Best Views of San Gimignano Are From a Back Road

Mashburn is a free-lance writer living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

We hadn't planned to stay on a farm in Italy until we learned every hotel was booked to capacity.

It was the big break of our trip.

Liberation Day was being celebrated and bells in the 15 towers were striking. The town was in a holiday mood and San Gimignano was unbearably crowded. Everything was booked, the desk clerks told us again and again. " Tutti " (full) they said with a grand gesture that seemed to encompass every bed between Switzerland and Sicily.

Deciding that the walled, medieval town of San Gimignano was best viewed from the distance anyway, we headed for lower ground. In Tuscany, however, all roads eventually go up. Atop another hill we saw an old woman by the side of the road where she was cutting flowers.

We used our broken Italian and she pointed with her sickle, nearly slicing off a nose. We soon found ourselves settling into a three-bedroom apartment with real paintings on the walls, chintz-covered furniture and a fireplace almost big enough to stand in.

We canceled the rest of the plans we'd made for our trip; there was no reason to go anywhere else.

Rolling Landscape

The view alone was enough to keep us occupied for weeks. In all directions we found a rolling landscape covered with olive trees and grapevines. Tall, thin cypresses rose like exclamation marks for our declarations of appreciation.

Here and there sat a farmhouse, a villa or a church. And most remarkably, San Gimignano lay quietly on the western horizon, where a sinking red sun turned it into a silhouette in the evening.

Closer at hand were lilacs, irises and poppies in bloom. The ruins of a 1,000-year-old chapel lay to one side of our hosts' residence, and on the other side was a formal garden dotted with lemon trees in terra cotta pots.

Best of all were our hosts, especially Cesare, a man in his mid-20s who gave up his career in accounting to take over the family farm.

Lean and tanned, as curly haired as a Roman statue, Cesare seemed to take a liking to us. And it wasn't just because we gave him an opportunity to practice English, although we did happen to be the first English-speaking people ever to stay in one of the three flats he'd fixed up. He keeps them rented through a Swiss agency, so the guests tend to speak German or French.

Surely, we told ourselves, he doesn't take all his guests to see his friend's house, a former monastery with Latin phrases set in tiles all along the outside walls. Surely he doesn't bring everyone eggs in the morning, eggs so freh they're still warm from the nest.

"Turn here," he said on one of our drives. "This is the back road to San Gimignano. It has the best view of the town. The tourists don't know about it." In Cesare's hands, we were tourists no longer.

At his recommendation we stifled our first impression of Colle Val D'Elsa, only briefly mentioned in our guidebooks.

We ventured to the old part of the town to find the most thoroughly evocative streetscape of our trip: quiet alleys that turned into tunnels and back into streets; old women dressed in black, standing in doorways chatting among themselves and petting their cats. The women stared at us as if they'd never seen a tourist.

Cheering Piazza

The farm was ideally situated for various day trips. We spent a Sunday afternoon on the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where every man and boy in town seemed to be listening to a soccer match on the radio.

The piazza would fill with a deep roar of cheers whenever the local team scored a goal.

But we felt no urgent need to keep exploring. We lingered for hours over our morning coffee and eggs, which we took outside to a table overlooking the hills. We became attached to the pig, who always greeted our "bon giorno " (good morning) with robust heartfelt squeals.

The late April days were pleasantly warm, and nights were just cool enough for a fire. As we watched the flames and drank Cesare's own Chianti, a nightingale serenaded us from a tree in our courtyard. Its bold, clear song will always conjure Tuscan evenings for me.

One day Cesare gave us a tour of the winery under his house, among the foundations of a centuries-old monastery.

He showed us the secret cellar of the monks, recently discovered when a piece of equipment fell through the stone floor. Proudly he showed us the huge wooden vats that held the wine made by his grandfather, then his father, and which now hold his own wine.

"It's not the best Chianti made in this area," Cesare said, "but it's almost the best."

We never did any farm work but began to feel the rhythms of the place.

We saw Cesare's grandmother everywhere, silently hoeing the blossoming peas and the budding artichokes, hanging out laundry, creeping up on the rabbits to grab their hind legs and feel how plump they had become.

Cesare's beautiful, long-legged sister worked in the nearby town. We heard her taking off in the mornings and saw her in curlers at the end of the day.

Cesare and his gray-haired assistant had pruned the olive trees just before we arrived, and now they were hauling away the branches.

The stubby trees, heavily damaged by a freeze two winters ago, had been bushy with new growth; thinning them had been a major undertaking that severely blistered Cesare's hands.

In town, the bankers seemed perpetually out to lunch or on holiday, but Cesare worked from sunup to full darkness nearly every day.

A Rare Thing

"You're looking at a rare thing in Italy," he told us one afternoon. "Most of the farmers in this country are 60 and 70 years old now. The young people don't want to do it."

Cesare had tried life behind a desk but now was back in a T-shirt and jeans. Years ago, as owner of his farm, he would have done less of the labor; instead, he would have managed a staff of men who lived with their families on the premises.

Since World War II, most of the tenants and their children have found work in the cities or bought their own land. Their former homes often are converted to the cottages and apartments rented by visitors such as we.

"Is that a cuckoo?" we asked Cesare after hearing a familiar call one afternoon.

"Yes it is. In the summer, when I'm working out in the fields in the hot sun, that bird will be singing in the cool shade of the woods, and I'll wish I were there with him."

We knew we'd soon be wishing we were anywhere nearby. We stayed from one holiday to the next. The night before our departure the hills were lit by bonfires celebrating the eve of the saint's day of the local patron.

"I wish you didn't have to leave," Cesare said. "Tomorrow night they will have fireworks at the church. We have a wonderful view from here."

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A stay on a Tuscan farm need not be left up to chance. Several American agencies can arrange accommodations of all sorts, from a simple apartment to an elegantly furnished villa. Some places have swimming pools and maid service.

You can expect to pay $200 to $500 a week for an apartment or small cottage; more regal surroundings will cost several thousand dollars a week.

Prices may drop drastically in the off-season and for extended stays. All agents say they can usually find accommodations at the last minute, but for a summer visit it is wise to book as much as six months in advance.

Vacanza in Italia (153 West 13th St., New York 10011; phone (212) 242-2145) is the American arm of a British company with 30 houses and apartments on working farms in Tuscany and Umbria, as well as 125 other properties in those regions.

Vacanza Bella (2443 Fillmore St., Suite 228, San Francisco 94115; phone (415) 821-9345) rents 50 houses in Tuscany and represents 150 for an Italian agency. Many are on working farms.

Villas International (71 West 23rd St., New York 10010; phone (212) 929-7585 or (800) 221-2260) is an American company representing some Italian real-estate agents.

For $5, Villas International will send the 200-page catalogue of Cuendet, an Italian agent handling nearly a thousand properties in Tuscany. The catalogue includes color photographs and brief written descriptions, but does not list prices.

Europeans rent about 90% of these properties. They traditionally book as much as a year in advance, so Americans are advised to make their selections early.

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