San Gusme: Serendipitously finding the most charming small town in Italy

April 30, 2017 | By More
The walls of San Gusme

The walls of San Gusme

We never heard of the place and had no intention of going there. In fact, discovering the most charming small town in Italy was a result of a serendipitous wrong-turn off a small road in the Chianti region of Tuscany.

Making the “right” turn

We and two other couples were staying at a nearby VRBO rental villa, Cappelli di Pancole, only seven minutes away, when we got lost while headed to the city of Siena (about 10 miles from the villa).

From the outside looking in, San Gusme looks somewhat like a planned, age-restricted community in the states. Located on a hillside about 1500 feet above sea level, some of its medieval fortification walls still remain intact. Now they incorporate stone buildings, nearly uniform in color, which almost appear to be embedded within them.

Aerial view of San Gusme (Photo credit: http://www.castelnuovo-berardenga.com/)

Aerial view of San Gusme (Photo credit: http://www.castelnuovo-berardenga.com/)

One of the sweeping views from San Gusme

One of the sweeping views from San Gusme

Any remotely curious person traveler would have parked outside the walls, as we did, to see what was inside.

The author outside the porta in San Gusme

The author outside another porta in San Gusme

Discovering the legend

Tourists have few reasons to visit San Gusme—intentionally. It’s not mentioned in most guidebooks. A local told us the population is currently hovering around 89 people; Wikipedia estimates it at 250, more than twice that number. But whatever measure you use, the town is teeny tiny small; young residents tend to leave because understandably, employment prospects are slim.

Although once strategically important in defending Siena, San Gusme has no monuments or museums to speak of except for the peculiar terracotta statue just outside the wall.

It depicts a little man (called Luca Cava) squatting as he completes a bodily function. According to one legend, an innkeeper placed a similar sculpture in his backyard, his way of asking neighbors to “poo” on his land (which could serve as fertilizer) rather than in the streets. When a journalist named Silvio Gigli heard the story, he created the replacement statue now there, called the “Luca Cava.”

Terracotta Luca Cava

Terracotta Luca Cava

The legend of Luca Cava

Marker identifying the legend of Luca Cava

San Gusme hosts a Luca Cava Festival each year on two weekends in September, offering food, crafts and wine for visitors. It’s also the occasion for naming an annual recipient of a journalism award named after Gigli.

Falling in love with authentic Tuscany

The narrow streets of San Gusme are punctuated with colorful potted plants in springtime; they seem to wind around in a concentric circle that makes it impossible for the visitor to get lost (once inside!).

One of the narrow streets in San Gusme

One of the narrow streets in San Gusme

Potted flowers in San Gusme

Potted flowers in San Gusme

The town has two towering churches, the Church of the Most Holy Saints Cosma and Damiano, and Church of the Santissima Annunziata.

Church of the Mostly Holy Saints Cosma and Damiano

Arch atop the church of the Most Holy Saints Cosma and Damiano in San Gusme

Church tower in San Gusme

Church tower in San Gusme

We returned multiple times during our stay and the only other public spaces we found were a bank, post office, diminutive alimentary (grocery store), sarta (tailor shop), two informal restaurants with bars, and two social clubs tucked between houses. What appeared to be a never-open store was actually an apartment window decorated with antiques.

Portrait depicting San Gusme we found in one of the restaurants...a place where time seems to stand still

Portrait depicting San Gusme we found in one of the restaurants…a place where time seems to stand still

While peeking into another shop, an octogenarian tailor and his wife gestured, inviting us in to talk. (In a town of this size, strangers stick out immediately.) When he showed off his tailoring, we struggled to communicate in Italian, telling him we weren’t going to be there long enough to order custom clothes. We left after a few warm hugs.

On another visit, we purchased the last chunk of freshly baked bread in the grocery shop and were dazzled by the redheaded shopkeeper’s smile. She told us she was a transplant from the south.

The lovely shopkeeper in the alimentari in San Gusme

The lovely shopkeeper in the alimentari in San Gusme

We fell in love with the warmth of the shopkeepers, and the intimacy and stillness of the town’s streets, especially at night, when the church towers were illuminated.

San Gusme church tower illuminated at night

San Gusme church tower illuminated at night

Looking outward, the views from San Gusme are a treat for the eyes as well. Perched on the hill, it overlooks the surrounding countryside dotted with cypresses, grapevines and olive trees. If you focus, you can almost see Siena.

View of the countryside from one of the two portas in San Gusme

View of the countryside from one of the two portas in San Gusme


IF YOU GO

  • San Gusme is administratively classified as a frazioni, a clump of houses within one of Italy’s comuni (townships). It sits within the comune of Castelnuovo Berardenga, in the province of Siena.
  • Nearby and worth visiting is one of the Jackson Family wineries, Arcanumis.
  • The magnificent Castello di Brolio with its gardens is located in Gaiole, about 5 miles away.
  • We didn’t notice any hotels or inns within the walls (although they may have been hidden) but VRBO offers rental properties in the area like the one we stayed at.
  • A waiter in San Gusme introduced us to a knowledgeable, English-speaking local driver (who happens to be a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, Giancarlo Zito. Zito operates My Tuscany Vacation, offering local tours and transfers.

OUR PHOTO GALLERY – SAN GUSME: THE MOST CHARMING SMALL TOWN IN ITALY

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Category: DESTINATIONS, FELL IN LOVE WITH

Comments (33)

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  1. Lauren M says:

    What an enchantingly beautiful place!

  2. Jackie Smith says:

    Love finding such villages in Europe – and each we label the most charming until we find the next! Beautiful post and great tip for the next time we are in the area.

  3. Anita says:

    What a treat to stumble upon a hidden gem like San Gusme! Love your description, Irene, really makes me want to go there.

  4. It does look charming. I love finding places like this by accident.

  5. Josie says:

    Hi Irene,
    Charming! I love that you snapped a photo of the redheaded shopkeeper. A lovely photo to go along with your words.
    While on our way to Siena several years ago, Conrad and I happened upon Barberino, a very similar Medieval village — just a stone’s throw north of San Gusme. We were quite smitten!
    Over several years of travel there, Italy delivers big time in the charm department. History, food, and architecture play a large part, too, of course. Each time we love it more.
    Regards,
    ~Josie

  6. Patti says:

    What a wonderful little gem to find! It’s how I imagine so much of the countryside in Italy. I’ve been aching to visit Italy for years but have waited until the time when we had just that… time. Lots of time to explore the country beyond the big name cities. I would love to take cooking lessons in Italy as well. 🙂

  7. I had to laugh at the statue of Luca Cava – (the patron saint so-to-speak of San Gusme!) What an intro to the city but it would make you curious to find out more about the people who live there. I love your photo of the beautiful red-headed shopkeeper but all of your photos just ooze charm! So often when traveling those wrong turns are the places you remember most and San Gusme is a little treasure.

  8. michele h peterson says:

    I’m ready to move to San Gusme right now! It looks like a friendly welcoming town and those views! Swoon…

  9. Janice Chung says:

    I love Italy and would have no problem getting lost (I did many times) so coming upon this town would be a bonus. Hard to believe that there are only 89 people who live there considering they have the Luca Cava Festival! As for Luca Cava. What a story!

  10. Donna Janke says:

    San Gusme sound absolutely delightful. It is so great to stumble upon gems like this.

    • Yes, one of the best parts of travel is finding a great hotel, restaurant or town (or a local person, too) –that far exceeds your expectations!

  11. il covo di nina says:

    Vi ringrazio infinitamente a nome mio e di tutto San Gusmè, un onore per noi accogliervi in questo piccolo borgo del Chianti Senese! Grazie per le belle fotografie e per le belle parole amichevoli e pertanto vi aspettiamo a braccia aperte sperando di potervi conoscere tutti personalmente!!!

    Sabrina, Il Covo di NIna
    https://www.facebook.com/ilcovodinina/?ref=bookmarks

    • On the power of the Internet:

      When I woke up this morning, I was delighted to find out that I received the note above from the woman in the store, whose name I did not know, Sabrina! I don’t know how she found this post!

      But, according to Google Translate, this is what she wrote:

      I thank you infinitely in my name and all of San Gusme, an honor for us to welcome you to this small hamlet of Chianti Senese! Thanks for the beautiful photos and nice friendly words and therefore we look forward to your open arms hoping to be able to meet you all personally !!!

  12. So glad I stopped by after you received the note from the charming Sabrina. How much more enchanting can a small town be? And how wild that she came across your post!! If you are going to get lost, I can say I’ve never read of a better spot then San Gusme!

  13. il covo di nina says:

    Certamente!

  14. Patti Morrow says:

    San Gusme looks so adorable! Those old fairytale walls are just my style. I loved Sienna, but now I wish I had gotten lost and found San Gusme, too!

  15. Such a charming little village. It’s nice you were able to return over and over again to get to know the tiny village so well!!

  16. Sabrina Lagna says:

    E’ possibile soggiornare proprio dentro le mura, date uno sguardo a questa meraviglia:https://www.facebook.com/Borgo-San-Gusm%C3%A8-935339173173727/?fref=ts
    troverete il sito internet se avrete voglia di ritornare e prenotare proprio a San Gusmè. Vi sono diverse opportunità..questa è meravigliosa!!!!

    In English: You can stay right in the walls, take a look at this wonder. You will find the website if you would like to return and book right in San Gusmè. There are several opportunities … this is wonderful !!!!

  17. Sabrina Lagna says:

    Grazie a tutte voi, sarebbe una gioia avervi qui…magari tutte insieme!!!
    😀

    In English: Thanks to all of you, it would be a joy to have you here … maybe all together!

  18. San Gusme sounds like an absolutely charming secret little gem! And how nice to receive these notes from Sabrina in the town :-).

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