Volterran Facts and Myth

Much like Ireland has been doing recently, Volterra has, over its millenia, been hitting above its weight, in terms relative to the size of its population. Here are some of the stories it has accumulated, which have add to Volterra’s cultural history and notoriety.

I have to admit that I haven’t read all of the criteria for being announced as being protected as a UNESCO Heritage site, but it just seems very odd to me that Volterra’s application has been waiting for so long.

etruscansVolterra (Velathri, in the Etruscan language) was one of the twelve principal cities of the Etruscan League. It was a cultural cradle while Rome was still an upstart village on the banks of the Tiber. (I still have mad love for you, Rome!).  In fact, it is Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town.

alabasterIt is one of the principal centres for production of alabaster works in Europe, if not the principal centre. It was for centuries, and then trade fell off.  It picked back up again in the eighteenth century, from which time Volterra has ruled the roost!  Check out alab’Arte, from where I pilfered this photo.

linusThe second Pope, St. Linus, was born in Volterra.  His cathederal is one of the few places we haven’t visited yet, as it was being renovated.  It may have reopened by now, so hopefully we’ll take a look when we get over there.

palazzo_dei_prioriThe main building of office in Volterra is still the 13th century Palazzo dei Priori, in the main square.  It is the oldest town hall in Tuscany.  So enamoured were the Medici by its design, that it was ‘culturally appropriated’, in that they based their Palazzo Vecchio in Florence on it.  It’s still used for officialdom, but you can also visit a museum and the bell-tower there.

view_from_pdpIf you were to stand beside the bell in the Palazzo dei Priori, you would be about 560 meters above sea-level, making Volterra Tuscany’s highest hilltown.  I can see our house from here!

fortezzaThere is a Medicean fortress that dominates the south of the town.  There are only three ways you can visit it, however: (1) go to dinner there; (2) visit someone housed there; or (3) be a very naughty boy and earn a prison sentence.  Yes, it is, in fact, a medium-security prison.  However, it is a very progressive one.  Eight or so times a year, you can book yourself in to attend the so-called Cene Galeotte, where prisoners, aided by volunteering expert chefs help prepare food and provide waiting service, to help them get back on their feet by learning a trade.  More improbably, one of Italy’s finest theatrical troupes is made up of inhabitants of the Fortezza.

aradiaThe progenitor of your typical medieval witches was also reputed for have been born in Volterra, supposedly on August the 13th, 1313.  Her name was Aradia.  Read more about her here.  I haven’t yet visited the rock or caves, but that might change during my sabbatical.  

manicomioVolterra was home to a another town of sorts, on its outskirts.  During its dismal apex, it housed as many people as the walled town itself did – about 6,000.  It was a psychiatric hospital.  It began life as an institution which genuinely sought to help the mentally infirm, but became something much more insidious.  You can read more about it here and here.

It still remains, for all intents and purposes, abandoned, but I have now heard you can buy a ticket to visit.  Chalk something else up for our upcoming visit!

Another interesting story, is that patients helped dig up the trash heap that lay outside the town’s walls, and exposed the Roman Amphitheatre, which had lain there for centuries, forgotten.  Those that volunteered got clean bills of health.

rosso_depositionOne of the most famous and progressive scenes depicting the Deposition of Christ was painted by Rosso Fiorentino, and originally housed in the cathedral of Volterra.  It is now in the town’s art museum (pinacoteca), along with many other amazing pre-Renaissance pieces.  It features, unusually, a red-headed Judas (bottom right).

porta_allarcoOne of Volterra’s greatest treasures is on public display, and acts as one of the entrances to the walled town: the Porta all’Arco.  Part of it dates back to centuries BC.  During WWII, the German’s threatened to destroy the gate, to impede the approaching allies.  The remaining townsfolk (many of whom where women and children by then) begged the Germans to give them time instead to stop it up with rocks.  They were given 24 hours.  Incredibly they did it in time (it’s a big gate, with added depth) by forming a human conveyor belt, and so the gate remains intact today.

twilightMost recently, Volterra has seen movie and TV sets come and go, and been associated with modern young-adult urban fantasy.  Some scenes from the live-action version of Full Metal Alchemist were shot here, as well as much of Season 3 of The Medicis (still awaiting broadcast in Ireland, I think).  Most famously, Volterra has been associated with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Trilogy, with some of the second book being set here.  Sadly, only a few scenes of the film where shot in Volterra, with the majority of the outdoor stuff shot instead in Montepulciano, 70 miles away.

A little about me


I’m a 40-something man, working for one of Ireland’s largest financial institutions. I’m originally from Dublin southwest, but for the last 15 or so years have been living in County Kildare, with my wife and our 3 cats.

The most satanic of our three cats. Bless him.

We have been given the opportunity to take a mini-sabbatical for 12 weeks. In fact, my last day was the day before this post was published… wooo! Somewhat fortunately, the purchase of our apartment in Volterra was completed towards the end of last year, and we’ve already had a run at living there during April for two weeks. So far, so good… but the house still needs some furniture, and artworks and assorted knick-knacks to personalise the place, but it is totally livable in. We are departing for sunnier and, perhaps, windier climes next weekend for 9 weeks!

So what else do I like to do? I’m a bit of a geek, in that I like science-fiction and some urban fantasy books, but I also love some crime novels. I tend to ingest stories through the medium of audiobooks these days, with non-fiction/research coming by way of print. I am also a hobbyist creative writer, and aspiring novelist, who needs a kick up the arse to improve his productivity! Last year, I was shortlisted in both flash-fiction and short-story categories in the Michael Mullan Cancer Fund Writing Competition, and I’ve entered the same competition this year, again in those two categories. Keeping my fingers crossed! My novel has some 62,000 words out of a target of 80,000 written, and I hope to complete the first draft and part of the first edit during my stay in Volterra.

Although I have little in the way of drawing-skills, and my spatial-awareness is pretty low, I still like to dabble in graphics work – mostly parametric stuff, like tinkering with photoshop filters and settings, and using landscape generation and rendering tools, like Terragen. In fact, the writing group of which I am a member (Naas Creative Writers Group) will publish an anthology of our works later this year, and I hope to have a couple of visual pieces in it. A sample of my writing:

Stairs began to lead down, thankfully, at the end of that terrace level. But like its sister town, Atrani was equally labyrinthine, and darker. Much darker. Bernard took out his phone, and used the flashlight on it to find his way through looming houses and slender, covered passageways, heading further down than he would have thought probable, given his earlier vista of the town. Shady stairwells in wound in every direction, like earthworms’ tunnels. However, after several missteps and turns, he suddenly emerged in the smaller town’s square. The noise of people enjoying food, drink and music suddenly flooded joyfully back, like the sparkle from the accompanying bulbs strung out across the piazza. He blinked for a moment, and through an arch, saw the beach, not more than a hundred feet away. He went through, and remembered to turn left to the far end of the beach, and smiled when he saw an anchor buried atop a large collection of craggy boulders. Beside it a man waited, the glow of a cigarette waxing and waning like a distant lighthouse.

And a sample 3d-rendered landscape:

Rendered in Terragen, with some corrections in Photoshop

I love movies, and the big kid in me is having the time of his life during this golden-age of superhero films, but all genres are welcome.

Finally, I love food. I love to eat it, smell it and think about it. I spend a lot of my idle time doing just this. There is probably nobody I know (yet), who is as in love with grub as I am – but I have heard that Italians feel the same way, so maybe they will give me a run for my money. Up to now I haven’t cooked much, strangely, but that will be remedied in Volterra!

I cooked a lamb ragù with pici a few weeks ago – it was delicious!

Until next time!

Of all places, why Volterra?

A dream of ours was to buy a place in Italy, preferably Tuscany, as we had visited it a couple of times and loved the place, the food and found the people to be among the friendliest (and we’ve been to a bunch of places in Italy!).

But where to even look? Google maps is your best friend when looking for bases to camp, especially if, like us, you wanted to live near some amenities, rather than in a field, miles away from anywhere. I can see why people go for the latter, but it’s not for us.

So I grabbed my PC and took into consideration our requirements:

  • Not too far from the coast (preferably on it)
  • In an old town, with lots of charm and history
  • Near amenities
  • Must have outdoor space attached to the property
  • Our budget 😉

So, I started looking mostly in Liguria, Le Marche, Tuscany, Puglia and Abruzzo. I honestly spent a few months zooming in and out, looking for populated coastal areas that had as many of our requirements as possible. I learned two things pretty quickly:

  1. Most coastal towns in Italy do not have that medieval charm. This is because their coasts were raided frequently by pirates. Therefore, towns used to be built at least a little inland, preferebaly on hills, so the inhabitants could keep lookout for invaders.
  2. We couldn’t afford decent-looking properties in coastal towns anyway!

Inland it was, so. More zooming and street-view, looking for a town that covered as much as we needed and could afford. The plus side of all of this seeking was that I was building up a catalogue of towns I wanted to visit when I eventually settled! Towards the end, really due to the availability of air transport from Ireland, we were down to Liguria or Tuscany. We went for the latter, as we felt that there was a bit more variety of things to do and see there.

Then, I stumbled across a town atop a butte, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with beautiful streets, tons of restaurants, not too far from the coast, with plenty of other amenities.

We travelled there to view a few properties, and fell in love with the place, and as luck would have it, found a property with a terrace – not an easy find in the main shopping area, slap-bang in the middle of an old, walled town.

I then took a look at my list of towns we could visit from Volterra, and found that it is ridiculously central to a ton of other places in Tuscany!

Car journey times from Volterra, up to around 90 minutes – toll roads allowed. Click to enlarge

We couldn’t believe our luck, and still can’t. We found the place in April 2018, and finally closed the deal in mid-December. We will soon be on sabbatical, and are really looking forward to spending 9 weeks here!

About Volterra

Today, I thought I’d set out some interesting facts about Volterra itself, before eventually leading into why we chose the town to buy an apartment at a later date.

Volterra is the oldest continuously inhabited town in Tuscany. Located on a plateau between about 40km from the Tuscan coast, it lies about halfway between the northern and southern borders of that region. Artefacts dating to the Iron Age have been found there, and subsequent to the Villanovans of that period, one can find constructions by the Etruscans and Romans. However, today the town is largely medieval in layout.

Three ages of Volterra
L-R: Porta all’Arco (Etruscan Gate), Roman Amphiteatre and baths, and medieval laneway

Today, although visited by tourists, is a little off the beaten path and much of its charm is derived not only due to its aesthetic qualities, but because it is also a genuine working town. About 6,000 people live within the walls of the Centro Storico (historical town centre), with a further 6,000 in the immediate environs and countryside. Centuries ago, the walls of the town surrounded a larger area, and within about 25,000 were said to have inhabited.

Volterra is also the highest hill-town in Tuscany, and it commands some seriously panoramic views of the countryside, all the way to the Tyrrhenian sea on a clear day. Photos tend not to do it justice, and the vistas from its walls always take my breath away.

We settled upon Volterra immediately after our first visit. The enormous sense of place, the history, the people and the food bring us back again and again – but more on those another time.

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.