Two shops, facing each other, each proclaiming to sell the best ice cream in the world. Queues of tourists throng the entrances. The blazing sunshine casts any shaded nook in to the depths of thick black darkness; crowds gather and perch, fearing the melting of their precious ice creams. All tastes are catered for here: thick and creamy to bright and fruity via novelties which call out for a photo, if not a taste. The town was once full of protective towers; today San Gimignano is full of tour groups.
Siena, by contrast is full of life. The shops and streets are frequented by people going about their daily business; there is hustle and bustle; there is light and shade; there is silence and noise. Where San Gimignano feels like a world heritage site, all preserved and twee, Siena is one, but bawdy and alive. The streets around the Campo are adorned with the colours of the Contrade – the batallions which compete in The Palio. It brings human vibrancy to a truly medieval pile of rocks and wood.
Our introduction by Pisa is by car. We weren’t meant to come here today, but our tour guides felt guilty about the long waits we’d had earlier. They drove back and forth along the Arno, dodging the serried seats, prepared for the coming regatta, our necks craning for sights of the city’s most well known and most photographed landmark. We caught glimpses as we flew between buildings, as we drove past marble gateways and as we slunk back out of the city limits. We would need to return.
We dart from shadow to shadow, avoiding contact between pale skin and the burning hot sun. We have limited time, but a to-do list a mile long: Piazza del Campo, and the Palazzo Publicco, up to the Duomo: but first we needed lunch. We ended up in an awful little tourist trap, fed packet tortellini and over-charged for tap water. It was the least Italian of our dining experiences in Tuscany; the rush to get fed – in order to see everything we wanted to see – had left a sour taste in our mouths; it was compounded by the sound of a wailing child, tired of walking and heat, and the rush to get back.
We turn left; we turn right: both of us are certain of the way through. We only have a few moments left to get back to the bottom of the hill, and we are nowhere near. We had left the main squares of San Gimignano, with their drinking old men and their Instagramming tourists, and gone down a back lane of sorts. We both felt that it would join up with the main drag at some point, but it turned away and away and away. We needed the toilet, and reasoned that we were heading back to it. We were wrong. Dun walls kept on following us as we turned and turned and turned, forever lost in Tuscany.
The road from the nearest of Pisa’s rail stations – Pisa San Rossore – was along a residential street, but one lined with hawkers taking down their stalls. Eyes followed: would we be stopping to ask for directions, only to open our wallets for a trinket? Could we be persuaded to stop for a moment?
A baby crawls away from its family – all arms and loud voices. We sit watching it, hugging ours close to us. We have the feeling that it will be safe, and in a normal town, in a normal place this would be absolutely assured. But not here. There is joy in the place; joy from the light; joy from the marble. A joy which is undercut with a fear. Everywhere in this place are predators, waiting to let their hands take your possessions. Piazza dei Miracoli may be home to some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture the world has ever seen – The Leaning Tower, the Baptistry – but it is also a magnet for suspicion. A mother swoops down and brings her charge back to the family fold. We sigh in relief.
The wall of heat hit us all like bricks to the face. We had been enjoying the air conditioning of the hire car on our way here, but the reality of the heat of the middle of a Tuscan day was a shock. We slugged ice cold water, but knew that that was only temporary respite against the heat of the day. We were not cut out for heat, as prepared as we were. Plans for Nordic adventures were afoot.
Italian driving is renowned the world over, and in the walls of a medieval Tuscan city it would be no different. The three of us, mother, father and child, were making our way around a corner when a lorry started making its way towards us. There were shouts, there were onlookers, there was such confusion. In desperation we ran away down a street, in to the grasp of a waiter with a crap menu.
Away from the crowds Siena was tranquil. Streets, narrow and long, curving up, down and around the hillsides. The buildings were tall, protecting us from the light of the burning sun. We had no need to hide; we were able to stroll. After the crowds of San Gimignano and the pervading sense of fear which Pisa brought with it, Siena felt like a weight off the shoulders. As we walked we made dinner plans for future holidays, looking in to the windows of trattoria, and the freezers of gelateria.
Nothing can prepare you for a beauty you have always felt. A field as flat as a wicket; an enclosure of monastic solitude; a building burned in to cultural memory. A gleaming tower of marble, resolutely on the piss – as much a statement of brand as a folly of architectural hubris – seen so many times that the mind cannot quite fathom its reality. At every spot on the path towards the tower selfies are taken, propping the edifice up, saving the day.
Two piazza, linked as if one, sit at the heart of San Gimignano. In one, open and sloping away, a well, site of a million selfies and counting. In the other, partially covered, and sloping upwards, a group of old men: a scene as old as time itself. The old men do as their fathers did; as their sons will: they drink strong liquor, they smoke small cigarettes, they laugh at the creep of modernity. The selfies will fade and the tourists will forget, but there will always be old men sitting here, watching it all.
We walked along another unknown street, shafts of light drawing our gaze. We could see seats through gaps in cafes and restaurants. We could see cafes and restaurants under seats. We were unsure of where we were going and what we would see. The darkness dragged us along to a dim corner. The crowd pushed us along, and in to the blinding light. Out of the back streets and in to the least square piazza we had ever seen. A horse track, and a brick floor. Souvenir stalls vandalise the face of this majestic centrepiece. It seems everyone has their breath taken from them right there.
We sat on the edge a low wall, set in the shadow cast by an arch, eating the world’s best ice cream (shop on the right). For a change we were all indulging in fruity flavours, and swapping spoons as we ate. Crowds ebbed and flowed around us, coming and going from the makeshift facilities hewn from the wall ahead. The light was so full it was too painful to look out over the piazzas. Life was good.
We chose not to go in. Hell, we’d chosen not to go up the Eiffel Tower too, so it’s hardly out of our characters to forgo a trip up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The queues were long, and the day had been hard; we were wrecked. We sat in the shade and gazed up at it, awestruck. We brought ourselves here under our own steam, in contrast to the day-trippers we were surrounded by. Shot against a background of blue Tuscan sky we knew we were in the right place, after the horrors of the day.