landscape covered with olive trees and grapevines. Tall, thin cypresses rose like exclamation marks for our declarations of appreciation.

Here and there sat a farmhouse, a villa or a church. And most remarkably, San Gimignano lay quietly on the western horizon, where a sinking red sun turned it into a silhouette in the evening.

Closer at hand were lilacs, irises and poppies in bloom. The ruins of a 1,000-year-old chapel lay to one side of our hosts' residence, and on the other side was a formal garden dotted with lemon trees in terra cotta pots.

Best of all were our hosts, especially Cesare, a man in his mid-20s who gave up his career in accounting to take over the family farm.

Lean and tanned, as curly haired as a Roman statue, Cesare seemed to take a liking to us. And it wasn't just because we gave him an opportunity to practice English, although we did happen to be the first English-speaking people ever to stay in one of the three flats he'd fixed up. He keeps them rented through a Swiss agency, so the guests tend to speak German or French.

Surely, we told ourselves, he doesn't take all his guests to see his friend's house, a former monastery with Latin phrases set in tiles all along the outside walls. Surely he doesn't bring everyone eggs in the morning, eggs so freh they're still warm from the nest.

"Turn here," he said on one of our drives. "This is the back road to San Gimignano. It has the best view of the town. The tourists don't know about it." In Cesare's hands, we were tourists no longer.

At his recommendation we stifled our first impression of Colle Val D'Elsa, only briefly mentioned in our guidebooks.

We ventured to the old part of the town to find the most thoroughly evocative streetscape of our trip: quiet alleys that turned into tunnels and back into streets; old women dressed in black, standing in doorways chatting among themselves and petting their cats. The women stared at us as if they'd never seen a tourist.

Cheering Piazza

The farm was ideally situated for various day trips. We spent a Sunday afternoon on the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where every man and boy in town seemed to be listening to a soccer match on the radio.

The piazza would fill with a deep roar of cheers whenever the local team scored a goal.

But we felt no urgent need to keep exploring. We lingered for hours over our morning coffee and eggs, which we took outside to a table overlooking the hills. We became attached to the pig, who always greeted our "bon giorno " (good morning) with robust heartfelt squeals.

The late April days were pleasantly warm, and nights were just cool enough for a fire. As we watched the flames and drank Cesare's own Chianti, a nightingale serenaded us from a tree in our courtyard. Its bold, clear song will always conjure Tuscan evenings for me.

One day Cesare gave us a tour of the winery under his house, among the foundations of a centuries-old monastery.

He showed us the secret cellar of the monks, recently discovered when a piece of equipment fell through the stone floor. Proudly he showed us the huge wooden vats that held the wine made by his grandfather, then his father, and which now hold his own wine.

"It's not the best Chianti made in this area," Cesare said, "but it's almost the best."

We never did any farm work but began to feel the rhythms of the place.

We saw Cesare's grandmother everywhere, silently hoeing the blossoming peas and the budding artichokes, hanging out laundry, creeping up on the rabbits to grab their hind legs and feel how plump they had become.

Cesare's beautiful, long-legged sister worked in the nearby town. We heard her taking off in the mornings and saw her in curlers at the end of the day.

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