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.
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)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
Well, it was market day again, so we headed down to the carpark and had a nose. The novelty of the market had left me behind a little by now, especially considering it was smaller again due to holidays.
We had a little walk about town and took shots as we went.
As you can see, we walked through the public park too. I know I mentioned earworms yesterday, but I now recall that this is where I first heard Springsteen’s ‘My Home Town’ and it somehow resonated with me on a deeply emotional level – but negatively so, I’m afraid to say. A few days later I was about to hit a terribly bad spell of mental health when I returned to work.
We stopped off at La Mangiatoia, where Niamh had a pizza and I had a burger. Both were delish! Niamh had a beer. I finished off the meal with a Limoncello. Check out the default depth-of-field on that photo – well done, iPhone!
I’m sorry to say, I didn’t take any more pics that day, nor do I have any specific memories. Apologies!
At the time of writing this it’s new year’s eve! I’d like to wish all readers a happy, safe and prosperous new year. 2021 has to be better than 2020! I’m enjoying my second day in a row of feeling relatively normal, but I mustn’t get my hopes up, as any setbacks would affect me worse. I can only hope that it continues, and that I’m on my guard with mindfulness techniques to help live with the worst of it.
Back to August. I’d by now begun to notice two things:
That I was suffering from repetitive 3-5 second earworms, most of which would make me sad (the saddest of which was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Home Town’). I was undoubtedly upset that I would soon have to leave Volterra – and these bouts of sadness would be a feature for a while, unfortunately.
Volterra was busy! I’d read that Italian tourists were forsaking larger centres of population (e.g. Florence and Siena) in favour of smaller towns, which still had decent amenities – Volterra fit the bill snugly, and later on it reported that despite Covid, it had taken hardly any hit at all. In some sectors, visits were actually higher. A problem for us came in the form of timing our meals out. Unless you had a booking, or arrived early, the chances of a walk-in were exceedingly remote. In addition, I really wanted to visit the Palazzo dei Priori to take snaps from the bell tower this trip, but I couldn’t as the queues were well outside the door, and Covid rules weren’t allowing people to be in such close proximity. Mask-wearing was now mandatory even outdoors, while within the walls of the old-town, and the Guardia di Finanza (the armed Italian finance/smuggling police force) were drafted in to enforce (albeit politely).
Niamh and I got up and took a nice walk around, culminating in the 200 steps near the Fonti di Docciola (near the biggest free carpark). I remember the steps not exhausting me too much – I was really happy with this!
I think we must have eaten at home, as I neither have memory nor photos! Anyway, later that afternoon, we strolled out again, and decided to pay the Cathedral a visit. Whilst more humble out the outside, it’s quite feature-rich on the inside.
I headed out again in the evening to pick up a lovely porchetta sandwich from La Sosta del Priore. Afterwards, I took some shots from the apartment terrace.
We screen-watched, and when I went to close the terrace doors, and discovered that Volterra was cloaked in a bank of cloud.
Ever since our trip to Monteriggioni last year, I’d been wanting to go to Ambra to gram some slinky shoes in the Pratesi outlet store. We decided to go there via Siena. The last couple of times we’d been there (I blogged just one) it drizzled with rain, but today it would be a great deal warmer.
I love Siena. It’s has all the charm of a typical hilltown, but on a much greater scale. It also contains, for me, the most wonderful piazza in Italy (if not Europe) – the Piazza del Campo.
We left later than usual – it usually only takes us 50-60 minutes. We drove past the O, Colle di Val d’Elsa and Monteriggioni – and onwards to our ‘go-to’ parking spot (Parking San Francesco). There was a short queue – maybe 5 minutes and we parked. It was early lunchtime when we went up the escalator and started taking pics!
We explored a slightly more modern part of the inner town, near the post office, and I remember being in decent form, health-wise… I don’t think my anxiety was bothering me that much.
We stopped off in an inexpensive cafe-style risto (Il Pulcino). I had a decent Spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino – it’s hard to screw that up – but Niamh thought her dish was passable… I think it was some sort of ravioli, but I can’t remember (sorry). Anyway, it was pretty inexpensive and frequented by locals, so give it a bash if you want to avoid tons of tourists while in the area.
After lunch, we headed to the Piazza!
As we’d skipped dessert, we stopped off at Il Camerlengo for a large lump of gelato! It was tasty – maybe a 0.9 on the Isola del Gusto scale. There seems to be a serious lack of bins on the square, so keep your eyes peeled for getting rid of unwanted trash (e.g. gelato cups).
We went to the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico, but didn’t buy tickets to explore any farther (see photos above).
We explored the town just a little more before heading back to the car. On the way back we stopped into a tiny Sicilian streetfood place called Cannoleria Ke Cassata. We got a couple of arancine each to take away for later, and headed to Ambra.
I regret to say that I didn’t take any shots of Ambra – we didn’t explore, but parked at the back of the outlet store and just headed inside. Niamh bought shoes and a bag, I bought a few pairs of shoes…. one of them pretty… eclectic!
Home again for a rest from the raw heat. We then hit Volterra later that evening after eating the arancine we picked up in Siena (re-heated in the oven). They were setting up the outdoor cinema in the main piazza that evening. We should have bought tickets, if only to support the endeavour, but we didn’t… maybe next year, as it’s a superb idea.
As I am recalling this on December 24th, the first thing I wish to do is wish all of the blog readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, safe and even fun new year. I hope to make it back over to Volterra in the first half of 2021!
Anyway, back to the past.
No idea what we did when we got up, but I remember some time later that morning, I decided to buck my mild agoraphobia and reliance on my support person (Niamh), and head out to a tower at the end of our street. For the princely sum of €2 you can climb to its top and peek out at some fab views of the town.
You can see a nice, big panorama shot of the town from this vantage point here. Open the image in a new tab, and remove the size tag at the end of the address to view it in full size!
Afterwards, when I’d come back to the apartment, we popped out for a small walk and a pizza in Quo Vadis (the improbably named Irish Bar in Volterra). I was really impressed by the white pizza I had – very tasty. I also had a virgin Mojita, which was amazingly refreshing!
On the way back to the apartment, we saw the theatre was open (Teatro Persio Flacco). We’d visited it before, but seeing as I had a new iPhone 11 Pro, I wanted to test out the wide-angle lens.
I was doubly-glad we went in, as this time they actually had the backstage partly opened for people to explore, which was pretty cool.
And so back home, where we stayed until we decided to head out to La Taverna della Terra di Mezzo for dinner that night. We just had a single course each, as we’d had pizza earlier on. Niamh had one of her favourites here: Penna all’arrabiata, and I had one of the nicest plates of pasta in Volterra: pappardelle with a lemon ricotta sauce, pancetta, and topped with black truffle. So tasty. We shared a tiramisu too, and on the way home snuck in a gelato from Isola del Gusto!
My tummy and anxiety must have been behaving themselves that night!