San Gimignano

(January 2009)

Any time you move to a new place, there is a period of transition, an awkward, fumbling-around-in-the-dark orientation while you try to figure out where the good grocery stores, shops and restaurants are, how to navigate the city, where to go for nice walks, to work out, to relax. When moving to a foreign country these tasks are greater in number and difficulty, since you have to deal not only with different procedures for simple processes like mailing or receiving packages, doing laundry, or even paying for things, but also because this all has to be done in a foreign language.

Before Melanie and I came to Italy, we tried to learn some Italian using Rosetta Stone, an interactive program on our computer. Unfortunately with all the preparations we had to do (tiling our bathrooms, packing our stuff, planning our trip), we did not study as much as we would have liked. Still, having learned several different languages each (with varying degrees of success), we hoped to pick up the language more once we lived here.

In our first few months here, we made a concerted effort to familiarize ourselves with the city. Early on we set a goal of walking down every street inside the old city walls, highlighting the streets on a map (now tearing at the creases from so many folds and refolds). We are well on our way to completing our quest. In addition, we have used our guide books to find smaller, more obscure museums and buildings often missed in the frenetic two- or three-day tours of Florence done by most tourists. As a result we have found many hidden gems we would not have seen otherwise, such as the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure and the monochrome frescoes of the Chiostro dello Scalzo.

Our language skills have also improved since our first days of monosyllabic grunts. By no means are we fluent (especially because our computer crashed, preventing us from using Rosetta Stone), but we can wade our way through the necessary purchases of our daily lives without looking too foolish. Since it is so similar to Italian, my Spanish also helps me out on occasion. Unfortunately, that also means that when my brain gets in trouble and can’t find the Italian word, invariably the Spanish one pops out, eliciting confused looks from the person I’m trying to talk to. Fortunately for us, almost everyone here speaks some English.

Our trip to Siena, Monteriggioni and San Gimignano marked an ironic turning point for us. On one hand, it took place around the time of the halfway mark of our stay here, a date we have in some ways longed for. On the other hand, it was on this trip that we started to feel like residents, not visitors, of Italy.

Our journey started at the rental car agency. To my relief, the woman at the counter spoke English to the customers ahead of me. When money is involved, I prefer to use English. Still, over the course of our conversation, I sprinkled my phrases with Italian when I could. Not only does it help me practice my Italian, but also I have found that saying a few words in someone’s language, however badly, usually ingratiates you to that person.

As I progressed in my conversation with the woman, we began speaking more Italian and less English. While many in the service sector here speak English, usually they don’t speak it very well. It felt like a small victory–make that a very small victory–that my Italian was better than her English, but a victory nonetheless. On the rest of our trip we had similar linguistic success with people working in the hotels, restaurants and ticket offices of the towns we visited, ordering and buying in Italian even when the others spoke English. These linguistic connections go both ways, though; when we were checking out of our hotel in San Gimignano, the very cute six-year-old son of the receptionist was singing “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can…” Apparently Spiderman transcends language barriers.

I have already mentioned the minor difficulties encountered on our drive to Siena, but the fact that we arrived there in one piece (Italians are notoriously bad drivers) and more or less on time also speaks to our adaptation to our new surroundings. By the time we were leaving Siena for Monteriggioni, we had no trouble navigating.

Several of my students had suggested we visit Monteriggioni, a small, perfectly preserved walled village between Siena and San Gimignano. There is a restaurant within the walls where we planned to lunch, but having spent more time than we planned in Siena, and trying to get to our next destination before sunset, we simply entered, photographed and left. On another day it may have appeared less touristy and more enticing to us, but it was just as well since we were heading toward the jewel of our trip: San Gimignano.

In some ways San Gimignano is a miniature version of Siena. It is walled and well preserved. Famous for its towers, some call it the Medieval Manhattan. We arrived there just as the sun was tucking itself into the blanket of the Chianti hills, bathing them in a soft gold and rose. We parked by the south gate of the city and walked through it up Via San Giovanni, the main north-south artery of the city. In the summer this street is packed with tourists, but this evening it was rather calm. Since it was early January, the Christmas lights led the way to the town’s main piazza, the Piazza Cisterna. This piazza is named for the well in the center of it, and more Christmas lights were strung from the walls of the piazza‘s buildings to a ring suspended above the well. Our hotel was in this piazza, so we checked in and got a restaurant recommendation, again trying to speak as much Italian as we could.

Since it was one of the colder nights we have had here in Italy, we were glad the restaurant was a stone’s throw from our hotel. (The charm of San Gimignano is that everything is a stone’s throw.) Just inside the door there was a long counter where two women prepared salads, crostone and antipasti. A man lead us to the second floor loft, to a table nestled against the railing, giving us a complete view of the preparation and other diners below. This restaurant is called Osteria del Carcere, and is known for its fresh, innovative approach to traditional Tuscan fare. It did not disappoint. I had a twist on a pork and beans, and Melanie thoroughly enjoyed her faraona (guinea fowl) terrine studded with chestnuts and served with a chestnut purée.

Still, Melanie and I felt something was missing. In Siena, the restaurant was ideal: food, location and ambiance all meeting at the confluence of a perfect dining experience. Here at Osteria del Carcere, it seemed the restaurant cared about food, but not as much about people. The energy in the air was calm and contemplative, not warm and radiant. The servers were courteous, but not welcoming. The difference was subtle, but distinct. Then again, this might be because of something that happened earlier in the meal. The server brought us our appetizers and said something to me in Italian which I did not come close to comprehending. Ever the gentleman, I deferred to my bride-to-be so she could try to answer. She hadn’t understood either, so said no (it’s usually wiser to say no than yes when you don’t know what was said to you). We found out later that the woman simply wanted to explain to us what we were about to eat. So much for us feeling completely like residents.

But I am picking nits about this restaurant. The meal was wonderful, as was the hotel. We slept soundly and awoke to yet another glorious day, ate a hotel breakfast and hit the streets. After wandering in and out of the ceramics shops along Via San Giovanni, we headed north along San Gimignano‘s well kept streets. They are clean, traffic-free, and show evidence of great care. Beautiful wooden doors, flower boxes and shiny brass plaques are the norm, not the exception. The feel of them reminded us of Switzerland.

Since San Gimignano is known for its towers, it is also known for its views. If it is possible, the views here were even better than those in Siena, from the closeness of the surrounding hills to the distant snow-covered peaks of Abetone. We enjoyed these views from several venues around the city, ending up at a restaurant called Bel Soggiorno with floor-to-ceiling vistas over the farms and hills east of the city. The food was as magnificent as the views, both in taste and presentation, and is featured in the last few photos in the accompanying album.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel. On the way, Melanie spotted a sign indicating a scenic overlook, and took off ahead of me. As I followed her, the inevitable happened. After six months of living in Italy, as I was walking down the street in a town I had never been to, I heard someone say, “Axel!” Melanie was too far ahead to have been the person who called, so I looked around. Sitting at a table in the sun, enjoying the view we had come to see, was one of my students here. Marian was finishing up a meal with her boyfriend Matteo, the two of them having decided on a whim to come down to San Gimignano for the day.

Melanie knows Marian as well from a dinner we had with Marian’s class, so we fell into an easy conversation. We talked with them for a while, walking with them back to our hotel, making plans to hang out again before parting ways. As we left this charming city and headed home to Florence, having spent the past few days comfortably making our way through several cities in a foreign language, running into new friends in another town, one thought kept running through our minds: we are no longer tourists; we are officially living in Italy.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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