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.
Any remotely curious person traveler would have parked outside the walls, as we did, to see what was inside.
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.”
Intrigued to learn more? Be sure to read The Strange Legend of Luca Cava in San Gusme on GettingOnTravel.
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!).
The town has two towering churches, the Church of the Most Holy Saints Cosma and Damiano, and Church of the Santissima Annunziata.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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