Saturday, December 15, 2007

Driving from Montepulciano to San Gimignano (2 of 10)

We were awake early – who could resist the lure of early morning in Tuscany? We drove out into the dawn light of Montepulciano, where we had stayed for three enchanting nights before our trip across to San Gimignano. The cathedral bells were ringing, pealing and clanging as we missed our turn and drove through the narrow, twisting town streets that were normally closed to tourists. We just pulled in our mirrors on each side of the car and enjoyed the experience. Before leaving the little town completely we pulled into a car park and went into a bar to have the first cappuccino and brioche con marmellata for the day.

One last swoop past San Biago, but no lingering this time to persuade my sister to sing an Ave Maria while standing in the centre with sunbeams permeating the church, giving my blond sister the look of a halo. Now we were almost ready to start the long day’s driving. First we learned how to fill the diesel tank of the Lancia all by ourselves. At the self service petrol station, one must first insert money into a Bancomat type machine. We put in a twenty euro note. Then you press a tiny button under the word Diesel and a message comes up to tell you which number pump you are to use. Once you have it worked out, it’s as easy as pie.

Car filled with diesel, video camera turned on to do a “road cam” of the last sight of medieval Montepulciano, and we were off to San Gimignano. But first, we had a picnic lunch to buy in anticipation of seeing the much talked about Abbey and Chapel of San Galgano, deep in the Tuscan countryside.

We drove through Pienza and San Quirico D’Orcia (retracing yesterday’s scenic route) but did not revisit Montalcino as the road by passed it, although we did pull over and take more photographs of that lovely city perched on its hilltop. We had spent some time there, the day before. A little taste of the town – like a sip of a beautiful Brunello.

We had decided that the drive to San Galgano would be a perfect day trip on the way to San Gimignano. As we neared the abbey the roads narrowed, the trees pressed in – chestnuts, blackberry thickets, pines, olives and all manner of deciduous trees blanketed the undulating hills of the terrain we were passing through. The drive was enchanting. Here and there we saw remnants of past glories – towers still standing, some crumbling very slowly with the passing of time.

We stopped for a cappuccino and brioche at a town near San Galgano and spent some time on a walking track which we hoped would take us to the abbey – but a wrong turn led us to a river we couldn’t ford. Returning to the main road we asked for and received clear directions and then we arrived at the famous abbey.

As we parked in the pay parking, some distance from the abbey buildings, we could see the beautiful chapel up on the hillside above us. Through the trees, the abbey was also in sight alongside a newly ploughed field. There were six large pheasants in the field, with burnished coppery brown plumage.

It’s eerie to stand at the entrance, with the crows cawing desolately as they fly through the roofless building, and in and out the paneless windows. The circular chapel up the hill has a sword embedded in the stone inside it. How fascinating that story is! All in all, an unforgettable experience and a memorable drive through the deeply forested Tuscan countryside.

Me at San Galgano

On the drive north from San Galgano up to San Gimignano, we made a stop at the town of Staggia. We parked at the car park next to the bar where we had coffee in 2001, but I don’t recall seeing the big glassed in enclosure with the two pythons before! Yikes! I don’t like snakes.

We enjoyed the drive through Poggibonsi. I stayed on the edge of Poggibonsi once, in ‘camere’ (rooms) with my husband and two young children on our three month Italy trip. We ate dinner in the town each evening and enjoyed the passeggiata with a gelato in the town square. I got quite excited to actually find the sign this time for the Pam supermarket as we drove through the roundabout, thanks to clear instructions from a Slow Travel friend.

Onwards towards the towers of San Gimignano. I imagine it would be very theatrical to first view them shrouded in mist, but as usual, when we arrived, it was a clear, sunny, blue sky day. What fun it was, driving up side streets through the town, after entering by a side gate, following the hotel signs, ever upward along the narrow streets until we reached the center and our goal – the Hotel La Cisterna.

I have stayed in this hotel three times now. Cher and Dame Judi Dench filmed scenes from “Tea With Mussolini” on the terrace of our room from which you can see six of the towers. There is also a wonderful view from a large window overlooking the valley which extends for miles.

I could look down about fifty feet to a large house, or set of apartments. An old man with a cane lived there and he had a very large orto (vegetable garden) and two fat, roly poly cats. One was white with black patches and the other one was black, with splotches of white. They chased each other up and down the garden.

The hills of Tuscany undulated in folds from this window. Tourists and locals alike ambled past in the street below. Bells tolled throughout the day and early evening. Black birds and pigeons wheeled and caroused in the sky above me.

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