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Italy’s Multi-Towered Hill Town of San Gimignano

Tuscany, Italy

The small, walled hill town is famous for its medieval towers. Pilgrims en route to Rome would overnight here, bringing prosperity to the town. But after being crushed by a plague and by Florence, the town stagnated, becoming a 14th-century time-warp that tourists find charming today.

Complete Video Script

Our next stop is named for a less-famous saint, Gimignano — or, in English…Gimignano.

San Gimignano, with its distinctive skyline, stands like a medieval mirage on its hilltop.

About midway between Siena and Florence, San Gimignano was a natural stop for pilgrims en route to Rome. Its walls were built in the 13th century. Its mighty gates regulated who came and went. Through the Middle Ages a steady stream of St. Peter's-bound pilgrims stoked the town's economy.

This was a pilgrims' shelter — one of 11 in town. The Maltese cross indicates the building was constructed by the Knights of Malta...perhaps the medieval equivalent of a Rotary Club project.

Today, tourists replace pilgrims — and it can be really crowded. The locals may seem fixated on the easy money of tourism, and much of this old-looking architecture is actually faux medieval — reconstructed with a flair for the fanciful in the 19th-century Romantic age. But San Gimignano's so easy to visit and visually so beautiful, it remains a good stop.

Piazza della Cisterna is named for the cistern that supplied this old well. A clever system of pipes drained rainwater from these rooftops into the cistern built under the square. This has been the center of the town for a thousand years, and it's still the place to hang out.

San Gimignano's claim to touristic fame is its striking towers. Of the original 60 or so, about a dozen survive. Before there were effective walls, rich people fortified their own homes with towers like these. They provided a handy refuge when ruffians and rival city states were sacking the town. Prickly skylines like San Gimignano's were the norm in medieval Tuscany.

In the 14th century, San Gimignano's good times went very bad. About 13,000 people lived within the walls. In 1348, a plague decimated the town, cutting its population by two thirds. A crushed and demoralized San Gimignano fell under the realm of the regional bully, Florence. To make matters worse, Florence redirected the vital trade route away from San Gimignano.

And Florence required that most of the towers be torn down. The town never recovered, and poverty left it stuck in a 14th-century time warp. That explains San Gimignano's popularity with tourists — and its prosperity — today.

The hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria offer a rich assortment of travel thrills. From dramatic settings to exquisite architecture, and from the rustic traditions of its food and wine to its hospitality, this region has all the elements that make travel to Europe forever fresh and rewarding.