Volterra: After the intensity of Siena (not to mention the extra 100+ minutes of driving from getting lost), we were ready for a lower key day. David had read about Volterra in Rick Steves’ book, but before we ventured a toe out of our area, we were bound and determined to get a good road map. The GPS had proven itself useless when venturing outside of its pre-programmed locations, so we needed to be able to navigate on our own.
We headed into Colle di Val d’Elsa, found parking near the bus station, and got information about busses to Firenze (Florence) for the next day. The market had taken over the main square, and we simply had to stroll through. It was clothing and shoes, and David found a lovely leather belt and I couldn’t resist a little jacket.
The little tabaccaio next to the bus station had excellent maps. We got a good one of Tuscana and one of the whole country. The Tuscana map showed us that Volterra was very close, and, once we picked up the car, we quickly saw road signs pointing the way. (The GPS, meanwhile, insisted that there was “no route available.”)
The road was winding and narrow, but took us through some exquisite country-side. Everywhere you looked there were vineyards, sun-dappled fields, ancient half-collapsed farm houses, and those voluptuously rolling hills that are soooo Tuscan! David drove and we soon reached the outskirts of Volterra, which was peppered with alabaster workshops.
We found a huge free parking lot outside the old city, and entered the old walls. Immediately, we were transported back in time:
After these arches, we started climbing the spectacular stairs leading up to the town.
It was a lovely climb, and many of the steps plainly showed their ancient origins.
As with all the Tuscan hill towns, the view from the top is always worthwhile.
Volterra was a major Etruscan area; more tombs and relics have been found in this area than all the others combined. When the Greeks were at their peak, the Etruscans were enjoying the good life in what is now modern Tuscany. As their culture put enormous emphasis on death, the funerary urns and stone sarcophagi are the major remains of their civilization (though many anthropologists say that the Etruscan blood continued on through the Romans and modern Italians).
Volterra might have been just another small Medieval town that attracted tourists for its alabaster and the Etruscan museum, but when Stephenie Meyer set part of the action of the second Twilight series book in Volterra, she gave the town a huge economic shot in the arm. (We saw plenty of Twilight-related tourist stuff, but it didn’t interfere with the real beauty of the spot.) Meyer’s choice of Volterra made a lot of sense once we hit the town; the Etruscan fascination with death had led to an entire death-cult style of decoration and even sweets, with their osa dei morti bscotti (bones of the dead cookies). The morbid motif is everywhere, even in the first church that we ducked into. (A note on the churches: they are usually open and often have very imressive art. We were in and out of this one in five minutes, and there was not a soul to be seen.)
Our main objective was the Etruscan Museum, but we were instantly sidetracked by the alabaster workshops. The local alabaster deposits had been used for thousands of years, mostly for ancient funerary urns and burial monuments. But today, artisans are turning out pieces of extraordinary delicacy and beauty (as well as a lot of touristy crap). We made note of what appeared to be the classiest place, planning on returning later in the day.
The Etruscan Museum was small but well-stocked. I had not anticipated that there would be so many sarcophagi, or that the pottery collection would be so good. Late Etruscan pottery had a lot of Greek influence, and the later stone caskets had scenes from Greek mythology…
The museum was housed in an old villa which, in itself, had some lovely things to see. But when looking at a four-thousand-year-old pot, it is hard to get excited about an 18th-century building!
Museumed-out, we picked a little traitoria and had a very good meal, despite the strangely modern interior: stuffed pheasant on the counter, The Simpsons (dubbed in Italian, of course) blasting on the TV. (They did turn it down when I asked them…)
We went through the archeological park and the dig site, which was fairly ho-hum compared to what I have in my corner of the world, but it was so nice to be out and walking around on such a beautiful day that neither of us minded.
At this point, we had soaked up enough culture and were ready for some serious shopping! David wanted to get something very special for my mom, and deliberated over a number of gorgous small bowls, each one unique, almost glowing (some of the alabaster is naturally translucuent).
At the top of the town was another large piazza where the busses pulled in. Here we discovered a wine store offering free tasting and David got into a discussion about the merits of different wine corks with the owner. The wines were good, but nowhere near as special as the 2007 Borgo Santinova Chianti.
David also ran into a group of tourists from Canada and had a nice chat with them while I tried to find an Internet cafe (no luck).
Lots of dogs in Volterra. We both got to pat a few during the day.
We drove back to our town, stopping off at the Coop, which was a completely different scene from our first visit. Of course! It was Friday evening! Tons of people and little kids, but we needed milk and a few other essentials. We forgot that you have to generate your own price sticker for the produce, so the cashier had to take our lone lemon and go in search of a sticker station! She didn’t give us a lecture; in fact, almost everyone we met with was very kind, patient, friendly, gracious, and helpful. The few not-so-nice ones were the rare exception.
Our grocery supply refreshed, we headed back to the farm-house apartment, where we inaugurated the tiny alabaster candle holders I had purchased for myself, made kiddush and hamotzi, and feasted on one of David’s famous frittatas. We polished off the Chianti and moved on to the Borgo red (good, but not as good).