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November 8, 2010

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Tuscan treat offers laid-back lifestyle

SAN Gimignano, or Medieval Manhattan as it is known on account of its distinctive skyline, is itself a quaint Italian town where life moves pretty slow, as Zhang Fengming discovers.

San Gimignano, a small and delightful Italian town close to Florence, was fictionalized as Monteriano in E.M. Forster's 1905 novel "Where Angels Fear to Tread."

Inspired by this and Forster's other depiction of Italy in my favorite "A Room With A View," my husband and I headed to Tuscany where we fell in love with San Gimignano at first sight.

For us, the hilltop town in north-central Italy is like a septuagenarian in her rocking chair, telling stories of her glorious old days while enjoying a peaceful late life.

The town increased in wealth and developed greatly during the Middle Ages as it was a stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican. Such prosperity led to the flourishing of works of art that adorn the local churches and monasteries.

Now, the town sits on the top of the hill, awaiting tourists from all over the world to come and glimpse its beauty, culture and tradition.

San Gimignano is acclaimed as one of the jewels of Tuscany. It is known for its towers silhouetted against the skyline - all 14 of them have become its international symbol, while in other cities similar towers disappeared due to wars, catastrophes or urban renewal.

The towers, an indicator of San Gimignano's heydays, are listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. That's why the town is also know as "Medieval Manhattan" and lures millions of visitors each year.

Perched on rolling Tuscan hills close to Florence, San Gimignano's local crafts and culture, beautiful skyline, and the surrounding vineyards and olive trees are so enchanting that we regretted scheduling only two nights there.

The small town is a place for city dwellers to escape from their daily grind and enjoy the pleasant countryside and, of course, the famous Tuscan sunshine.

Even though it's a tiny town, whose historical center measures only 900 meters by 500 meters, we found it a must to stay there overnight in order to get a true sense of the tranquil beauty of the well-preserved medieval town.

For us, a perfect day in San Gimignano went like this: woke up on a warm morning in a guesthouse in a medieval "palace," which is in fact a four-story apartment built from rocks. Had a pleasant breakfast in a cafe along the Via San Giovanni, the main street of the town. Then followed the locals to the morning market close to the Duomo, or Collegiate Church, where juicy and delicious meat products - including the unforgettably tasty boar - fresh fruits and local specialties are all available.

We then strolled along the main street to discover more of the lovely local products - 99 percent pure dark chocolate, Italian wines, many costing only 4.5 euros (US$6.4) a bottle, saffron cultivated in the area and the colorful traditional Tuscan artistic ceramics.

With so many beautiful local products available, not to mention the boutiques selling Alviero Martini and Furla leather goods, I was very tempted to become a spendthrift. I indulged myself in the small but affordable luxury of the local handmade ceramics.

For the rest of the day, we just wandered around the outskirts of the town and basked in the Tuscan sunshine, doing nothing but enjoying the beautiful views reaching to the sky.

We idled our time watching beetles crawling slowly on the rocky walls, imagining that we were actually flying butterfly dancing in the blue sky, or envying the lazy cats taking a nap in locals' windows.

Just forget about the one-day rush trip. Stay at least one night to enjoy the Italian town.

San Gimignano shows its true self as the sun sets. In the daytime, the town looks like a dressed-up actor, well-gowned, brilliant but a little bit aloof and evasive. It's after sunset, when the day trippers' buses leave, that you feel the town unveils itself. It seems that nothing has changed since medieval times: The traces of modern life, the rise of capitalism, and the worldliness of merchants are all gone in the color of the night.

The town is lackluster for those who love raucous night life: Few people are on the streets after 6pm.

Restaurants are far from crowded at dinner time. In the evening, with a cool and gentle wind whispering around and candle lights glimmering in restaurants, you may feel that after a day's hustle and bustle, it's the moment to finally lie back and enjoy the true essence of life.

Nothing needs to be urgent in this little town. All you can do is slow your pace and just relax.

Of course, if you're an urban citizen who just can't bear the slow pace, you can busy yourself by capturing all the beauty on camera to take back home with you.

Our only regret was that we didn't have enough time to go hiking in the mountains around the town.

Distinctive food

It would be nice to pretend that my fascination with San Gimignano has nothing to do with the fantastic gourmet fare.

San Gimignano is an ideal place for people who pursue all the tasty things on the planet and even with a shallow pocket, one can still enjoy them.

In Italy, trattoria is a less formal dining experience where diners don't have to pay tips. Great news for budget travelers in search of affordable gourmet dining.

We got lucky at Trattoria Chiribiri, whose kitchen is facing the Via San Giovanni and front door is on the Piazza della Madonna.

Trattoria Chiribiri is a cozy and little bit crowded home-grown place with small tables and an Italian waitress who can speak little English - the sort of things you would expect from a small home business with quality food.

Every dish we tried was surprisingly delicious. Another distinctly Italian food besides pizza and pasta is gelato - local ice cream. And a world-champion gelato shop at the Piazza della Ciaterna should not be missed.

Italy is branded as a country boasting a bonanza of luxury brands, macho soccer players, mouthwatering cuisine and as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

But for me, it's more than that. Our Italian adventures included famous cities like Milan, Florence and Rome and the lovely getaways such as San Gimignano and Capri Island.

It's the combined beauties of the big cities and small towns that completed our picture of this fascinating country.

How to get there

From Florence

Take a bus (at the Sita Bus Station close to the railway station) to Poggibonsi or a train from Florence to Poggibonsi;

Transfer to a local bus at Poggibonsi (You will have to get off with your luggage and wait for the local bus).

Where to stay

There are plenty of guesthouses, farmhouses and hotels available in the town. Prices start at 55 euros a night.

To plan your trip, go to or


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