Featured

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.

Etruscan Tombs and Another Day in Volterra (08/08/2021)

This morning’s walk took me through the Porta alla Fiorentina, past the new archaeological dig for the recently discovered Roman amphiteatre, past the cemetary and out of the town limts to visit a couple of Etruscan tombs.

Here’s a video of my trip:

The walk back is the trickiest part, as it is all uphill for a few kilometers. I took the macro lens with me and took some shots on the way home.

The Cathedral in Volterra has started charging people to see inside both it and the baptistry. I’m not in love with that idea. It’s a place of worship, so it should be free in. I know that the Cathedral had undergone a few years’ of restoration work (we were there when it reopened in 2019 – you can see inside it here), but I hope this is just a temporary measure to ensure numbers are choked for Covid reasons.

Anyway, Niamh and her sister went to check it out, but were put off by the notion of paying in, and so decided to go to mass there instead today – for free! (Pro-tip!). While they were away, I stayed at home and worked on video editing (and ok, I admit it, gaming).

Afterwards, the ladies wanted wanted salad and cold-cuts for lunch, but I wasn’t into it that day. Instead, I went to La Carabaccia, and had some pasta with guinea fowl and a drop or two of their amazing red.

There are a team of a mother and her two daughters, who cook what’s fresh – (generally their pasta is alos homemade) generally limiting their menu to a selection of two primi and two secondi. All home cooked. Their food is wonderful.

Naturally, I had to cool down on the way home.

We stayed at home for the rest of the day, and then headed out to dine at Ristorante Etruria in Piazza dei Priori. It was packed, but we managed to get a seat outside. Now, I know sometimes this site could be accused of being a hagiography of Volterra, where nothing untowards is said… but I have to say I was a little put out by the restaurant that night.

I was the only person who ordered two courses, and they both arrived at the same time: a Zuppa alla Volterrana and a steak. The food tasted well, but our whole service just seemed very rushed. It’s rare that Italian restaurants want to turn over their tables, but this was the impression I got. A bit of a shame, as we’d had some good times there before.

In fairness, we had a good night there later on in the holiday, thanks to them allowing us to sit at a table post-meal, drinking beer so we could watch a concert in the Piazza. More on that another time, though.

Here’s my meat dish.

After that, I we had a wander around town.

I hope you enjoyed reading this. Please leave a comment if so.

Of Markets and Fine Food (07/08/2021)

Well, I got up and left the trash out (organico, aka compostable bio waste on Saturdays). Bio waste always has to be taken out, as things get stinky in 35+ degree heat!

I was on my own for the walk, so I decide to go anti-clockwise around the outside of the walls. On the way, I pass by Serena – one of the ladies who works for our property managers, who greets me with a cheerful yell and wave – she was out jogging. Minutes later we pass by Enrico – also out for a trot – the man from the bank who held our hand through the mortgage process – and still is our man contact in the Cassa di Risparmio di Volterra (the bank who gave us our mortgage). It took a few moments for us to recognise each other, and wave a greeting. A wonderful feeling of belonging washes over me – I feel like I’m at home again. I pass by him again on the other side of the town, still running.

Saturday is also market day, and early on in the walk I get to see a little bit of the market setting up in the carpark beside the Roman Theatre.

You can find a video of the walk, followed by a walk around the market I took later on.

Some shots of the walk too:

After I was done and had breakfast, we chilled for a while and then headed out to the market. The wonderful thing about the market, and about Italian markets in general, is the noise. The mingled sounds of laughter, chatter and cries of stall-owners, as they try to capture the attention of shoppers, just warms my soul.

Markets are great to shop at, because not only is the produce generally fresher, as it has travelled far less than it has to get to a supermarket, but it is also usually a good deal cheaper! A complete win-win.

I didn’t get anything, but the ladies got some fruit, and then we walked back to the apartment.

The previous day (I forgot to blog this!) I had ducked into Ristorante Enoteca Del Duca to book a table for us this evening. I was hungry for something for lunch, though.

I decided to head to La Sosta Del Priore for a sandwich. You may have read in a previous blog, that they were recently voted the best sandwich bar in Pisa county (province), so I had to queue for about 20 minutes. Eventually, I grabbed a mortadella with truffle sandwich on focaccia. They added fried fresh pecorino cheese to it. It was so tasty.

We had a lazy afternoon in. I honestly don’t remember what we did, so I assume it was napping, gaming, video-editing and screen-watching!

However, come the evening, we were heading out to dinner! We decided to leave the apartment early to grab an aperitivo at L’Incontro. We sat inside, and if I recall correctly, it was the first time (outside of an airport) we had been asked for our ‘Green Pass’ – which was the Italian name for the Covid Vaccination Certificate. We had our digital versions, and they were scanned quickly enough.

I had an Aperol Spritz (manly!). L’Incontro service nice mini sausage rolls and pizzette (tiny bite-sized pizzas) with the aperitivi. They were yum, as was the drink! It got us in the mood for dinner, which is exactly what it should have done. I don’t go into L’Incontro often enough – and this visit was no difference – this was our only time there. We were going to go in another time, but they had music blaring inside, and we didn’t fancy it. But it’s so good at what it does: drink, sandwiches, pastries. A shame it doesn’t seem to do gelato any more, as used to be lovely there.

Onwards we went to Del Duca for dinner, after a brief stop at the panoramic viewpoint to burn some time and calories. Then we went in, and got our usual warm welcome. In addition, the talented head chef, Alessandro, recognised me from Instagram and Facebook, and smiled and waved at us.

We had food and wine… quelle surprise. It was wonderful, and while we were eating, we had a quick chat with Claudia Del Duca, and we agreed to visit their farmstead (Podere Marcampo) later in the week. Here’s most of the grub!

We had attended a cookery course at Marcampo a couple of years ago, and Ivana – Claudia’s mom and ex head-chef at Del Duca, asked us if we had baked any bread since. We had to tell her no, with a little mortification – she just chuckled. At the end of the meal, we were presented with a glass of her legendary limoncello – it’s the without a doubt the strongest limoncello I’ve ever had, but I yummied down two glasses of it (I had mine and someone else’s, if I recall correctly!).

We were certainly fit for bed after that, and that’s exactly where we went.

Thanks for reading. Pleae leave a comment below if you liked the blog, and if you have any questions about Volterra, or staying nearby.

#100! Siena, Monteriggioni and A Golden Hour Walk (06/08/2021)

My 100th blog!

Niamh’s sister had never been in Siena before, so after we’d been up a couple of hours, we drove to our usual go-to carpark: Parcheggio San Francesco. We got there handily enough, and queued for maybe 2 minutes before we were let in. Once there, it’s a 500 meter walk (if that) to the long series of escalators that will take you up to Piazza San Francesco, without you having to wreck yourself by climbing up hundreds of steps!

I took a few shots on the way to the Campo.

We wound our way through some streets so we could show Niamh’s sister the glory of Piazza del Campo!

We didn’t hang around long, as we were hungry by then, and left the piazza immeditately in search of a good place that locals favoured. Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos of the food, nor of any of the surroundings, but after a little research on Google Maps, I think the place we settled on was Osteria degli Svitati. We were sitting outside on a bit of a slope and the menu was hand-written – so I think it was this place. We had unpretentious pastas at good prices, and they were good!

Afterwards, we had a stroll around the shops, and bought a table-runner and bread-basket thingy in one of the craft-stores dotted around the town. The lady who owned the place had a really cute little doggy who ruled the roost! Then we visited the Duomo. It’s both beautiful and impressive, and it could have been a beast, if the Senese had not succumed to the plague. Parts of the once-planned transept are now a gigantic carpark.

Due to Covid queues, and a hot day, we decided to cut short the visit and head instead towards Monteriggioni. We got there, and managed to get into one of the free carparking slots that had just been vacated.

It was sweltering by then, so our first stop was at the gelateria, and then on for another stroll around some of the craft and jewellery stores. I insisted on going into the branch of the Pratesi shoe store there. I grabbed myself a pair of nice salmon slip-ons, that I left over in Volterra – one less thing to pack for my return! Yay me!

We had a quick peep inside the church here, but didn’t go into any of the museums. It’s a cute place, but small. We’d visited before, and then we’d paid to climb onto the walls, but not this time.

Then back to Volterra, where I did the necessary after such a long, hot and thirsty day!

We had a lighter meal of cold cuts and yummy pecorino aged in rosemary! So good with truffle-infused honey!

The ladies were hot and exhausted after a long day out, but I still had cortisol (and beer, gelato and granita) to burn off, so I decided to go out an capture Volterra during the evening golden hour. I do this so rarely, so I really enjoyed the experience. Here, unsurprisingly, are some photos!

And that was our day. To telly-watch, then bed!

I captured a little of the day on video:

I hope you enjoyed the read and the media… leave me a comment to let me know what you think, or if you plan on visiting Volterra soon!

Long and Lovely Lunch at Terra di Mezzo (05/08/2021)

As it was just after our first night, we had no trash to take down, so I could afford to take my time. I still had to move the car by 08:00, though. I grabbed my phone, grip and mic and headed to the carpark.

I got in and drove down to the free carpark, at Docciola. At that hour, I found a spot with no hassle. However, the downside of that carpark is that you have to climb up a couple of hundred steps to get back into town. When there, I walked along Via Gramsci, and stopped off at Pasticceria Migliorini for some pasticcini for breakfast. Italians’ breakfasts are usually sweet, so I just wanted to fit in.

I have a little video about my little walk here:

Once done, I yummied down the pasticcini, had a shower and headed out to meet Alice from our estate agents, who have a great property management service. We gave them a gift of a ton of drink-themed chocolate, and we were given a quick tour of their new office; a great upgrade from their previous one! Very nice indeed.

We had to renew our parking permit, so Alice brought us to the municipal police station in Torre di Porcellino. We waited in line here while the queue slowly moved along.

While we waited, I ran to a tabacchi to buy stamps to affix to the permit… a sort of mini-tax to be affixed to the permit itself.

It was finally our turn, and we were served by a dapper young gent in civilian clothes. For some reason, and we’re still not sure why, our permit was downgraded from ‘R’ (pretty much full resident’s permit – you can park almost everywhere, and drive through town on designated roads), to ‘F’, which allows us park in 3 areas – and we’d have to ask for permission to drive through town. Now, it annoyed me, but in practical terms it didn’t really impact us, as we were still able to park in our usual carpark.

Anyway, next year, we’ll see if we can get upgraded again… but maybe not get so upset if we can’t pull it off.

One of the traditions Niamh and I have is to try to have our first major meal in La Taverna di Terra di Mezzo – largely down to the time we were welcomed back by them at the beginning of our second ever visit to Volterra. So, we went there for lunch! And we weren’t disappointed.

The food was amazing! We also doused ourselves in the house red and white. When all was done, Aurora opened a bottle of limoncello, and left it and three glasses with us! We weren’t abusive, and just had maybe five shots between the three of us. I ended up leaving satisfied and perhaps just a little tipsy!

The lunch took over 2.5 hours…. but I loved every minute of it. Afterwards, to burn off the calories (and some boooze), we had a stroll around the town a little. This was cool, as I so rarely take photos of it at this time… most of mine are taken in the morning. Anyway, here’s a selection!

We chilled for a little while, before inexplicably getting a little hungry again! So I said I’d pop out to Ombra della Sera pizzeria and grab a couple of pizzas to share. But on the way, sure I had to stop off in L’Antica Velathri Cafe for a quick aperitivo!

I ordered at the pizzeria, and was told it was a 20 minute wait, so I had a quick stroll.

I collected a veggie pizza and a 4-cheese…. I love Ombra’s 4-cheese!

And then to bed! Or maybe some time out on the terrace, then some TV, then bed!

Thanks for reading!

We Came Back, Baby (04/08/2021)

We had a short holiday in the West of Ireland back in June, and then decided to pick our date for our return to Volterra. Looking at the vaccination schedule and cycles and waves of Covid, we made our move to book a couple of weeks in August. This time with guests: Niamh’s sister for the first week, my brother for the second.

Then the nerves set in (what else is new?).

The weeks seemed to flow at times like treacle, and other days it sped by. There were hiccups, of course, mostly around flights. Aer Lingus cancelled a ton of their European schedule, so Niamh had to scramble to re-book flights with Ryanair and re-do the booking for the carpark and carhire. Our guests had to manage some of that too. Then Ryanair shifted both outbound and inbound flights to later on in the day… cue further nervousness.

Then we finally found a bit of a saving: we’d get Niamh’s sister to drop us to the airport, and my brother to bring us home… presto! No carparking charges!

The day finally came, and everything went off without any further hitches. I think my anxiety was possibly slightly higher during this airport experience than I was last year. You never know why… it is what it is. I never really felt truly uncomfortable, though.

The airport was certainly busier than last year.

We’d arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and so were able to shop and sit *twice* for food. The ladies had sandwiches, and after I had an overpriced burger. It was nice, though – it hit the spot!

At the departure gates, there were the usual checks of passports, but really only cursory checks of our vaccination certs and passenger locator forms. Some dickhead in the line mouthed off to a staff member when he wasn’t wearing a mask, but soon piped-down and masked-up when confronted a second time.

We got on the plane, and we pretty much left on time – certainly nothing like last year.

The flight was great, if fairly packed… social distancing not a thing on these flights – although everyone was wearing a mask unless they were eating/drinking. The people density on the flight was pretty much the same as last year – although people were adhering to mask-wearing more this year.

We didn’t have any carousel cases with us – just carry-on, so we… um… waited for a longish time at passport control while they slowly funnelled about 20 people at a time. Then we were off!

And off to Sixt! These guys are expensive, but service and vehicle-wise, they’re the best we’ve tried. There are no shysters here. Although when we opted for an upgrade to an automatic VW T-Cross, we considered the initial upgrade price a little too steep, and they discounted it – I’m not thrilled with that aspect, but it goes to show that you should always refuse the first offer!

We took the obligatory half-dozen shots of the car to ensure we had no scratches that were previously. We’ve never had issues with scratches or previous damage (that wasn’t clearly documented) with Sixt. In fact, the last time we were here, we brought back a car with a very light scratch across about half the length of the car – it was a finger-paint job, but still they didn’t charge us for it.

The car journey to Volterra went well too. The sky flickered with lightning a couple of times before settling down. It reminded me of the beginning of our longer stay a couple of years ago. We arrived similarly late – at least 23:30, if not later.

We didn’t have our parking permit arranged yet, so we had to find a free spot. Almost all (not the underground carpark) public pay parking sites are free from 20:00 to 08:00, and we found a free spot in the carpark next to the Roman Theatre ruins by the Porta Fiorentina. It would mean I’d have to get up and move the car to the large free carpark the next day, but I didn’t care. I was here!

I was told by Niamh and her sister, I was practically skipping up the street. I have to admit, I was pretty damn happy at being back, and many of my symptoms seemed to have melted away. That was probably because I only had one thing on my mind:

We’d had the apartment cleaned before we arrived, so the only thing we had to do was arrange the bedwear and hit the hay, which we duly did. If I recall correctly, I slept ok, depsite the heat. We only have fans; no aircon – and August is the hottest month there.

I’ll update the blog with what we did during our days here over the next month or two, but please do also check out my YouTube Channel (Our Man in Volterra; I’m learning, be gentle!), and specifically this short music video showing our journey to Volterra.

Thanks for reading and watching – I hope you enjoyed it!

Virtual Tour of Volterra #2

It’s been a while since I posted the first tour route, and so this sceond route is long overdue. This post will use the same concept – I will use larger photos. To view full-sized pics, if you’re on a PC:

  1. Right-click an image and select to open it in a new window or tab;
  2. In the address bar, remove all text to the right of ‘.jpg’, then press enter on your keyboard. Many of the photos are quite large.

Here’s the route we’ll be following. It’s starts at 1, travels anti-clockwise and ends up at 18.

Note that this will be a lengthy blog with tons of photos.

Andiamo!

#1: There’s a nice little eaterie right beside the entrance to our apartment building called’ Porgi l’Altra Pancia, which literally means ‘Grow another belly’. With good reason: the portion sizes in here are quite big – certainly pasta dish sizes are bigger than average. They make one of my favourite things in Volterra: a crostino with mushroom and truffle creams, topped with melted cheese and flaked black truffle.

They naturally also have a great selection of wines.

One thing I’ll remember them for is that one of their waiters was really kind to us when our electricity went out, and contacted our building’s super to help us switch it back on (it was just a tripped switch, embarassingly).

#2: Turning right after leaving the building and heading uphill we pass a pasticceria: Dolceria del Corso, which is one of the three pasticcerie we usually frequent. Unfortunately, the closest thing I have to a photo of it, is one of our street, with the entrance under a burgundy awning.

Their cakes are yummy, and you have a great selection, especially in the morning – to cater for the typical breakfast over most of Italy: a sweet treat with an espresso. I’m down with the former; never developed a taste for the latter – although I love a good coffee gelato!

#3: Moving up past Dolceria del Corso, we come across one of the post popular bars in Volterra: L’Incontro. This is a full-on bar, and so has coffee, drinks, is a pasticceria (a good one!) and sells choclolate in the off tourist-season or gelato in-season. I think their gelato is great – maybe second to Isola del Gusto, but still really excellent – and they tend to rotate their flavours a little more often.

You’ll often see people here hanging around during breakfast, during aperitivo and after dinner hours. It can get really busy. Like with all places that serve coffee, you’ll pay normal rates to drink at the bar, and a little more to sit by a table.

#4: You’ll find a restaurant, La Vecchia Lira, almost opposite l’Incontro. We’ve only eaten here a couple of times, but are always impressed by the enthusiasm of the owner. The menu leans more towards traditional, but they have some modern takes too – and a daily specials board. Definitely give them a go when you’re in town!

#5: By now our bellies are ridiculously full, but we’re not done yet. Just beyond the crossroads where Via Giacomo Matteotti (the road we were just on) meets with Via dei Marchesi (look right and you’ll see the Palazzo dei Priori), lies the road we’ll be going straight down: Via Porta all’Arco.

Just a few meters down the road lie two restaurants: Il Poggio and Life Bistro – together they are often the most photographed exteriors in Volterra, due to them being on this beautiful sloping and curving artisan street.

I have to admit to never having eaten in Life Bistro, as it is a purely plant-based restaurant. I am not ethically opposed to this, of course, but there are few world cuisines that turn me on with its vegan offerings, and this includes Italian food. Only food from the Indian subcontinent comes close. However, if this appeals for you then I would say you’re in for a treat, even if just for the restaurant setting itself. I know Niamh wants to give it a go, just to see what it’s like, so we might do next time we’re over.

They seem to have a standard menu, plus a section where you select your own ingredients and ask them to assemble and/or cook them. However, look down, and you’ll see some of the floor is transparent – below it you’ll see some ruins that date all the way back to Etruscan times (2,300 to 2,800 years old).

Il Poggio is a more inclusive place, and has a bit of a touristic menu – with pasta, meat and pizza offerings. There are typical traditional dishes too, and if memory serves me correctly, a couple of German plates. The cooking isn’t stellar, but it’s fine to go to for something quick and maybe if you have kids, due to the variety of what’s on offer. In addition, it has some cute outside seating in a lane at the back.

For now, though let’s continue on down this lovely street, to discover why it’s been named the way it has.

#6: At the bottom of this street lines one of the old gates into the walled town. It’s called Porta all’Arco. Actually, “old” doesn’t really cut it. The larger blocks you can see in the photos below are Etruscan in origin, and are about 2,300 to 2,500 years old.

The three heads at the top, and most probably the arch are Roman. The detail of the busts has worn away over the centuries, but is said to be the heads of three Roman gods, most probably Jupiter along with Castor and Pollux (or Uni and Minerva – let’s not have a debate!).

Towards the end of the second World War, the Nazis threatened the gate with destruction during their retreat, in an effort to slow down the Allied advance. The townsfolk pleaded to save their gate, and said that they would instead block it. They were given 24 hours to do this, probably by those who thought “Yeah right, good luck!”. However, they did it by forming a human converyor belt and passing stones from hand to hand, and the gate remains to this day. Here are some photos. They are not mine, so I ask the forgiveness of those who may own the copyright.

#7: A ramp a little over 100m leads down to the parts of the town outside the walls. Passing a cute little bar (Giordani’s), we head southeast for a few meters, and where the road bends towards the east we pivot to our right to have a look at the belltower of Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro.

#8: We head uphill for a couple of hundred meters, until we have to cross the road to have a look at the lovely memorials at the bottom of Viale dei Ponti. In Ireland we don’t have an abundance of war memorials, whereas on continental Europe, they’re in a great many towns and villages.

#9: We don’t head up the gently upwards sloping Viale dei Ponti, but take a left then a swift right that curls backwards. We can see the walls of the Medicean Fortress here, and the steep path leads us to one of the main gates to the walled town: Porta a Selci. Caution as a pedestrian, as this the only gate where you might meet traffic coming in both directions.

#10: Through the gate and to the right, you’ll find Osteria La Pace. They serve one of the best pasta sauces in Volterra here: wild boar with black olives. I love it especially with pici (pronounced ‘peachy’), a form of thick noodle.

Not pictured is a killer tiramisù, served in a large coffee cup… delicious. This place is definitely worth a visit.

#11: Opposite the restaurant, there is a ramp which leads up to an old fortress, which is still very intact – and necessarily so, as it is a medium security prison. It was originally built in the mid-14th centry, and updated by the Medici in the late 15th.

It’s no ordinary prison, though. Rather than simply confining people for the purposes of punishment, they attempt to rehabilitate. The three major programmes I am aware of are:

  1. Allowing trustee residents to occasionally leave the prison to gain work experience in some of the businesses in the town;
  2. Teach residents how to run a restaurant from top to bottom, by having a chef come in and open up the prison as a restaurant, around once a month. You can book a table here, if you book well in advance. I suspect you’ll have to wait for the current pandemic emergency to be done with too; and
  3. They also run an acting school and dramatic troupe from the fortress, one of the most renowned in Italy. They occasionally put on shows – both normal dramatic pieces, as well as experimental theatre.

I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, rather than simply throwing away the key. It would be interested to see the level of non-recidivism as a result of this.

In 2019, they opened one of the fortress’ towers for tours in September and October. I visited – more on this here. They may revert to doing this every year, pandemic permitting.

#12: If you clicked on the link which detailed the visit to the fortress tower, you will have seen that once a year, in mid-September, they have an arts festival one night. Many museums are free to visit, and many private buildings are opened for visit. It’s a great idea, and it enables you to see parts of the town you would never see otherwise.

One of these buildings is just up from the Fortress: Centro Danza Classica di Volterra. It’s a dance studio/school. At the back is a large garden, which you would never otherwise see… and it’s kind of spooky at night.

#13: Another 120-150 meters down on the right, you’ll find a gallery: Colpa del Vento, which features the works of Vanna Spagnolo. She’s a lovely, ethusiastic and talented lady who specialises in Tuscan bucolic scenes. Niamh and I, and later on, Niamh’s mother, bought lovely pieces from here. Here’s ours:

As far as I can tell, Vanna doesn’t paint using references, but from memory, and hikes around Volterra frequently for inspiration.

I hear that she may be closing her shop some time in September this year. Niamh and I hope to catch up and maybe add a piece to our apartment from her collection. Good luck, Vanna!

#14: To my regret, I don’t have any photos from La Vena di Vino, a wine bar just beyond Colpa del Vento. I’ve had some amazing fried fish in here, and the owner is always keen to recommend wines to regulars and first-timers alike. The ceiling of the bar is also one of the most notorious in Volterra: it is strewn with brassiers, presumably from ladies volunteering to give them up.

I have not witnessed, nor (thankfully) been asked.

#15: A little farther down on the right lies the entrance to the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. It is one of the oldest continuously open museums in the world (the pandemic notwithstanding), and has been welcoming visitors since 1761.

Within lie tons of Etruscan goodies: funerary urns, coins, warrior’s tombs, pottery with Greco influences. It has a couple of masterworks: the funerary urn of the married couple, and a spookily elongated bronze statue of a child called L’Ombra Della Sera.

#16: A little beyond the Guarnacci museum, and past Volterra’s library lies the Museum of Sacred Art. It’s worth a quick visit and a stroll around. I have covered this place in another blog post here.

#17: Just as we enter Piazza Settembre XX, we come across another restaurant: La Carabaccia. This place is the very quintessence of the Italian concept of cucina povera (peasant cooking). It is run by three ladies: a woman and her two daughters.

Generally, there is a limited menu of two primi (generally pastas, all homemade) and two secondi (generally meats, but sometimes they have vegetarian options), but they will also put together a lovely antipasto plate for you.

If you can book a table, this is a must-visit. I’ve been dying to try the peposo here (black pepper beef), and I hope to do this on my next visit over. Menus are in English and Italian and change daily.

#18: So many towns of decent size in Tuscany seem to have a Torture Museum, and Volterra is no exception. I have visited this place only once, and to be honest, once is enough. It can be draining to see the awful things we used to do to one another in the name of perceived justice.

There (inexplicably) is a werewolf model at the front door, and best of all, is a strong message denouncing torture in all its forms. To be sure: this museum does not glorify torture. You may leave shaken and maybe even a little queasy, especially if you have a good imagination.

Tuscany, when it was a state all its own, was always considered somewhat enlightened. In fact, it was the first ever state to abolish capital punishment in 1786. Anyway, give it a visit… but maybe not too close to, or too soon after eating. Note that the displays aren’t especially graphic, but it’s all down to the power of imagination.

#19: We finish our journey here, in Piazza Settembre XX at the War Memorial and viewpoint. It’s a nice little square, part of which is used to house an ice-rink over the Christmas period. There are some additional restaurants here, but they largely cater to the tourist trade.

There are some lovely views to be seen out over the railing.

Thanks a lot for reading this, if you got this far! I hope it has stirred you into thinking about making a visit to Volterra.

I will have a think about the next route I will take!

Agoraphobia: Getting the Heck Outta Here

With the restriction on travelling between counties lifted, it’s now time to get out and enjoy our country! However, for some people, the mere thought of doing that fills them with dread. In fact, the mere thought of leaving the house may upset them.

Agoraphobia is not a fear of open spaces, but rather a fear of being in situations where the sufferer may feel it will become impossible to escape (the impact of this can often be lessened by going outside with their ‘safe person’). The result of this fear is that people build a shell about themselves, which consists of their ‘safe zone’. The more people languish in this safe zone, the smaller it tends to get, until it’s the size of their house, or even their bedroom.

What hasn’t helped in this pandemic is lockdowns, and both the media and the government inferring that grave danger lies outside! If you take proper precautions, of course it actually doesn’t. In fact, recent studies have indicated that being outdoors hugely reduces your chances of contracting it.

Part of my own anxiety disorder occasionally featured agoraphobia. If I was to be entirely honest, it still does, as I still have to complete exercises to combat its impact – and I still feel its impact from time to time.

The good thing is, at least that I’ve found, is that agoraphobia is entirely beatable, but it requires bravery and persistence. Healing only begins outside your safe zone. You will never heal within it.

Here’s what I’ve read and done. Note that these often apply to driving anxiety too.

  1. Baby steps. Take a walk around the block (or if driving out, drive to the end of your estate or village and back). Maybe even with your safe person, if you must, but it would be even better without. Do it again the next day. Then drop your safe person and do a few laps. Slowly extend your sphere in this way. Take in a few neighbouring blocks. Then, take precautions and go to the shops or take-away alone. Eventually, you’ll be able to go kilometers from home on your own. And beyond that? Socialising with friends again, even in unfamiliar places. The world is opening again… give yourself a chance to be in a position to embrace it!
  2. Keep looking outwards. When out, keep your attention focused on what you’re looking at, rather than inwards towards how you’re thinking. This takes concentration and practice, but gets easier over time.
  3. Stay and bear it. When you feel anxious, push that little bit harder, maybe do that extra lap – show your limbic system who’s boss! If you’re going to the shop and feel panicky, try standing still somewhere (looking at products), and extend your focus outwards towards your environment, rather than inwards towards what you’re thinking. Is that easy? No… it does take practice and training. But if you can, stay for as long as you can – again to show that your rational brain is in charge. Eventually, it will work, and your panic will subside, and you can smile to yourself as you complete your shopping and leave the building. If driving, drive to an unfamiliar carpark, park and stay there until any anxiety passes. Then drive home… don’t drive to the carpark and immediately drive back at speed!
  4. Give yourself a break. Sometimes you’ll feel so bad that you can’t quite make it out, or out far enough, on a given day, or that on another day you’d been to a place before but can’t seem to manage this time without your safe person. Allow this to happen. Some days you simply need to rest – give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up about it.
  5. Make it a habit. It can take up to 66 days to form a habit. Once a habit is formed it takes less effort/willpower to perform it as a task – it becomes more natural to do. I have a habit-tracking section in my journal and doing a ‘solo thing’ is one of the items I track. I would suggest doing the same. Just tick off the days you manage to do it successfully, and give yourself a reward for, say, 5 days in a row. There will be some days you can’t manage it. This is ok.
  6. People are the same as you. I have no doubt you’re a good person. So are others you may meet out there. They’re not all Covid vectors! In fact, this will be more and more the case over the next few weeks as vaccinations are ramped-up. Remember this… smile at and greet strangers, and observe them smiling back (most do!). About 1 in 6 people you meet may be going through something similar to what you’re going through. In fact, a recent study indicated that Covid has hugely exacerbated this. The important point here: you are not alone, and if you choose it, you will never be alone.

Good luck, and let’s get out an explore and people-watch again!

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!