To San Gimignano. Early. I’ve long wanted to go there. We missed a chance in 1995 when our New Zealand contingent (minus us two who stayed at Chiesetta for peace as much as any other reason) went to visit the Rocca del Macie winery in Castellini in Chianti and paid a side trip to the town of towers. When they returned they spoke more of some museum of torture than anything else but I long ago shed any curiosity about man’s inhumanity to man and I shan’t even give it a passing glance.
It takes us just two-and-a-half hours to get there from Barga via the autostrade but although we arrive early enough, at 8.10, the town approaches are already crowded with tourist coaches. The inadequate carparks outside the walls are full. We watch as streams of zombified visitors file through the town gate. Unwilling to join them we decide to turn away and do a tour of the purlieus in the hope that we’ll get a better feel for how the towers make the town. Mauve heat deadens the colours of the distant views as I take photographs across the outlying valleys and over the rows of vines that surround the walls and radiate like dull green corduroy down from the eminence, giving tremendous perspective. Vineyards are everywhere and at the hearts of each are red-tiled factory buildings and houses guarded by cypresses that make the scene so archetypally Tuscan.
There’s a feel of quiet wealth here, an inheritance of history, of landowners no longer subjects of the feudal power that once dominated from the city walls. Away from the roads that lead directly to San Gimignano it’s peaceful and deserted; few people are evident, just the odd Piaggio comes farting along the dusty back roads its driver giving us a disinterested nod at passing.
Having made a circuit we stop for lunch on the main approach to the town at an expensive hotel that lies away from the road. On the almost empty terrace beside a glassy azure pool we sit under a Cypress-green market umbrella, sip iced Campari sodas and nibble on bruschetta while watching the cars and coaches as they contest share of the highway below with tractor drawn trailers loaded with newly harvested grapes. Their drivers ignore impatient visitors. Especially deliberately and, it seems, insolently, they now and then slow down and ease towards the centre of the road instinctively knowing which of the cars and coaches carry a ‘D’ origin on their number plates!