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A stretcher-bearer in San Gimignano

Last week I spent part of my day helping to carry an 81 year-old man on a stretcher down a narrow flight of stairs. Not an easy task, but it certainly wasn’t made any easier by the fact that he’d broken his hip. None of the other stretcher-bearers, two of whom were proper paramedics and one of whom was a passer-by like myself, spoke much English but between us we managed to get the old guy to the waiting ambulance.

This incident took place in San Gimignano, an old hill-town in Tuscany that is famous for its white wine and its medieval towers. In fact, one of those towers was the reason why the old man found himself strapped to a stretcher and being carried out to an ambulance. He was part of a tour group that had a couple of hours free in San Gimignano before their coach was due to take them to Siena for the evening, and being an active person even in his early eighties he’d wanted to climb the tower of the Palazzo Comunale, which is called the Torre Grossa (great tower) on account of it being the highest of the town’s fourteen remaining towers.

As for me, I was in San Gimignano as part of a week-long holiday with my wife and mother-in-law. We were staying in Panzano, a hill-top village located in the heart of Chianti country between Florence and Siena which is best-known for its butcher, of whom more in a later post. We were on a day trip to San Gimignano, which Allison and I visited on a holiday to Tuscany last year on our way to the airport at Pisa, which had almost ended in disaster as we mis-calculated the time it would take to drive back to the airport! This time, though, we allowed ourselves as much of the day as we wanted to explore, safe in the knowledge that there was no time-limit on getting back to our hired apartment.

In wanting to ‘do’ the tower, I was on my own. We’d looked around the church with its lavish frescoes of scenes from the Bible, the martyrdom of St Sebastian and Taddeo di Bartolo’s gruesome depiction of the Last Judgement. We’d had a coffee in the main square – by now, I was getting used to the Italian concept of not drinking milk in my coffee after breakfast. As Allison and her mother didn’t fancy climbing the tower and I wasn’t particularly inclined to go shopping, we split up after finding a reasonably-priced enoteca that had been listed in the guide-book and where we agreed to meet for lunch in an hour’s time.

Getting into the tower wasn’t easy – I was kept waiting out in the rain due to a ‘staff change’, and I spent the time chatting to an Australian woman in her sixties called Francine who also wanted to climb the tower. She was with a tour group which had started a couple of days previously in Rome and had moved up to Tuscany. One of her group, Bert the Kiwi, was older than the rest by several years but was by far the most physically active, and had already gone over to the tower which he also wanted to climb; in fact, Francine’s main reason for coming to the tower was that if an 81 year-old man could do it, so could she.

Anyway, we were eventually allowed in and after paying our €5 and taking a cursory look at the museum (more religious artwork) we headed for the tower.

On our approach to the barrier before the serious part of the ascent began, I was rather surprised to see someone lying down on the floor. Maybe he was taking a breather, I thought. But no. He was obviously in some considerable pain – and Francine immediately recognised him as Bert, the 81 year-old Kiwi.

The lady who operated the barrier was in a fluster, as you’d expect. Bert was still conscious and he reckoned he’d broken his hip – he’d slipped on the last step while coming down from the tower. An ambulance was on its way, and as there was nothing much that Francine and I could do, the woman gestured that we should carry on and make our way up the tower.

We made it to the top without any difficulty, apart from a bit of a squeeze getting onto the viewpoint itself. Once there, we were treated to a fantastic panorama of San Gimignano and the surrounding countryside. Tuscany looks great even when it’s raining.

Most of the towers in Sam Gimignano are privately owned and so are not open to the public. Even so, I was a little taken aback to find that they are in effect private roof-gardens! Now I don’t know about you, but that seems like going to great lengths to have a beer in the sun. That said, the houses in the town are packed in so closely no-one has an actual garden, so I suppose the lucky few who own the towers are making the best of it. I would say something about the privacy but there’s not much of that given that the tourists can all gawp at you from the Torre Grossa.

Descending was fairly straightforward, but given what had happened to Bert we both took our time. When we got down to the barrier, the operator was gesticulating at me and saying something.

I couldn’t understand what she was saying – although I’ve recently taken an Italian class, I don’t think we covered what to do in an emergency situation – but it was pretty clear that as an able-bodied male, my help was needed to carry the stretcher down the last couple of flights of stairs to the waiting ambulance in the square.

So that’s what I did. Luckily the other stretcher bearers (two guys from the ambulance and another passer-by) spoke better English than I can speak Italian so we were able to co-ordinate ourselves, and although those staircases were tight, we made it down to terra firmer without inflicting any further pain on poor old Bert.

The ambulance was waiting to take him away, along with his wife who looked pretty shaken up. Francine went off to join the rest of her tour group, who had just been informed of what had happened to one of their number.

And me? By now, I was late for lunch, so I made my way to the enoteca.

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