There is a West African word that I love, Sankofa. It is represented by a bird holding a seed in its beak and flying forward while looking backward. It reminds us that in order to move forward — to progress our personal lives or our collective technological or social well being — we need to know where we came from, to learn from our ancestors and to keep all of their wisdom, building it into how we live today. I never thought I’d find a trace of Sankofa in an ancient Tuscan town, but San Gimignano seems to share this philosophy. Our tour guide’s refrain is a slow head shake, a sad frown, a throwing up of her hands in the air — “We don’t respect the past anymore,” she says despairingly, “We waste all the things that went before — we just throw them out.”
Our guide is named Catia (it should be spelled Katya, she explains but her parents weren’t proud of her heritage, They didn’t value what came before, she says, echoing her soon to be familiar refrain). She has lived in the city for 37 years, within the walls. There are only 2,000 people who live within the walls, although as we explore the city we begin to wonder if this might even be an over-estimation.
When we walked through the front gate of the San Gimignano wall, I think I audibly exclaimed. Outside, a highway rolls past, cars and modernity rushing along. Inside the gate, we’re in a medieval town of stone and towers. It may as well be the 1300s. The change is stark and sudden and complete.
The town is quiet in the winter, most shops are closed for the season and only the locals and a few straggling tourists are walking up the stoney streets. Even though we’re left with limited lunch and dinner options I’m grateful for the quiet — the hush feels somehow right: reverent, respectful.
Catia leads us up the Main Street, toward the top of the hill where we can already see the emerging forms of three of San Gimignano’s famous towers. More about them in a moment.
First, though, there is a lot to talk about. Catia stops every three or four steps to bubble over with information. She seems to be unable to talk and walk at the same time — and given the steepness of the hills, and the force and speed with which she eagerly talks, I don’t blame her. The front gate, she explains, and the thoroughly enclosed walls, were for safety but also for economics. San Gimignano was on the trade route between many important Tuscan towns, including Florence, Pisa, and Siena. It was also set along a pilgrimage route where thousands of pious individuals walked from the northern border all the way to Rome, “to experience the suffering of live,” Catia says. For these travelers and traders, the gates at the north and south end of the city were the only ways to come in, have a rest, buy or sell food or goods, pray. The city cleverly guarded them and charged a tax to come through, shutting the doors completely at night so that only those that paid the city tax were allowed to come in.
The city feels enclosed. The walls of the buildings are rough-hewn stone and brick. Catia explains the half-brick, half stone buildings, telling us about the invention of brick making, and how the wise people of San Gimignano kept the stone buildings they had but built on them with the new, cheaper “technology.”
As an aside — apparently brick making was an invaluable art in the area, and San Gimignano excelled at it. You need just the right type of clay fired and pressed just so, in order to avoid it creating air bubbles as it bakes and thus crumbling when you try to use it. How, I wonder for the first of many times, does Catia know all these things?
Still pointing at the patchwork building walls, she points our the little square splotches that rise up along the buildings and even up the tallest towers. “That’s where they had their scaffolding while they built,” she explained. When they took the log scaffolding out, they filled the holes with a different substance so that they could re-open them if repairs were needed later. What respect for the things we already have, she said, what care. They wasted nothing.
Finally, she pointed out a narrow strip of stone and mortar between some of the buildings. Today, the buildings lining the Main Street of San Gimignano are a continuous wall that runs up along either side, but in the past, she said, it wasn’t always like this. She calls these fill lines “bad neighbor” alleys. When someone wanted to build a new house, they would ask their neighbor if they could build it right up against their wall — thus saving the new family a whole wall of construction. Some neighbors said yes, leading to the continual strip of homes that can be seen in most parts of the city. Other neighbors, though, whether from spite or fear of damage to their own homes, said no, and forced the new families to build 6 inches away from their homes. Even after those “alleys” were blocked off later, they were left hollow inside, and you can knock against the stone and hear the echo.
OK, only one more medieval technology fun fact, I promise — then we’ll talk about ice cream. Stay with me.
In the central piazza, there is a large cistern (basically a big stone well). The stones around the edge are beautiful, grooved with deep notches where hundreds of thousands of ropes carrying buckets of water have been hauled up from the pool below. The water in the cistern, Catia tells us, was triple distilled to ensure it was safe to drink. First, rainwater was captured from the gutters, and funneled down through copper pipes that led under the piazza. First, the water traveled through a chamber with small stones, then through a chamber with sand, and finally through a chamber with charcoal. At last, it arrived in the cistern, clean and ready to drink. It’s nerdy, but it’s so remarkable to think that people were doing this in the 1100’s. As Catia says, shaking her head — “We were smarter then. All the history is still here, and we’ve lost our respect for it.”
Now— the ice cream. San Gimignano is famous for having the “best gelato in the world.” Literally. The gelato shop on the main piazza won the global gelato contest two years in a row. Now they can’t participate anymore because their owner is one of the judges. How do I get that job? We got their two most famous flavors — saffron and raspberry-rosemary. And I can say honestly that it was the best gelato that I have ever had.
Full of cream and sugar, we kept wandering. Although not much was open we did wander into a perfect cheese & salami shop where the young woman behind the counter was so excited for us to taste her favorites — which were, objectively, the best. Every cheese was a pecorino, but it was remarkable how much the taste changed just based on what the wheel was wrapped in. We took home a quarter wheel of hay (different than straw) and wine grapes. We also took a boar sausage, of course. She carefully explained how to store the cheese and sausage to keep it from going bad — a way to store it for years if need be. We pretended to listen, knowing we wouldn’t need to store it more than a few days.
Around another corner, we poked our heads into a large walled courtyard that had a stage in it, trying to figure out what it was for. An old man with a newsie cap and a tweed jacket came up from behind us and started talking excitedly in Italian. We thought he was telling us we couldn’t be there, but he shook his head and slowed down his words, realizing we didn’t speak Italian. He wanted to tell us that this was where the people of the town came to be together, en circle, he said, making a big circle with his hands. They come there every day to drink a coffee, play some billiards, and talk — the club house was right there, on the other side of the piazza. And in the summer, he said gesturing at the courtyard and miming a waltz, they play music and dance. He was so excited to explain this to us, and told it to us three or four times, gesturing more and more widely —this is where we come to be in a circle, play billiards, maybe drink a coffee, be together. In summer we dance. We are in circle together.
My heart was a puddle. We said goodbye to him as we went on our way, and watched him potter slowly down to the clubhouse, no doubt for some billiards and coffee.
I was already charmed by San Gimignano — its proud natives, its random, impractical towers, its intensely medieval feel, its emptiness, its wandering hidden alleys. But the best was yet to come. When we reached the outer edge of the city and look out over the view of the rolling Tuscan vales, I understand the appeal of building towers throughout the hilltop city. The view is less of a tapestry and more of a quilt someone patched together with random things they had around the house. There were skeins of tightly ridged corduroy vineyards, blotchy calico patches of olive trees, velvet swells of hills so green they glow. And all across it a stitching of white roads, tall woolen cones of cypress waiting to be stretched and spun.
San Gimignano stitched together the past and the present for me, a true Sankofa experience of the rich Tuscan history around us.