San Gimignano is the Tuscan ‘City of Towers’. Medieval towers were a status symbol for their owners, built much taller than was really required for defence. In most towns, centuries of redevelopment have destroyed the towers which once existed, but San Gimignano is the exception. Plague and poverty came, and the towers were left. Now it’s a world heritage site.
Even if you haven’t been to San Gimignano (and why not?), you may have seen Judi Dench and Maggie Smith being frightfully English in ‘Tea With Mussolini’. I actually had the surreal experience of my life when I went into town one morning and found the square full of SS and Wehrmacht troops and their equipment. It was like stepping back in time.
But then, historical re-creation is something the Italians love. And so do I. Every year in San Gimignano, they have the ‘Ferie delle Messi’ festival. I’ve been back to enjoy it several times, after seeing it by chance one year. It’s organised by a cultural and historical group ‘I Cavalieri di Santa Fina’ – The Knights of Santa Fina. (The ladies in the film were trying to protect the tomb of Santa Fina from war damage. She was a medieval teenage saint who starved herself to death. Then it was holy; today it’s an eating disorder.)
There’s lots of dressing up, dancing, jousting, roast pig and mugs of wine. There are lots of tourists (like me), but it’s not touristy: it’s a festival by the people, for the people. The jousting tournament is taken very seriously, with every dubious blow or false start argued voiciferously. I just love the atmosphere.