After leaving Montepulciano and heading north, we crossed through central Tuscany, scooting below Siena and Florence and taking in a few sights in San Gimignano and Vinci before ending up at Petrognano, deep in the Garfagnano region, where we had a room booked for the next three nights.
San Gimignano caught our eye in the guidebook due to the large number of towers in the town. Apparently, towers were a way during medieval times for merchants and others with money and power to show it off and provide a better defensive position for their household. This kind of tower building happened throughout Italy and in other places, but what makes San Gimignano unique is the sheer number that were built and the number that survived until today. While Florence probably had more than 100 of these towers, San Gimignano, a much smaller town, had 76. Most town during that time had only 1 or 2. While these towers were taken down (or fell down) throughout the region over the years – in San Gimignano, towers were occasionally purposefully torn down by order of the commune if a family became too powerful or if punishment warranted it – San Gimignano is the only town in the area that still provides a view of the towers grouped close enough together to give a decent perspective for how things used to look 800 years ago.
Vinci is the birthplace of the genius Leonardo di Vinci, and while he didn’t spend a lot of time in the town after growing up there as the illegitimate son of a notary (and we didn’t either), the town has thought enough of him to reconstruct his birth site to what it approximately looked like when he was born. We ate lunch up there, above the town, in a parched olive grove, hanging out with a couple of unicyclists. Seriously. They rode up the hill and down. The sad thing about unicycles is that you can’t coast. The good thing about them is, if you are good, you can just have a chair that roll you around with little effort. Anyway, if you end up visiting Vinci, definitely skip the Leonardo museum in the town, which must be one of the worst museums I’ve ever seen. The exhibits are childish, and the emphasis on the pop culture interest in Leonardo is over the top.
To get up to Petrognano, we headed on the backroads through Pistoia, though the mountains, which ended up being beautiful but requiring much more time that I had expected. (However, randomly, we did come around a corner and happen upon preparations being made for a big party for the Communist Party of Italy.)
We didn’t get to Petrognano until dusk, and we couldn’t find where we were supposed to stay. Thankfully, when we did locate the apartment and couldn’t find the woman that rented it to us, the kind elderly couple downstairs took us in and even called the woman’s cell phone to let her know that we were here. It was here that I started to realize that we were in a very different place than in southern Tuscany. It wasn’t the kindness of the older couple – almost everyone had been kind to us since we landed in Rome. Rather, no one here spoke any English. At all, really. Even the woman who we rented the apartment, someone who supposedly meets quite a few foreigners, couldn’t speak much English. (But, obviously, she spoke more English than we did Italian.)
We were starting to realize what a special place the whole Garfagnana region is for travelers like us, folks that like seeing more of the country and meeting people outside of the larger “tourist industry,” which is endemic through most of Italy. In Garfagnana, nobody really gave us a second look or tried to sell us anything, you could drive 30 minutes on a back road before seeing another car, and some restaurants didn’t even have menus (you ate what they were cooking). It was a great introduction to the third very different area we had experienced in Italy. However, before we could really dive in a see the sites, we had an appointment to see some friends.