Tuscany is known for its beautiful villages – here are a few to discover in the area of Valdelsa. Less than an hour’s drive between each village and all worth a visit.
There are many lovely hill villages in Tuscany but San Gimignano attracts most of the tourist traffic. In order to spread this largesse around a collective of six villages has been formed. They include San Gimignano and all are in the area of Valdelsa.
The others are Poggibonsi, Colle Val d’Elsa, Monteriggioni, Radicondoli, and Casole d’Elsa. There’s less than an hour’s drive between each village. Supporting this cooperative venture is a good way to see some places off the beaten track.
San Gimignano has been called ‘a medieval Manhattan’ and people flock to this tiny village to see the famous skyscrapers. Building started in 1150 and continued until 72 of them soared into the air. Today only 15 of the original towers remain and they are enormously impressive.
Try to get here before 9:30am and you will see the village as it was meant to be seen: tranquil and beautiful, local people enjoying their first cappuccino of the day as they contemplate a busy day ahead. This will be a day packed with tourists. At 9:30 the buses begin to park outside the ancient walls and the day-trippers start to arrive. All day there will be a steady stream, arriving regularly in groups of around 25 or so.
Even with lots of people milling around, the extraordinary ancient skyscrapers alone are worth coming for.
Colle di Val d’Elsa: Dates from Middle Ages
This is a prosperous village and has been so since the Middle Ages, due mainly to an ingenious canal system which brought trade to the area and with it spinning mills, paper mills and later, glassworks. Today, Colle is known for the quality of its hand-crafted crystal and there are a number of shops that sell only this.
Like many Tuscan villages it has bags of atmosphere; ancient houses line narrow streets whose surfaces are so worn and uneven they surely must be the same paths the Medici trod – their crest sits above the doors of many houses. Or perhaps the great poet, Dante, a Tuscan himself, wandered here. He mentions Colle in one of his poems. The village has its own (mini) tower – the 13th-century birthplace of a famous sculptor and architect, Arnolfo de Cambio, who was involved in the building of Florence Cathedral.
Casole d’Elsa – Archeological Museum
Another tiny village. surrounded by the ruins of its mediaeval walls. It has a fine archeological museum containing Etruscan tombs, reliqueries, and an illuminated book of gregorian chants from the 15th-century, looking as fresh and bright as if it was created yesterday.
In the castle there’s a permanent exhibition of children’s paintings, the work of children from the province of Siena. The paintings change every year. It’s a delightful contrast to the type of paintings one usually looks at in Italian castles and churches and interesting to see the world through the eyes of children today, then step outside into a world that has physically changed little in six hundred years.
Abbadia Isola – 11th-century Abbey of San Salvatore
Adjacent to Poggibonsi is Abbadia Isola, a tiny hamlet which sprang up around the 11th-century Abbey of San Salvatore. Here you will find the smallest museum in Italy – only one room, which contains only one painting – the Communion of Mary Magdelen by the 15th-century artist Antonio del Pollaiolo. There’s a special kind of pleasure in looking at just one painting. The museums of Italy are stuffed with masterpieces – there’s almost too much to see and to take in. You will be much more likely remember this painting, in this quiet little room.
A nice way to round off your exploration is to return to San Gimignano. Have dinner at a quiet restaurant, a stroll along narrow streets dappled with pools of light from pale street lamps, the soaring towers dark against the sky. Easy to imagine the swish of a silk cape behind you, or the clank of a sword against the wall. Easy to forget what it is like when the clock strikes at noon and the invaders arrive.
For a local’s vision on Tuscany Travel, you can check TooMuchTuscany.com.