San Miniato: The Truffle Trail
"The great rivalry between the Blacks and the Whites that followed on the heels of that between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines threatens to flare up anew over truffles,"Artusi wrote a century ago, concluding that white truffles are much more delicate than black ones. Marcella Hazan goes further, saying that there's no point in making a fuss over black truffles when one can enjoy white ones. Where to find them? San Miniato, a pretty town overlooking the Valdarno, produces 25% of the Italian crop, and hosts all sorts of truffle-related activities during November.
To get there, take the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway. If you're coming from Florence you will see to the left, after Empoli, San Minaito's Convento di San Francesco, a huge monastery built into the hillside. Exit the highway and follow the signs for San Miniato. The truffle-related activities take place on the second, third, and fourth weekends of November. There will be stands of all kinds in the squares, plays in San Martino, a pretty deconsecrated church at the end of Via Battisti, and other activities as well, such as demonstrations of traditional handicrafts. Many things are decided upon at the last minute, so stop by the tourism office in Piazza del Popolo for an updated program. The office will also have a list of restaurants that feature special truffle-based menus for the duration of the festival.
Though truffles are an excellent incentive, San Miniato is worth visiting at any time. The town is built on several ridge crests overlooking the Valdarno and has all sorts of interesting things. Across from Piazza del Popolo is the Convento di San Domenico; to the right, as you enter, is a fragmentary La Navicella di San Giacomo with fascinating monsters swimming between the waves.
Continue towards Piazza della Repubblica; there's a bizarre bookstore with photos from the 30s and 40s where the road narrows. In the Piazza, follow the sign that says Caritas Diocesana; you will climb up through the foundations of the Archbishop's Palace and emerge in front of the Cathedral. The plates set into the façade are typical of Pisan Romanesque architecture; the church itself is quite sumptuous, with a spectacular ceiling. The museum next door is also beautiful. Immediately to the right as you enter there is a marble screen showing the Annunciation; the chip was made by a stray American shell that came through a window of the right transept, ricocheted, and exploded against the column to the right of the altar, killing more than fifty people (La Notte di San Lorenzo, The Night of the Shooting Stars, erroneously attributes the massacre to the Germans). Facing the screen is a portrait of Maria Maddalena D'Austria, who inherited San Miniato from her husband, Cosimo II De'Medici, in 1620, declared it a city, and convinced Pope Gregory XV to assign it a Bishop. The museum also has a nice 17th century architectural model of the nearby Santuario del SS. Crocifisso, which was salvaged from a store-room of the Comune, and two very odd Tusco-Flemmish mannerist paintings (upstairs).
Though the Germans didn't blow up the Duomo, they did blow up the Frederic II's tower, which was rebuilt in the late 50's. On a clear day you can see the Apuans, the sea, and Volterra, among other things, and if storm clouds are scudding across the sky the view is haunting. Once you've enjoyed the view return towards the Duomo but bear left and go down the stairs, past the Chiesa del Santissimo Crocifisso, a 17th century chapel built to house a miraculous crucifix (it's open in the evening). The second floor of the town hall, across the street, has some fanciful pseudo-mediaeval frescos. Bear left on Via Rondoni, past a fragment of the statue that the Sanminiatini built to thank Maria Maddalena for her support of their town (the Jacobites tore it down in 1799), and continue up the hill to San Francesco. The church is vast, and quite simple. However, the monastery is fascinating. A door on the left side of the nave leads to the main cloister; turn right and enter into the cellars through a white door. The airy hall to the right once housed the olive presses (it's now rented out for receptions), while the corridor to the left leads outside, to a terrace with a beautiful view, and then to a series of vaulted rooms, presently being restored, that may have been the granary. Once you've finished exploring the complex, follow the road ringing the hill back to the Duomo.
Where to eat, if you're visiting sometime other than November? The Ristorante Canapone, in Piazza Bonaparte (tel. 0571/418121) is good, and has many truffly dishes on its menu. If you want something to take home, the butcher in the square has cheeses and cold cuts made with truffles. Should you decide to spend a night in San Miniato, the Hotel Miravalle, next to the Bishop's Palace (tel. 0571/418075), has rooms with magnificent views.
A visit to San Miniato takes a leisurely day. The surrounding countryside is both wild and lush, and has a number of pretty hamlets. In particular, Balconevisi, which is famous for its truffles, has the ruins of an early brick church with a gothic bell tower. There's also a beautiful 12th century pieve with a brick apse at Cigoli.
There are also other truffle related activities and fairs in the area (dates are approximate as they change from year to year):
© Kyle M. Phillips, III 1997