Winter in Tuscany: San Gimignano, Volterra & Pisa
Updated: May 28, 2022
Most people think of Italy as a summer destination and come for the beaches and al fresco dining, but that's also when it's hot and crowded and at peak prices. Consider traveling during the off-season and you'll have the place to yourself!
Last weekend I took a quick trip to San Gimignano and Volterra to research some new trails, then a few days later I went to nearby Pisa, a city which seemed only to tout its leaning tower. Normally I don't travel much in February but I was treated to vast fields of early-spring green, pleasantly cool temps, and delightfully empty cities. Come along for a tour!
I first went to San Gimignano in 1997 when I started to guide walking and cycling tours in Italy. I had only recently finished my PhD in Comparative Literature (and subsequently decided I didn't want to become a French professor) so it was exhilarating to suddenly find myself in the Tuscan hills. San Gimignano is famous for its 14 medieval towers, which many Tuscan towns used to have but eventually lost to the ages. It's amazing to think that there were over 70 of them in the 13th century!
They were originally built for defense (you can hide from external threats within the city walls, but how do you hide from your neighbor?? Build UP!) but soon became status symbols for the noble families who tried to outdo each other. In the high season the streets overflow with tourists, but on this quiet Saturday night in February it was eerily quiet.
And hey! I found a "wine window"! (see my previous post about those here)
I went out with friends one afternoon to scout out some walking trails and loved seeing new areas after 25 years of always going to the same place. We found ourselves blocked by a villa with a "do not enter" sign so decided to skirt around via the vineyards. 😉
So interesting to see how the vines are trained up in different regions depending on drainage, sun exposure, risk of mold, etc. These vineyards were at least 50 years old and had a marvelous "candelabra" shape!
At one point we were on the historic Via Francigena, or the old pilgrimage route that connected Rome with France (hence "Franc"-igena). In recent years there's been a lot of work done to make it into a popular pilgrimage trail, like the Camino de Santiago. We passed a monastery that still welcomes travelers. It dates from roughly 1100 AD and the monks still sell their traditional products like honey and various "elixirs." Below, a sign for pilgrims says "Ring and someone will welcome you."❤️
And of course we had to stop by a winery to check the quality! 😉
We passed this beautiful old church and saw an intriguing altar to these two very serious-looking children. Who are they? They seem to be in southern or even Sardinian dress! I'll have to find out more!
The next morning we moved on to Volterra and saw vast fields of winter wheat germinating under a pale February sun...
They plant in November/December and the new buds come up in the new year. I had always seen it in May when it was already knee-high and dark green so was surprised to see how green it was already in February!
Volterra sits high on a hill and has views as far as the sea on a clear day. It was founded by the Etruscans and was eventually taken over by the Romans.
Roman ruins were discovered in the 1950s when the city started digging to build a soccer field (they had been completely covered by dirt and debris centuries ago when the local people took shelter within the city walls and just threw their rubbish over the walls).
Then in 2015 something else came to light as maintenance work was being done: a perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater that had also been completely buried! It's so big it could hold up to 10,000 people! The site was covered and closed (it was Sunday) but I'd love to go back and tour it if it's possible. Read more about that here.
Volterra is also known for its alabaster, which is mined in the nearby hills. The image below is a photo I took of a poster on a shop window (though I would love the chance to go into a mine!):
Despite the chill (it got down to freezing at night), some brave flowers were out!
Trail research isn't always fun and games. When the path turned to deep mud I only had one choice: off with the shoes! My friend had dropped me at the trailhead and drove around to pick me up on the other side, so I had to go forward. Luckily it was 15C/60F by then so I was able to roll up my pants and plunge in!
Eventually I met back up with my friend and we went to find some lunch. I was a muddy mess so we didn't want anything fancy, so we were happy when we found a Circolo ARCI that was open. These cultural associations (ARCI = Associazione Recreativa Culturale Italiana) are found throughout Italy and are a combination bar/cafe and social hall for community activism. I didn't realize the first one was founded in Florence in 1956! (read more about that here) We asked for something light so they brought us some bread, cheese and cold cuts, plus a selection of delicious oil-cured vegetables that the woman had made herself. Cheap and delicious!
So happy to be out "on the road again" with my best research team!
Sure I had been to Pisa. Yeah I had seen the tower. But there were always so many people there (as well as the crassest type of tourism) that I never wanted to stay and explore. So it seemed like a Thursday in February in the midst of a pandemic might be the best time to visit. And so it was! There were hardly any people around and I spent hours exploring the monuments in the "Piazza dei Miracoli," as the poet Gabriele d'Anunzio dubbed this cathedral complex. Below: two Carabinieri dwarfed by the massive apse of the cathedral; the façade of the amazingly early (1064!) Duomo; and the 12th c. Baptistry.
One final element of the "piazza" is the Camposanto Monumentale, or monumental cemetery, a massive Gothic cloister which holds Roman sarcophagi, Medieval tombs, and has fabulous (but fading) frescoes along its walls. I had never seen anything like it!
Like Florence, Pisa is bisected by the Arno River, which feels much wider here than in my city. The elegant 14th c. small church Santa Maria della Spina sits along its banks.
The original impetus for my visit to Pisa was a show of Keith Haring's works at the Palazzo Blu. I was familiar with his work but didn't really know anything about him. It turns out the Pennsylvanian-born street artist spent some time in Pisa painting a monumental mural in the 1980s, so it made sense.
It was a challenge to find good vegetarian options for dinner since the local specialties are meat and fish based. So we walked around until we stumbled upon a place that offered a 5-course tasting menu (mine veg, my friend's meat). It was a little more pricey than I wanted (40 euros for the set menu), but I go out so rarely that I decided to splurge. Here below (in random order): my dessert was a ricotta "gelato" with candied sun-dried tomatoes; my pasta had a cream of celery root; my friend had some chicken liver pâté on toast; his ravioli were with venison and topped with flower petals; I had a chick-pea flan topped with Tuscan kale; and his starter was beef tartare. Check out La Sosta dei Cavalieri if you go!
The "amuse bouche" was a fritter made of borage...
... which I normally see in this form! I'll have to harvest some on my next hike. 🙂
And yes, I did it. I was given instructions from my niece that I HAD to take a silly picture holding up the leaning tower. So here it is! 😄
Thanks for joining me on this little winter trip! If you'd like to fund my research efforts during these pandemic times you can toss a few coins into my fountain (see this link here), or, come on over and I'll take you around in person! Muddy barefoot hike on request. 😉
Ciao e alla prossima!
See you next time