“Remember guys, the world’s best gelato is at Gelateria Dondoli. I repeat, Gelateria Dondoli. The gelateria across them claims that they have the “the world’s best gelato”, but Dandoli had won the title back to back since 2006. Also, Dandoli has been making homemade gelato with the freshest ingredients for generations and is the favourite of the locals, so make sure you get your gelato from them.” Alice, one of the tour guides, was saying over the megaphone as our tour bus was approaching the parking lot in San Gimignano. A little later, while we were leisurely licking our gelato from Gelateria Dondoli , we saw a couple walking towards that gelateria from across the street, the one Alice said was falsely claiming they sell the best gelato in the world. The couple looked confused and unsure. The gelateria also had a sign that says, “ The World’s Best Gelato” on their door. After the couple read the sign, they entered the shop and ordered a gelato.
“Look at who didn’t get the memo,” I remarked. Sandeep chuckled and nearly choked on his gelato.
Earlier, after having our breakfast at the Machiavelli Palace, where we were staying in Florence, we proceeded towards Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station to meet with our tour organizer. It was drizzling a little when we went out of the hotel, but fortunately, it was just a short walk (340 meters) to the train station. The other tourists that belong to our group were already there. After sticking blue stickers on our tops, and a blue flag on his backpack, the tour organizer, led our group towards our bus. Our double-decker tour bus was scheduled to leave Florence at 8 am and then return at 8 pm.
The sight of the parked trains as we walked past it on our way to the bus parking lot evoked the thrill of adventure in me. I thought of all exotic and exciting places it could take me. I skipped a little to catch up with Sandeep and held his hand. He looked at me, squeezed my hand and smiled. He understood. My heartbeat accelerated at the realisation that I was finally going to see the Tuscan countryside! A life long dream.
And I was not disappointed. Our seats at the top of the double-decker bus gave us a great vantage point of the rolling hillside as we traversed the winding roads towards San Gimignano. I felt like I was inside an Italian oil painting with yellow glazing. It was autumn then, so the trees had pastel yellow leaves. And yes, I could see Tuscan villas atop the hills flanked by cypress trees, surrounded by sprawling olive orchards. I marvelled at the rows and rows of olive trees carpeting the small hills with gentle slopes that extend a long way into the distance. I’ve must have eaten thousands of olives by now, but it was the first time I saw an olive tree. The sunlight itself that hits the foliage has a natural filter that turns everything golden. The images of Tuscany I saw from photographs and painting, it seems, do not look that way because of a camera filter nor because of an Impressionist interpretation, the whole place glows golden naturally especially a few minutes before sunset.
I remarked to Sandeep over and over how soft the sunlight in Europe is, and wondered how there are no harsh shadows captured in the photos. Sandeep then explained to me how Europe is angled away from the Sun slightly, thus casting subtler rays as opposed to Asia and the Middle East, where the sun rays fall directly with intense fury. Sandeep loves to do physical demonstrations while he is explaining something and he loved for me to listen attentively. He made two balls with his fist to illustrate the sun and the earth, and their movements. I nodded hurriedly as not to miss any scenery from my bus window. Though, I was half-listening also as a quiz might be imminent after the lecture.
We disembarked from the bus once it was adequately parked at San Gimignano. I saw one modern supermarket near the parking lot, which was looking a bit out of place in that medieval-themed town.
Before we entered the fortified medieval town of San Gimignano, Alice reminded us where our meeting place was and at what time we have to come back.
“There are public restrooms inside, but better use the toilets in the cafes. You have to order something though before they will let you use the washroom.” Alice advised.
I began to wonder how much commission Alice gets from this “helpful advisory”.
Sandeep and I are fond of Alice, though. She was pleasant and charming in her black flower printed summer dress, which kept billowing in the wind. She did look flustered as she tied a black puffer jacket around her waist to prevent the wind from lifting her skirt, and exposing herself to us. She disappeared while we were getting off the bus then the next time we saw her she was already wearing a black stocking under the dress. She stopped fussing over her skirt after that.
Once we entered San Gimignano, we were transported in time. Save for the modern shops along the streets the town looked properly medieval, with its cobbled stone streets, brick walls and terracotta rooftops. In between the shops were romantic looking cafes, with ornate street lamps, outdoor sitting areas and tables covered in a damask tablecloth. Pinocchio seems to be the town mascot probably because the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, was from Florence. I saw little Pinocchio souvenirs in most of the shops. One shop was especially stern, warning curious tourists with a sign that says, “Do not take photos if you are not buying anything.” The lavender dolls inside the shop were quite cute though, but the sign intimidated me so much that I was scared to even check them out.
We climbed uphill to reach the town centre, passing by the church and the towers. A mass was being held in the church and tourists were only welcome to go inside if they are going to attend the mass.
As we climb up to Piazza della Cisterna, I panicked suddenly looking at a medieval pedestal in the very middle of the area. It has two wooden posts supporting a massive stone beam in the middle. The raised stone-table-like platform under it looked especially sinister to me, and the thought of what it could have been sent a chill down my spine.
“ I can’t go there, honey. That looks like a guillotine.” My imagination went on an overdrive.
I remembered how scared I felt inside an old church in Vigan where lots of people died because of an epidemic. I could feel the darkness in there even before I knew what happened there, which I learned later. While inside that church, I suddenly felt I could not breathe, and I had panic attacks. I started to feel the same dread as I looked at what I thought was a guillotine. My mind started wondering how many people would have died there.
Sandeep approached the structure and laughed once he saw what it was. He waved for me to come. I hesitated, then I looked. Well, it was only a medieval well. That’s what I get for watching too many violent medieval films. Did they even use a guillotine in Italy? Wrong country, wrong century.
The “Historic Centre of San Gimignano” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also where Dandoli gelateria is located. Sandeep and I decided that finally, it was time to taste the real world-class gelato. I fought my way in to get inside the gelateria where the other tourists from our groups were ordering on top of each other heaps of gelato.
My one regret was that I did not experiment with the choices of gelato. I was intimidated with how exotic the ice cream looked. The names as well were mostly in Italian, I was not sure what I would be getting so I got the safest choice; a tiramisu for Sandeep and I. The gelato did taste divine, so much better than the gelato we had in Florence.
After licking the last drop of the delectable creamy goodness on my lips we went on exploring the rest of the area until we reached an archway, that seems to be the exit of the walled town. Sandeep was especially awed by a group of elderly gentlemen chatting idly on a bench nearby. Sandeep remarked how well dressed they were in their caps, jackets and suits.
There was still some time to kill before our appointed meeting time, so we wandered inside a souvenir shop on our way back. The store was manned by a Geppetto look-alike, who blushed profusely when I asked if I could take a photo of him.
Sandeep got a miniature yellow tractor, and I got a vintage-styled olive oil cruet. Happy with our loot we stopped by for a cappuccino in one of the cafes.
We almost missed a lookout with the most scenic panoramic viewpoint in the world had we not seen the sign in a narrow alleyway that says ” the most beautiful panoramic viewpoint in the world this way”. The four-story building that Alice mentioned earlier on the bus was alongside it. Alice mentioned before that in these homes, the kitchen often caught fire, so the kitchen was eventually placed on top of the building to prevent the whole house from burning down.
The panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside viewed from that lookout point was postcard perfect. Exactly how one expects Tuscany would look like. I think I have seen that scenery in a variety of images before, the villa, the cypress trees, and the olive orchards but to see them in life is an image I will cherish for the rest of my life.