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Welcome to Volterra!

Hi there.

I am an Irish guy, who will soon be embarking on a lengthy trip to Italy with his better half. We have an apartment in Volterra, Tuscany and are taking a short break from work, to see what it might be like to live over in another country for an extended period.

This blog will diarise our time over there. I hope to cover not only life in Volterra itself, but musings on Italian culture, language and food. As we will have our own (rented) transport, the blog will also feature trips around Tuscany, especially central and west-central parts. I hope you enjoy reading it, and if you have any questions about living life in Tuscany, please let me know.

Virtual Tour of Volterra #1

With the rollout of the vaccines (particularly for us in Ireland), and the fact that Volterra’s positive case numbers seem to be falling rapidly again, we have gotten a hankering for visiting Italy again. Truth be told, it’s on our minds daily!

So, we’ve decided to take our brains on a tour, and we’ll take you guys with us. This will be a little different to our regular older posts about Volterra in a couple of ways:

  1. We’ll be following a set route;
  2. Most of the photos we’ll be showing will be at full iPhone resolution (some iPhone 7, some iPhone 11)

Let’s begin. Below is a map of the route:

Starting at ‘1’, we’ll move in numerical order, through to ’17’. On the way we’ll be showing some sights, giving little insights here and there. We will skip some sights so we can show them on other tours – we’ll see how this one goes.

This will be lengthy, and will require a bit of data consumption, due to the size of most of the photos.

#1: Ok! Welcome to Via Giacomo Matteotti! This is the street on which the entrance to our apartment lies. A curious thing about some of the streets in Volterra. They’ve had their names changed (probably multiple times), but many streets have two names: the current one, and the one it was previously known by, which is still frequently used by locals. In this case, our street will have two labels: ‘Via Giacomo Matteotti’ and ‘Gia Via Guidi’, the latter being the ‘previously known as’ street name. Anyway, here’s the entrance to our block:

There are a couple of restaurants, a bar and a pasticceria nearby, but we will cover those another time.

There is a bit of history to the palazzo in which our apartment lies, as we think it might have been a sixteenth century customs building. We will dig around and see what we can find for another tour. For now, though, we’ll carry on uphill towards the main square.

#2: Let’s take the first right. If it’s during the busy season, you will always find tourists here taking this shot.

For us, this is one of the prettiest lanes in Tuscany, and is called Vicolo delle Prigione (Lane of the Prisoners). Up this laneway and almost immediately to the right is a sandwich bar called La Sosta del Priore. It was recently voted best sandwich bar in the province (think of provinces as counties over in Ireland). Volterra is in Pisa ‘county’. We’ve eaten here more than a few times. It may seem expensive, but the sandwiches are huge! Our faves are porchetta (roast whole pig) and their burger… both with pecorino cheese. On top of that, the welcome from Ilenia is always heart-warming!

We’ll continue upwards through this lane. Whenever exploring, and you find yourself blinkered on a path forward, please also remember to look behind you every now and again, for views you may be missing. This goes for towns and nature! Here’s a pic looking back down from where we’ve just come.

There’s a slight difference in the sky here! Many photos were taken at different times – we hope the 4th wall isn’t completely shattered for you!

#3: We’ll head back to to the T-junction at the end of this laneway and then swing a right up the remainder of Via delle Prigione (note Via rather than Vicolo). You may be able to see part of Volterra’s main piazza from here Piazza dei Priori.

#4: We’ll head steadily upwards towards the square, and under the archway. Turning back and looking up gives us…

You might just be able to see a tiny statue peeking out near the top of the tower on the left. This is the Torre del Porcellino (there is a restaurant of the same name, not covered in this tour), which is Tower of the Piglet. Why there is a piglet there, is not fully known, but it is guessed that it was a show of wealth by the original owner, given that meat would have been so expensive many centuries ago (the tower having been completed in the early 1200s).

It is with no small sense of irony that Volterra’s municipal police are stationed here! Here’s where we need to go when we need to renew our annual resident’s parking permit.

#5: We’ll pivot back towards the piazza.

Dead ahead of us is Ristorante Etruria, with its covered seating area. We have eaten here a bunch of times, and always receive a warm welcome. Eoin likes the Zuppa Volterrana here, and Niamh swears by the grilled boar chops. At the end of the night, we’re given a grappa or limoncello on the house, and a half-bottle of Chianti to take away. Inside, while Eoin isn’t a huge fan of the clear plastic chairs, the restaurant itself is beautifully decorated.

Turning our heads to the far side of the square, length-ways will give you this view, which is our bank in Volterra (Cassa di Risparmio di Volterra).

Banks in Italy are actually quite local, and yet are quite feature-rich. This bank also is deeply involved in providing funds and sponsorship to various arts and humanities projects, which is pretty cool.

#6: Turning back towards the main near side of the square, is the Palazzo dei Priori, essentially the ‘town hall’ in Volterra – and is the oldest continuous seat of local government in Tuscany, at nearly 800 years old.

There are many council buildings in a similar style throughout Tuscany, most notably the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but this is the origin of the species – the Florentine seat of government for the Medici was inspired by the Volterran original. The main council office is here.

Inside, as well as local governmental offices, are rooms for exhibitions, and the bell tower, which can be climbed up for some wonderful views.

Coming out of the palazzo gives us a view of the arch and the Torre del Porcellino again.

#7: We turn right after leaving the palazzo and continue south a bit. Just past the palazzo is a foodie place called Volaterra.

We have ordered pasta sauces, olive oil, cantuccini (hard nutty biscuit ‘slices’) and limoncello during the pandemic crisis, to give us a little taste of our second home.

Walking past it we note to the left what we think is Volterra’s most moody laneway: Vicolo Mazzoni. Here’s a suitable shot of it.

We fondly call it ‘Pigeonshit Alley’, as the place is replete with those little flying rats. However, it’s worth a stroll, as it’s quite snappable – we’ll reserve it for a different tour. Walking on again, we hit a crossroads of the street where we live, to the left, and Volterra’s artisan street, to the right, that leads down to an Estruscan gate (some would say ‘the’ Etruscan gate): Via Porta all’Arco. Again, we will reserve this amazing road for a separate route, but here’s a preview.

We’ll continue on, walking past the road that leads to Volterra’s premier panoramic viewpoint (you guessed it – another route!). You may remember what I said earlier: always look back to see you’re not missing anything. Here we are looking back at the main piazza, and again further on and looking back. One of the most dramatic views in Volterra, infrequently snapped by visitors… who never look back!

Lovely.

#9: For now we’ll make a stop at Ristorante Enoteca Del Duca. This is one of our favourite places to eat. The Del Duca family is so nice, and this year are celebrating 30 years in the restaurant business. They run an agritourismo called Marcampo (think a bed & breakfast farm-stay) about a 5-7 minute drive outside the town – and we love the wines they produce there – principally by sommelier Claudia Del Duca. We always get a warm welcome, and the restaurant features the best technical cooking in the area. The outside seating area in the back is perfect if you need a little calm from crowds.

We’ve also attended a cooking course in Marcampo – well worth the money, as you get to eat your efforts and drink complementary wines.

#10: With full bellies, we swing towards the east, and somewhat uphill, past another of Volterra’s prettiest views.

#11: Heading up the steep lane, we hit one of the entrances to Volterra’s municipal park (Parco Archeologico Enrico Fiumi). We’ll walk around this park some other time – as well as having a green area, there are a couple of archaeological ruins of note (the clue is in the name!).

Opposite the entrance is the back gate to Albergo Etruria (its Cafe Etruria entrance, essentially). I’ve never gone in there (to my shame), except to take this lovely shot:

We carry on through this laneway, until we hit a set of stairs heading down towards our next stop.

#12: Antica Velathri Cafe. We love this place. The manager here is a mixologist of some skill, and is super-friendly. He always encourages our use of Italian, so we get rare opportunities to practice our spoken Italian here. The cocktails are sublime, and the nibbles all home-made. They make lovely almond-based cookies to take away here too. It’s primarily an apperitivo place, so it often closes early as a result (21:30-22:00), so go there before dinner!

We leave the Cafe and swing a right. Here we can see Piazza XX Settembre (a tour on some other route), and the junction of Via di Sotto and Via Antonio Gramsci. We will take the left fork down the latter street, one of Volterra’s premier pedestrian ways.

#13: Almost every time we re-visit Volterra, La Taverna di Terra di Mezzo is the first place we eat. Why? The welcome from Robbi, the owner, and Aurora the ever-present waitress. The second time we visited Volterra, Niamh had been driving and was super-tense, so Robbi gave her an honest-to-God shoulder massage! Not to feel left out, Eoin pointed out that his glutes were similarly tense. Robbi didn’t take him up on the offer, much to the amusement of Aurora, Niamh and a couple of Belgian guests who where sitting near us.

Niamh loves the penne arrabiata here, and I love the Zuppa Volterrana (the best in Volterra) and pappardelle (thin, wide pasta) with bacon and black truffle in a gentle lemon ricotta sauce is one of the best plates of pasta he says he’s had. Robbi also puts together killer antipasto plates and is skilled on the grill. Tourists stop all the time to take a shot of the cute exterior (of the restaurant, not of Robbi).

We carry on down Via Gramsci… a pretty and busy street.

#14: Next stop: La Mangiatoia, the first canopied place you can see in the photo above. When we feel like a pizza and a beer (although we usually go to Pizzeria Ombra dell Sera for that), or some other grub like a hot dog or burger and fries to change the food-mood, we stop off here. A fun, busy place. The food is good and service is pretty fast if you’re in a rush.

One of the features we love most about this street is how the rooftops are all higgledy-piggledy with many towards the one end of the street not forming anything like a straight line. It just gives a sense of character to the place.

#15: Whenever Eoin goes out for a morning walk in Volterra (which is most days) he ends up either here or at the stop after this. Welcome to Pasticceria Migliorini!

This place is perfect for an Italian breakfast, and has a range of delicious pastries, and some gelati later in the day. You can, of course, take some pastries away!

#16: This might seem weird. We don’t have a photo of this place. Another reason why it’s weird it’s because it’s a mini-market (La Bottega, previously known as Il Punto). They see Eoin in here most mornings, topping up on water and sodas, and maybe later we’ll call in to the deli section at the back for some of the most delicious bresaola (cured beef) and prosciutto alla griglia we’ve ever had.

Couple that with a lovely welcome every time from the lady who usually works there in the mornings, and this has become one of our favourite places to give our business to. In fact, she welcomed us back with an enthusiastic ‘Bentornati!’ after almost a year after not having seen us. All too often it’s the little things in life that make you happiest.

#17: Like a good gelato, for instance! Almost opposite the mini-market is one of Tuscany’s finest gelaterie: L’Isola del Gusto. Propietor Ersilia Carboni has been a regional finalist and/or winner in competitions for several years now. The mint, chocolate, hazelnut, cherry and ‘crema di Ersilia’ flavours are just amazing, as is their deliciously cooling lemon sorbet and granita. Do you ever get a hug from food? Well you’ll get one from the gelati here.

And the ladies serving you are always super-friendly too – even welcoming us back to Volterra with grins. We love this place, and honestly, we suspect we buy something from here every second day we’re in Volterra. Not to worry, though – gelato has less fat and fewer calories than ice-cream!

Well that’s it! That’s tour route number 1. We’re just a 30 second walk back to our apartment building! Did you enjoy it – please pop us a comment if so and we’ll have a good think about the next route!

Cosa sta succendo a Volterra?

In an effort to remind folks that this blog is supposed to be about Volterra, we thought we’d post something at least themed in that direction – even if it is rather short!

First and foremostly, we’re not there. Bummer. But our property manager is, and managed to grab some shots – one of our kitchen, and a couple of angles from our terrace. Thanks again to Alice of Milianti. If you’re looking for property in the region (hi-diddly-ho, neighborino!), we would sincerely recommend them… not only for their portfolio and assistance, but also for the peace-of-mind they give us by looking in on the property from time to time (for an annual fee).

We wish we were there!

The last time we wrote about Volterra, they only had 2 or 3 Covid cases. Unfortunately, that has rocketed back up again to 57, due to a large outbreak discovered over the past few days in the medium-security prison, housed in the Medicean Fortress (Eoin managed to get a tour of one of the towers some time back). As there is a real chance that not only prisoners are impacted, the schools are closing for a week to ensure tracing can be carried out and potential carriers identified. Scary stuff – but hopefully it’s reasonably well-contained.

We also hear that while Italy has been slow to vaccinate, Tuscany is one of the better regions (albeit now an Orange Zone region again). Although we only have anecdotal evidence of that. Anyway… we hope it gets moving there, for their sake. No idea of what’s holding things up!

In better news, Volterra will be the inaugural City of Culture for Tuscany in 2022. We’d love to get involved in promoting it in some way, even if it’s informally like this. A typical calendar in Volterra is usually replete with festivals, so we imagine the stops are really going to be pulled out next year. The site still lists it as a finalist for Italian City of Culture, so we assume it will be updated soon enough.

Volterra has also been named a ‘Salt City’, to add to its tourism-feathered cap. Salt has been mined there since Etruscan times, and it was an important source of salt during the Medicean regime. Nearby town, Saline di Volterra, still produces, and it is known as a the purest salt in Italy.

Lastly, but by no means the least, Agriturismo Marcampo will be hosting a free Wine Tasting and Foor Pairing session through Ciao Tours. You have to register for the Zoom link. Given how fantastic their wines and the Del Duca restaurant is, it’ll be worth a look!

A presto!

Eoin & Niamh.

How I’m Healing, and a Walk in The Curragh

Hello again. I suspect this will be a lengthy article!

After posting the link to the list of the symptoms in my previous post, I thought I’d let you know a little more about my own experience, with a view to giving a message of hope to those of you walking with anxiety: that is, I believe that it is completely beatable, not merely manageable. The two principle ways of beating it are (a) allowing the symptoms to wash over you; experience them for what they are: uncomfortable sensations that cannot kill you (in fact, the body’s process (fight or flight) is the diametric opposite – it’s designed to keep you alive), and (b) to carry on with your life as normally as possible, going towards and experiencing people, places and events which currently cause you fear; get exercise in too. The chief reason for these is that you are trying to convince your limbic system that there is no real danger here. This takes training, which takes time – so it will not be an overnight success – you must be brave and persist.

Note that it is not easy to be positively minded when you’re flooded with cortisol, so although I talk a good game in this article, I sometimes am unable to apply what I preach, and subsequently die on my arse. This is ok. If it happens to you (and it will), be kind to yourself, and just try again next time.

Before I rattle on with the list, I have a couple of important disclaimers:

  1. It is extremely advisable that you get your diagnosis of an anxiety condition from a professional. If you think you may have something physiologically seriously wrong with you, get it checked out. However, once you get your diagnosis of anxiety/panic trust it. Do not second-guess it, and immediately give up Googling your symptoms.
  2. I am not a medical or psychological professional. I am purely speaking about my own experience. Get an opinion from a professional. Everyone’s journey is different. My own is chiefly health anxiety, thanks to the current pandemic, so during the past 9 months or so every new weird sensation could potentially add to my anxiety. You may see below stuff like “No, Eoin, you’re not…” – this is me letting you know what you might think it is, but trust that it is, in fact, just anxiety.

The List – Working down from Head to Toes

  • Stress-band headache. Pressure going from temple to temple across the forehead. A feeling of pressure. Lower your stress levels – take a break from what you’re doing, perhaps do a breathing exercise (e.g. box breathing). Once you learn to manage your anxiety, this symptom will tend to crop up as often. No, Eoin, you’re not about to have a stroke.
  • ‘Hot’ sensations in the left and/or right hand corners of your forehead. Will go away when your general anxiety lessens. No, Eoin, you’re *still* not about to have a stroke!
  • Work-related stress. Ok, this is a sub-symptom, but as an anxious person, you’re more sensitive to stress generally. For me, it got to the stage when every interaction in work was causing me to stress out – up to recently. About a month ago, I decided to maintain a ‘Positivity Journal’ in a spreadsheet. Just 3 columns: what the interaction was, the date, and the list of positive impacts it has for me. A month later, I have almost 600 rows in the sheet, and my stress has dipped significantly. Yes, it does add a couple of minutes to your work-related tasks, but for me it has been very much worth it.
  • Dizziness. I only had this early on when I was at my worst. It’s a sign that you’re hyperventilating. You’re breathing too fast and shallow; too high up in your chest, rather from your belly/diaphragm. No, Eoin, you don’t have a brain tumour. I’ve read that it’s incredibly rare to actually faint due to anxiety. If it wasn’t rare, then the fight/flight response would be a complete evolutionary failure! Try slowing down, do a little box-breathing, then continue on with what you were doing originally. Don’t take to your bed, or otherwise hide away!
  • Facial stress. Watch out for jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding and firmly pressing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. If you catch yourself doing these, relax your face muscles, reposition your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Chances are you will find that you’re also carrying tension in your shoulders and stomach muscles. Relax those too!
  • Inability to Concentrate/Brain Fuzziness. I am very open about my anxiety, which is good, as anxiety can bring about a great sense of shame. However, this is one of two symptoms I have any sense of shame about. When my general anxiety levels are high, I cannot concentrate, and taking in anything new is difficult for me. I feel rather stupid as a result, and give myself the impression I’m not pulling my weight in work. I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself. Reducing my stress levels in work has helped me a lot with this symptom, and led to me taking more tasks on. Again, learn to be kind to yourself, and, Eoin… this is just anxiety, not early-onset dementia!
  • Racing thoughts. I am still dealing with this, as probably my #1 symptom, especially as my issue largely is health anxiety. The trick is to simply not worry. It’s easier said than done, and I’m trying to find a mindful tool that works best for me. One of the best approaches I’ve found so far is to treat your recurring worries like sock-puppets (yes you read that right). You will get to the stage that you can allow the worries to be there, even eventually smiling at them when they arise. Sock puppets are harmless, and so are thoughts (see next in the list).
  • Dark thoughts. These can be very troubling, and can cause a deep sense of shame and fear. They could be anything from your amygdala flashing you a thought of your impending death/collapse, to bonkers stuff altogether (visions of you committing acts of violence, extreme sexual perversion, self-mutilation, blasphemic thoughts etc.). This symptom dissipates as your general anxiety lessens. The most important thing to remember, though, is this: these are just thoughts and nothing more – expressions of nothing but excess energy, THEY ARE NOT WHO YOU ARE. You are not going to act out on these thoughts. And rationally, you know this, because you are upset by them. Acknowledge them, and allow them. Then let them pass. They will pass by when you give them no more conscious attention. Humans have tens of thousands of thoughts each day, and some of them may include the type I’ve mentioned above. As people with an anxiety condition, we latch onto them because are have turned inwards from the outside world, and are actively looking for stuff wrong with us. Pay these thoughts no attention, and try not to get upset by them. And no, Eoin, you are not going insane. I do get impending doom flashes, but the more extreme dark thoughts have more or less gone away, as my general anxiety has reduced.
  • Insomnia. Tricky one, this, as it’s a sub-symptom of both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. For me, though, it’s mostly been about racing thoughts. Early on in my anxious life, I had chronic insomnia, often getting just 1-2 hours (if any) sleep in 5 out of 7 nights. The two main things are to stay away from stimulants, and try to go to bed only when you’re feeling tired. Months ago, I had to use bluetooth headband headphones, and try to listen to sleep stories in Calm or sleepcasts in Headspace… finally graduating to gentle audiobooks from Audible. These worked, to a limited extent, but I eventually stopped using the headband. Two other pieces of advise: don’t get upset if you can’t sleep – it will happen, remain calm and you may eventually succumb to Morpheus! Secondly, hide your clock – I found this helped me a lot – do not look at the time if at all possible when you wake up. For me, insomnia lessened when my general anxiety symptoms lessened. I still use the Kindle App on my phone on the night-styling setting to read gentle fiction. Everyone still has sleepless nights, so insomnia is never guaranteed to go away, especially during a pandemic. Another trick which might work, is to try counting backwards slowly from 1000, to counteract racing thoughts, while being in a restful state. I have reduced my general anxiety by allowing and accepting my symptoms, and engaging with life, rather than hiding away. By way of illustration, here is a graph. As part of my daily journal (which I may soon end), I scored myself on several aspects, one of which was my sleep quality. I scored myself a 1 for a good night’s rest, 0.5 for getting at least a little sleep, or 0 for feeling like I got nothing at all. Here is how I’ve scored myself from late August to now. The trend line is very obviously increasing, and I feel now like I’ve almost normalised my sleep.
  • Night Terrors. Thankfully, I’ve only experienced this twice – both months ago, early in my onset. The first time I couldn’t breathe for several seconds, and I had lost sense of self-identity for about 30 seconds. Afterwards I was fine, but obviously felt very unsettled afterwards. The second time, I remembered who I was, but for a couple of minutes I fixated on the fact that I was supposed to carry out a task for someone, but couldn’t remember what it was, or who it was for. I haven’t had anything like this happen to me in months… and if I recall correctly, not at all while I was given my correct diagnosis of having an anxiety condition. So don’t worry… you’re not going mad! It’s just anxiety.
  • Nightmares. This have reduced, and become less severe as my general anxiety lessened. You’ll still have them from time to time, because you’re human!
  • Tinnitus. For me, I have 3 tones: (1) low rumbling, which becomes louder roaring during periods of high anxiety, (2) extremely high-pitched tone in my left ear – quite persistent, but rarely troubling, and (3) occasional very faint sounds of birdsong (which might actually be sounds of birdsong!). This is annoying, and has impacted on my sleep 1 or 2 nights, but the symptom will lessen as general anxiety dips. So no, Eoin, you won’t have a stroke, or you don’t have a brain tumour!
  • Earworms. I’ve read that these are a symptom of depression. I wouldn’t say I had depression, but merely only sadness (see entry below). Anyway, these are not your typical earworms, as they are snatches of song/music lasting 3-5 seconds that repeat over and over and over. They can be frustrating, as they often added to my sadness during my mid-onset. A benefit to them is that they seem to block out the tinnitus! I have found that while I still succumb to them, they are lessening as I am healing.
  • Sadness. Mild depression by another name I suppose. I have shed many a tear over the last 9 or so months. All I can say is that these symptoms have reduced by (a) reducing general anxiety (thereby also reducing stress), (b) practicing gratitude (gratitude journal, meditations etc. – this subject warrants its own blog, so I’m evaluating it right now), (c) mindfully allowing worries and dark thoughts, and letting them pass me by, (d) being non-reactive to things that might make me angry, and (e) remembering this is just the way I am right now – do not compare yourself to how happy others are, nor to how you used to be before you fell ill – this just leads to a Vale of Tears – stay in the here and now, and remember this is something you yourself can change – don’t wait for external circumstances to alter. If you feel there are underlying reasons for sadness/depression, then please contact a mental health professional. Right now, I feel I am over the worst of this, but I still occasionally have days of low mood.
  • Heightened Emotion. I don’t experience this as much as I used to, but it came on me during mid-onset and through to now – albeit not as bad for me in the last few weeks. Basically, you can be moved to tears or fears far more often than normal. Expose yourself to life more often to reduce this symptom. I still have to monitor what I can watch in fear of it potentially making me emotional or fearful, but I’m slowly getting better.
  • Hopelessness. This is mostly experienced during setbacks, which I discussed in my previous blog. Remember that setbacks are signs that you are healing. You will not be the way you are forever. These feelings come and go.
  • Irritability. Sometimes, albeit rarely, I can find myself being narky. It happens a little more often when you’re anxious. Try to remember it’s anxiety, which is distorting reality for you somewhat.
  • Depersonalisation/Derealisation. Speaking of reality… these are two of the most troubling and least understood of symptoms. I didn’t really suffer from depersonalisation, except for that one night terror (see above). Derealisation, though, I had bouts with on and off for a few months – and a few more of it in its mild form. It’s hard to explain… the definition of it is that you feel that the outside world feels unreal to you. I remember taking walks and feeling that people were like paper dolls. I would look at Niamh (my wife), remember who she was and that I loved her, but none of the proper chemicals were firing, and she might as well have been a wax doll. It was a terrible sensation. A theory is that the brain is prepping you for death – you don’t care about leaving the world as much. Note, that it in and of itself does not make you feel suicidal, nor will it actually harm you. It is just a feeling you have been exposed to after a lengthy spell of very high and persistent anxiety. Therefore, I only experienced this symptom at its worst before I got my actual anxiety diagnosis. The worst of it went away soon after I read up a little on anxiety (Barry McDonagh’s DARE, chiefly). However, it still cropped up when feeling very anxious – chiefly when I was looking at TV, and felt as though I was looking at it through someone else’s eyes. Disturbing, but not a sign of brain-cancer or madness. It still happens to me occasionally, but it will definitely dissipate when you get your general anxiety symptoms under control.
  • Pressurised sinuses. I think this is like the stress-band style headache above. I’ve only had this crop up once in the last month – before it was on and off for a couple of months. Not brain cancer, Eoin.
  • Red rashes around the mouth. This is either a stress symptom, or from the fact that I drooled a little bit more than usual while I slept. Either way, I’ve not had these rashes in a while. Not a vitamin C deficiency, Eoin!
  • Lump in the throat/oesophagus. I found that this goes away by reducing general anxiety, and by ensuring you’re not breathing too shallowly. Try to breathe from your belly/diaphragm, but don’t get caught up in controlling your own breathing! Either way, it’s not throat or oesophagal cancer, Eoin.
  • Shoulder/shoulder-blade pain. I am currently experiencing this. I am not sure if this is actual rotator cuff damage or anxiety, or a combination of both. I have an appointment with a physio in the next week or so to help me assess this. It took me several goes of convincing myself that it wasn’t bone cancer, though – this is due to a misdiagnosis my mam had before she passed away.
  • Breathing issues. Oh boy, where to start! This is one of the chief reasons people suffer from anxiety in my opinion. Hyperventilation (probably brought about by stress and worry) eventually alerts the limbic system that something might be wrong, and requests the adrenal glands to begin firing the body with adrenaline and cortisol. There are a few pieces of advice I can give, based purely on my own experience (and I still suffer from feeling like I’m short of breath, by the way). Firstly, trust that your lungs are alright. Stress/worry is causing the muscles in your torso to sieze-up, thereby causing you to breathe too high up in your chest. Relax your shoulder and stomach muscles, try to breathe from your belly. Secondly, I often try to feel my breath mostly coming in through my nostrils, in an effort to get the body to breathe from the correct place itself, rather than consciously trying to direct my breathing – because consciously controlling your breathing is not possible in practical terms. Lastly, if you feel like you have to take a deep breath, please avoid doing this – it could lead to hyperventilation and kick off heightened anxiety. I have (or had – the Jury’s still out), accompanying gastritis, which can also make you feel like you’re breathless. Again… just trust that your lungs are working fine! Eoin, you do not have Covid-19, lung cancer, pneumonia etc.
  • Chest heat. A heating from the stomach to to the pectoral muscles. Again, I think this is coming from shallow breathing/hyperventilation and the impact the resulting anxiety can also have on your stomach and digestion (see further below). The intercostal muscles between your ribs are being over-worked and leading to this feeling of heat. It is not a heart-attack!
  • Racing heart/Palpitations/skipped beats. Probably the main reason why anxious people end up in A&E, as they create more anxiety to the point of pushing people into having a panic attack. I have had my heart checked our 3 times in the last 18 months, and can now finally say that I don’t let these symptoms bother me nearly as much as I used to. All of these symptoms will reduce with a lessening of general anxiety, and moving through your panic attack. You are not having a heart-attack! Again, if you’re unsure, always get the advice of a medical professional, but then trust their diagnosis!
  • Paresthesis (pins and needles in the forearms/hands). These can also occur in the legs and (I’ve read) in the face. I’ve mostly just had them in the arms/hands, and never in the face. They are a sign of highish anxiety and will dissipate when the anxiety level goes down. They are related to hyperventilation (so I’ve read).
  • Clumsiness. When anxiety is at least moderate, I can knock things over or drop things more frequently than I normally would when my cortisol levels are low. This will pass. No, Eoin, it’s not Parkinson’s!
  • Stomach/Digestion issues. I was also diagnosed with mild chronic gastritis. However, I now notice that the symptoms of this generally only manifest when I am anxious. Some people can also develop IBS with anxiety. I haven’t. I get occasional acidity, but the main symptom is a feeling that my stomach is knotting. Not pleasant, but will come and go with anxiety. It is one of my chief symptoms, however. Fortunately, (and without going into too much detail!), the rest of my digestion seems to be good. However, note that my diet has been better than it’s ever been (I’ve lost over 50lbs in the last 9-10 months – no, Eoin, that weight loss is not down to cancer!). I’ve cut down on sugar, processed foods, crisps, booze… I never drank caffeine, so that’s good… I also drink Kefir milk daily, and ensure I’m getting enough vitamin D and B12 (both of which are supposed to be good for maintaining good mood). Eoin, you don’t have stomach, pancreatic or bowel cancer.
  • Feeling like you need the toilet (1s or 2s!). I’ve only had this during times of highish anxiety. It passes (pun not intended).
  • Jelly legs. Again, just had this during moderate-to-high anxiety. Nothing to worry about. It will pass as levels drop.
  • Cold legs. Anxiety can cause your blood to flow to more important organs, making other parts of the body feel weak or cold. This will pass as your anxiety level goes back down. No, Eoin, you don’t have Covid.
  • Pulsing in my feet. A newish sensation for me… it comes and goes. I’ve just noted it and let it pass.
  • Shaking. This is often experienced at the end of a bad panic attack, or prolonged bout of anxiety. It’s the body’s way of removing the excess chemical soup from your system. You see it on wildlife programmes, where a lion’s prey avoids being caught, and they seem to shake helplessly for a few minutes, before getting on with life again. Help it along by shaking it out yourself, or jumping up and down, shadow-boxing etc. No, Eoin, it’s not Covid!

To summarise: if you have your diagnosis, trust it. Then trust that your symptoms are only anxiety, a feeling which, although very unpleasant, cannot kill you. Experience it, then let it pass… and go out and live your life, even if you feel frightened by what you’re about to do.

I thought I’d finish off this blog with some snapshots I had of a walk in The Curragh!

Anxiety: Symptoms, Setbacks and Walks

Imagine for a moment you’re about to go into a panel-style interview, where you know you’ll be criticised, but given a chance to redeem yourself. On live TV (your first time). With a studio audience of hundreds. Just beforehand, you’ll sweat, your legs will feel like jelly, and your heart will race. In addition, your bowels will contract and your bladder shrink to the size of a golf-ball. You may even be desperate enough to want the whole thing to be cancelled at the last minute, even though the encounter may benefit you – you may still want to avoid it.

Now add pins and needles in your arms, and maybe some chest pain for fun. And sure, why not some dark thoughts and high emotions too? And instead of a panel interview, you’re simply walking out the door to go to the shops alone, or are out driving, or opening a random work email… or simply just sitting on your couch at home. Welcome to anxiety and panic. And symptoms which may be felt by degrees over months or years by people who walk with anxiety.

The good news is that anxiety symptoms will NEVER kill you (like a real heart attack might, for example). In fact, they are triggered by a system (fight or flight) designed to keep you alive. Unfortunately, it has gone into overdrive, and your rational mind then has the extremely difficult task in convincing that part of your brain (the amygdala) that there’s nothing to fear here! This can be done, but training can take time.

The symptoms felt by those with anxiety are so varied, it’s incredibly surprising, even shocking, to those unfamiliar. I am not going to list them here, but instead link to a page with a near-complete list of symptoms.

Anxiety Symptoms: The List | CBT4Panic

What a list! And a bunch of them are experienced all at the same time. It can be quite overwhelming.

In addition, anxiety can come and go. And when it comes back, the amygdala thinks “Ok, they’re used to these symptoms a bit, so let’s hit them with something else!”. And so you may experience a whole new range of thoughts and physical feelings when it comes back (aka “symptom shifting”).

Unfortunately, it frequently comes back, and back again… usually in the form of what are called Setbacks, sometimes with new symptoms and sometimes with old ones. This term sounds negative, but is frequently used by sufferers of anxiety and depression and their respective therapists. Setbacks are unpleasant to experience (I’ve just come off one that lasted 48-60 hours), but in reality, they are a sign that you’re getting closer to recovery.

So the idea is to let yourself not be upset by your setbacks, and even learn to embrace them when they come. This is not too easy, as they are designed to frighten you to keep you “safe” from a danger that the amygdala thinks may be omni-present, but it fact it exists only within itself. It’s designed to make you think “My God, it’s back as bad as ever – I’ll never be rid of it!”. That’s just not true – and if you are able to practice your CBT or whatever mindful toolset you have you will experience this. In fact, the better you are at your practice, the shorter setbacks are supposed to be (I am still learning to manage setbacks properly!).

When you’re loaded with cortisol, it’s very hard to put into practice your mindful tools, but you’ve got to keep trying. You’ll beat this, and soon you and your anxiety will be living in equilibrium. As stated above, this training takes time. No estimates provided, as everyone’s journey is different and you should never compare yourselves to others.

Remember too that the graph of anxiety recovery is not an upward straight line, but more resembles the flight path of a paper airplane thrown into a hurricane!

What helped me getting over my latest setback was to read about them in the DARE book (by Barry McDonagh – Chapter “Give Up Fearing It Will Last Forever”), and similarly in this selection of sites:

There’s a Japanese quote I saw on another site that grabbed my attention, and sums it up:

Fall seven times, stand up eight.

Dealing With Setbacks | ADAVIC Anxiety Disorders Association of Victoria, Inc

So again, good luck to all of you trying to walk with your anxiety in peace.

I thought I’d finish off this entry with some pretty! Here is a selection of photographs from Kilcullen and the Curragh I took when out on my walks.

I Became My Anxiety

Like everyone else, sometimes I suffer from sense-of-humour failures, but it hadn’t happened to me in a while. Until today.

I was shown a cartoon, which I can’t replicate here without permission, but it’s the first cartoon you’ll find on this page, called ‘Anxietea’: Anxietea – Gemma Correll. It was sent to me, because I walk with general anxiety disorder (borderline panic disorder at times) and they thought I’d find the pun amusing. I can look at it now and say, “Yeah, it’s ok.” But this morning I fell arse over tit into several traps, which belie my 6-7 months mindfulness practice, to my shame.

We’ll start with the basics:

My Anxiety is Special/Different. While every sufferer has their own journey with anxiety, people who are have an anxiety disorder are all suffering from similar mental and physical symptoms. Mine isn’t special, however horrible the symptoms can be. In fact, it isn’t even mine – it’s just there. There are millions of people all over the world with exactly the same physical feelings.

My Anxiety trumps your ‘occasional anxious moments’. While it is true that symptoms associated with General Anxiety Disorder, and its associated pals tend to be worse than those who are anxious ‘in the moment’, it doesn’t make me more important or more deserving of attention. This is especially true in the current climate. Anyone experiencing mental anguish needs the attention of friends, family and practitioners.

I really fell into those two, and am a little embarrassed by it.

I basically saw the cartoon as a mockery of ‘my’ anxiety, of me, because my anxiety is special, and you obviously don’t understand it, or me!

As a result, I went into Crusade Mode, and attacked the cartoon.

One of the more slightly complicated things to remember about anxiety, is that:

  • You don’t have anxiety, anxiety is present and you are mindfully aware of it (and hopefully allowing and accepting it, thereby reducing its negative effect on you); and
  • You are not your anxiety. Do not turn into Anxiety Man/Woman. Do not let it define you. Acknowledge it simply, and let it roll on by.

I didn’t today, until I had time to reflect, and I could have ended up doing damage as a result.

  • I stressed both myself out, and the person who brought the cartoon to my attention. This is dangerous to someone whose system is already flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol, as it can simply snowball your symptoms. Fortunately, I’m having a reasonably good week, and have been able to employ tools to note, accept and allow symptoms without them impacting me too adversely.
  • I could have damaged relationships with my reaction. I can’t afford to let this happen. When you’re walking with anxiety, you need as many friends as possible, believe me!

Fortunately, maybe 30 minutes or so later, I realised my reaction and talked it out with the person, which released endorphins and generally made me feel better about myself. I have to thank Lesley from https://www.mindzone.ie/ for helping me with my internal monologue on this. Go check them out!

Now I’ll stop the self-flagellation here, as one other thing you are not supposed to be when anxiety is present, is to be too hard on yourself!

Note that as I am not a professional practitioner, I am reluctant to go into specifics on my toolset. What I use works for me, and I am not keen on others insisting I try theirs, as it will split my focus. With that said, I can reveal the following:

Tactical, to mid-term Relief and Remission:

  • DARE by Barry McDonagh. Brilliant Book.
  • Meditations in the Headspace and Calm apps (especially the former for anxiety, for developing neural changes)
  • The content in Welcome to its Just a Feeling | It’s Just a Feeling. Many concepts here are similar to DARE, and it’s useful to read about the stories and symptoms of other walkers.

Strategies for long-term Remittance:

  • Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers (I’ve just started it, but it seems practical and may help me with my over-excitable amygdala)
  • Gratitude journaling (I’ve literally just received a journal from Amazon – review may follow)
  • Gratitude Masterclass and meditations in the Calm app – Gratitude is the new mindfulness buzzword, but over the past couple of weeks seems to have worked well for me… I will blog about gratitude soon, I think.
  • Non-reactivity (well, I certainly failed that today!)
  • Diet. Not going into specifics here, but there’s stuff in DARE and It’s Just a Feeling you can check out.
  • Exercise. Walking mostly.

If you have anxiety present in your life, I wish you well on your walk.

Walking in the Curragh. What’s going on in Volterra now?

So what’s the story? Well after coming back from Christmas holidays (about 13 nights off), my anxiety has increased a little while I get used to the change. The last time this happened coming back from Volterra, I was in a bit of a meltdown for 3 weeks.

Now, I am using my tools better to help me. Oh, I still have periods of high anxiety, and maybe because my symptoms have reduced in intensity, my ability to rest in them has lessened too. So, at times I don’t feel like I’m getting better, but when I think about it properly I definitely am.

So this is the beginning of the 3rd week (Monday 18th Jan), and last Wednesday I had a panic attack. But after a panic attack comes a period of reflection, in which you realise you can’t be hurt by any symptoms (new or old) you’ve just experienced.

Anyway, aside from mindful tools, I also try to walk a few kilometers a day. I have a treadmill for periods of bad weather, but there’s nothing quite like getting out among people. I miss casual interactions with people so much, but at the same time, I’m a little agoraphobic – and sometimes find it tricky to get out without my support person (Niamh). As Niamh is also on a health kick, I don’t mind missing going out on walks by myself, and enjoy when we get out together.

We generally walk around our hometown (Kilcullen, Co. Kildare), but for the past couple of weekends, we’ve gotten out to a wide open space in the countryside called the Curragh. As well as gently rolling hills of grass which is kept short by hordes of grazing sheep, there are also copses of trees and most strangely of all, one of Ireland’s largest army training camps and an associated barracked village.

The first time we went was Friday the 8th of January, when the were still patches of snow on the ground.

The second time (the Sunday just gone), we had a much longer walk around the back of the pitch and putt course, and up by the back of some of the training grounds and through the camp itself – not sure we were meant to be there, to be honest! Anyway, we circled back to the car afterwards.

So, what about Volterra?

Well I have some good news, some interesting news and some… well, not entirely bad news, but it could have been better.

Firstly, during the first Covid wave, Volterra peaked at (I think) 12 positive cases at any one time. This wave, it had no less than 127 – just before Christmas. However, they’re doing something right, because as of today they’re all the way back down to 9. As far as I know there were only a couple of deaths – the rest of the positives got well again.

Secondly, Volterra celebrated Christmas by paying tribute to its alabaster artists, rather than having a traditional Christmas tree. It was a brave move, but seems to have been favourably received. I won’t grab someone else’s work or hotlink a photo here, but you can check it out on this page.

Lastly, Volterra was among the final 10 cities in the running for becoming Italy’s City of Culture for 2022. It was announced this morning, though, that Procida (an island with colourful buildings near Ischia, in the Bay of Naples) was the victor here. Commiserations to Volterra, but congratulations to Procida. However, all is not lost. Volterra instead was declared the Tuscan City of Culture for 2022. I know it sounds like a consolation prize, but you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Tuscany here – a cradle of western culture – and with the right ideas and publicity/marketing, this could turn out to be a golden opportunity for Volterra.

Niamh and I hope to maybe be a part of it, or at least partake in 2022. Forza Volterra!

Last Day, Deserted Pisa Airport – 19/08/2020

It had to end sometime.

I got up alone and took a stroll around the town. Volterra tipped its cap to me by finally having clouds down in the valleys below, giving the smaller colline (hills) the appearance of islands floating in a milky sea.

For lunch, we went to Ombra Della Sera, right beside Terra di Mezzo – which was closed. This is the serious restaurant of the two – they also own the pizzeria near us too – our favourite one. Sadly, although we’d tried several times, the pizzeria was closed, even beyond the dates it said it would be – for pretty much the last week of our holidays, if not longer.

Anyway, the food we had there was quite good – not our favourite, but it was fine. I had the Zuppa Alla Volterrana (che sorpresa!), which was great – and pici with meat sauce (not as nice as the last time I had it). Niamh had eggplant parmigiana, and ravioli with a different meat sauce!

Best of all, I stopped off at Isola del Gusto for a bit of award-winning you-know-what.

And then… well… I guess we went home… and moped, and packed, and got depressed. We drove back to Sixt (recommended!), who did nothing about the scratch on our rental that was news to us – it went all the way along the side, but wasn’t deep – finger paint would do the trick. We had to walk the full length of the outside of Pisa airport before we finally found the new entrance (for Covid). Inside was all bustle…

We flew home, and my anxiety wasn’t at me much… until I got into bed at midnight and got no sleep… only to have to hit work at 07:00. It was the beginning of an extremely harsh 3 weeks for me, anxiety wise. Next time it won’t affect me so badly. But also next time, we won’t hop back into work immediately after coming home!

I have to say again that the people where I work have been incredibly patient, and have handled my situation with due care and empathy. Even though I have had some very bad days, I have not taken another sick day off (since the ones I took when they told me I had Covid!).

I will always be grateful for what they did for me.

And Volterra, here’s looking at you, kid. We’ll be back, vaccine willing, in time for the autumn season in 2021!

Just a Day in Volterra – 18/08/2020

Sorry to say this was our last full day in Volterra, and even sadder that we didn’t really do anything with it. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great, it was rainy – even a little cold, and we didn’t have the will to get up and out as a result.

Instead, I took shots from our apartment, and we stayed indoors for a lot of it.

We did venture out to Torre del Porcellino for the first (and last!) time this holiday. As restaurants were packing out at lunchtime all around the town, we had a slightly early one… and still had to sit outside. When we were seated, I decided I had to make a dash and run back up to the apartment to throw on a jumper! In August! By the time I’d gotten back, they’d put on an overhead lamp heater, so the jumper wasn’t strictly required. Anyhoo, we both more or less had the same thing: slow-cooked beef cheek. It was, of course, yummy!

The reasons we hadn’t been to this restaurant this year before, were (a) outdoor seating was tricky to get, and (b) in or experience last year it was stifling inside. Last year we ate inside, and we had no fan and no air-conditioning near us, and we both nearly passed out. Anyway, this time around, all was comfortable and tasty.

We had a short walk around the town after.

I think we ate out again that night in Ristorante Etruria, but if I recall correctly my stomach was hurting me, so I wasn’t in any mood to enjoy the food, or take pictures of it. We did have a wander about afterwards and took snaps. I don’t think our mood was the best, due to it being our last night.

I know that probably sounds spoiled, and we deep down I know we were grateful that we had the opportunity, especially between pandemic waves, to have visited our little refuge in Tuscany.

Casale Marittimo – 17/08/2020

If Siena is my favourite hilltop city, and Volterra is my favourite hilltop town, then Casale Marittimo is my favourite hilltop village. (Incidentally, Quercerto is my favourite hilltop hamlet!).

We’ve been here a few times before, most notably on May 1st, 2019 – Labour Day in Italy, when the whole village was out celebrating with a fava bean harvest. They were playing some sort of bingo, with numbers being shouted over the main square. Here are some photos taken back then!

However, I was acutely aware that we hadn’t done a full explore of the place. We would rectify that this time around. But first thing’s first: I went on a walk that morning, by myself (up yours, anxiety!), but by the time I reached the part of the road overlooking Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro, I began to earworm Springsteen’s ‘My Home Town’, and had to fight of tears for much of the rest of the walk – I really didn’t want to leave, but we had to soon. I still managed the full circumnavigation of the town’s walls, though – so I won in the end!

Back to doing something happier! We decided to go to lunch in one of the Chinese restaurants closest to us: La Grande Cina in Marina di Cecina (40+km away!). We’d always found it passable before… this time, it was a little different. It was stinking hot, and was absolutely freaking mobbed, so that we had to wait a good 20 minutes for a table. The food we had there was so-so in the end, so we were disappointed.

We countered that by going to Casale Marittimo afterwards and grabbing a gelato there (it was about a .6 on the Isola del Gusto scale, so still yummy!).

The place is crawling with hidden lanes and stairways, and we explored most of what we previously hadn’t.

Not much else was done, and if I recall correctly, this was our last day-trip of this stay in Volterra. That evening I think we had to begin to use what was left in the fridge, and so ate in. Still, it didn’t stop me taking a couple of snaps of Volterra that evening.

The Borghi, the Balze and Dinner at Del Duca – 16/08/2020

Borgo Santo Stefano and Borgo San Giusto are small villages, pretty much appended to Volterra, just outside the current medieval walls, found just outside the north-eastern gate (Porta San Francesco). They would have been within the much older Etruscan walls, which stretched as far as the cliffs (Balze).

We took our walk there in the morning, starting off with Santo Stefano (it’s hard to get to Giusto otherwise, without seriously going out of your way!).

First through Volterra…

Then down to Borgo Santo Stefano…

Then to Borgo San Giusto, one of the main attractions of which is the colossal Chiesa di San Giusto Nuovo – always gloriously cool during hot weather.

After visiting the church, we continued going through the rest of Borgo San Giusto, until we saw some views of the Balze.

We took a brief stroll down past the camping grounds carpark, but the main hiking route seemed to have been closed off. I presume this is because of the current pandemic situation. Anyway, we were walking back towards the witches’ rock (see below) to close off our walking loop, when we spied some blue wobbly stuff beyond some fencing. It was a swimming pool!

We wondered… Heading back again towards the rock, we stopped off at the camping grounds reception (Camping Le Balze), and asked if it’s ordinarily possible to use the pool. They said ‘Yes’! This was a huge revelation to us, as we had thought the closest bathing place would have been Marina di Cecina, over 40km away – not 2-3km away! The provisos were that the pool was principally for campers, so if it is full, it’s full. Secondly, you must bring your own stuff, and wear a swimming cap. We could use the camping grounds carpark whilst using the pool too. They have some basic refreshments and snacks on offer too. What a win! But a win for the 2021 season.

Feeling happier, we walked past the witches’ rock (which I talk more about towards the end of this post).

On the way back to the apartment, we took the stairs from the main resident’s carpark (again, due to my improved fitness, not as bad as it used to be!) and past the ruins. I celebrated with a granita from Isola del Gusto – naturally!

We didn’t hang around the apartment too long. Rather than stock up on food, we decided to eat out a bit today. We masked-up and headed out to Ristorante Il Poggio. This is a place which hasn’t exactly blown me away in the past, but I fancied a schnitzel, and thought this place did them, as it has one or two German items on its menu. I now can’t remember whether I had a change of mind due to health reasons, or if schnitzels weren’t on the menu, but either way I went for a Zuppa Alla Volterrana, while Niamh had a Caprese salad. I really liked their soup!

We had booked a table for two in Del Duca, and went that evening. It’s one of our favourite places to go, and I was able to polish off 3 courses, plus a glass of wine and a limoncello that evening! Yay!

I didn’t take shots of all courses, but here you go!

Home again, and slightly merry – probably the first time for me in a long time!