We’re going to need fans!

The humidity on our first night was around the 80% mark (due to a storm – humidity is usually very low here in the summer), and although the temperature was down, it still felt really warm. Before we arrived, we naively told people that, due to the thickness of the walls, our apartment will be well-insulated against the heat. It was more than a little worrying when we felt 3-4 degrees warmer after we climbed the first two flights of stairs with our luggage. Volterra had also had its heatwave recently, and the apartment was really warm when we got in.

IMG_3487During the day, it is possible to open the back door to the terrace and create an airflow by leaving windows opened throughout the apartment. It works wonderfully. Whilst I know Volterra isn’t exactly a crime hotspot, we’d rather not have to do this overnight. Additionally, it was stormy that first night, so we had to be careful about letting windows/doors slam, and having rain come in.

Before this year, we had remembered Volterra as being quite sleepy come 22:00 – when everything seems to shut, apart from restaurants. That night a new place near us was having a Boney-M revival night, and it was loud. I was still glad of it, though, as I had begun to wonder what Volterra’s younger generations do for a bit of craic. It’s great to see a little night life in the town!

Anyway, with clothes pretty much shed (sorry for that image!), I fell asleep. Then I had to get up at around 04:00, as there was pelting rain with accompanying gales, so I adjusted the windows or closed them altogether. I don’t think I got out of bed until well past 10:00 that morning, which is pretty much unheard of for me.

There was still a yellow weather warning in effect throughout most of Tuscany, so it piddled down on and off until Sunday evening.  Fortunately, Volterra’s nature also suits dismal weather.

IMG_3453Aaaannd it didn’t stop us stuffing our face!

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Zuppa alla Volterrana, pici with sausage and tomatoes, stewed boar and olives we had in Ristorante Etruria, and I forget what the last thing is but we had it in Pizzeria Ombra della Sera! 😉

Before we went back to the apartment we had a look at the Roman Ruins to check out the setup for the Arts Festival they’re currently having (nothing scheduled for Sundays), and to have a quick pint in the Irish bar there, called Quo Vadis… probably the only Irish bar in the world with that name!

We caught the sunset, though.

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Sleep the second night was pretty much the same as the first, albeit a little better.  Then up for a quicker than usual walk, and some brekkie.

That brings me pretty much up-to-date. Maybe some fan shopping today is in order, and now that we’ve moved the outdoor table back outdoors, we need a table for the telly. I’m also thinking of cooking up rigatoni with sausage and kale later on. Ciao!

A rocky start

Everything began beautifully. My brother picked us up, and dropped us off at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Despite there being quite a few people waiting, we managed to grab a bag & tag machine immediately, and with practically zero queue, ditch our bags to the mercies of the handlers in Dublin and Pisa.

My wife, Niamh, had to stop for cash, and afterwards my brain created an event here that didn’t actually happen – more on this later. We breezed through security – one of the aspects of air-travel I really detest.

Things started to go wrong after we’d ordered food at one of the bars. I’d had a couple of swigs from my cider, when I thought I’d smugly show Niamh that, yes, I had everything in order. But my mini-wallet wasn’t in my pocket. No fake-out. I got that feeling of panic… you know when your stomach drops, then rises and your bladder shrinks to the size of a golf-ball? We emptied my carry-on all over the table, thinking I had absent-mindedly thrown it in there, after we’d gone through security. There was no sign of it, though.

I was convinced that I had looked in my wallet in the airport when Niamh was getting cash out, to make sure I had a float of my own. I raced back downstairs, past all the shops and over to some security guys to explain my situation. I had three cards in there, plus about 150 Euros in cash. I didn’t care about the cash, my bank card (we have an account in Italy, so we’re ok for money) or my Health Insurance card. What was killing me was that my driver’s license was also in there… and I was supposed to be a named driver, so I could share the driving. I was feeling a total moron for having lost it.

Fair play to the lads in security, they searched high and low for it. I convinced them that I definitely had the wallet before security, as I remembered that I had taken it out at the ATM. Anyway, they didn’t find it, and so I raced back, pausing to stop at some shop tills to see if anyone had left it in. They were all cool too, but didn’t have it – they took my number in case it came up. People simply are brilliant, more often than not, aren’t they?

Anyway, we had to leave shortly, so I yummied down as much of my lunch as I could in 3 minutes, before departing for the gate.

The flight missed its departure window, and so left 30 minutes late, at 14:15. No worries, I thought, we can still make Volterra and have dinner there later this evening. I began to get worried again when the captain said they’d have to circle for 20 minutes, as the weather was too bad to land. We knew thunderstorms were on the way and were wondering if we’d missed them in Pisa. We hadn’t. We did land after that 20 minutes, and it was a very smooth landing, fair-play to the pilot. I don’t mind flying, but I do get a little antsy about landings sometimes.

We taxied, and waited for a few minutes. It looked dry out, if dismal. Then came another announcement – ground staff will not work in thunderstorm conditions, so we’d have to wait on-board until the weather got better. He turned the air-con up, so we wouldn’t suffocate. Only then, did the rain come down.

It was liked being papped in a carwash, with tumbling water blurring the view outside and lighting flashing through the clouds.

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The photo was taken by Niamh early on in the deluge, and doesn’t do the latter stages justice. After 50 minutes or so, we were allowed leave, and I got a free shower just running to the bus at the end of the stairs. I said to Niamh that I thought the arrivals area would be cataclysmic. The bus started up, and, no word of a lie, travelled all of 40 metres to the terminal stop where, laughing, we all got off and raced inside. I understand completely why they have to do that – not everyone is able-bodied or in the prime of their youth, but it was comical at the time.

Passport control was a breeze, and I thought I might have been wrong about how busy the rest of the terminal might be. I wasn’t. People had piled in, and we struggled up to the telly screen to see on which carousel our flight’s baggage would be arriving. But there was no movement, neither of screen nor carousel. There were occasional announcements that the baggage handling would begin when the storms subside. Still more people arrived into the terminal. One of the two vending machines was out of order, and I managed to get 2 of the last 3 bottles of water from the functioning one.

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Feeling a little sorry for myself, I WhatsApp’d my brothers and had a bit of a rant at how things were progressing.  I got a call from the brother who dropped us at the airport, shortly after to say that he had my wallet – I must have dropped it in the car on the way.  He is due to come out to us for a few days at the beginning of September, so both Niamh and I were happy for Niamh to do the driving in August, and I in September!  I can’t begin to describe the endorphine rush I got after that call!  While I am writing this, I am still unable to banish the ‘memory’ of pulling out my wallet at the airport ATM and looking at the cash.  Isn’t the brain an absolute fucker somtimes? 

About 2 hours later, we saw a bunch of students we knew to be on our flight gather around carousel #3 and were collecting bags.  I looked at the master screen, and it didn’t say, and the screen over the carousel didn’t indicate the flight either – yet those students knew.  Neither of us had heard any announcement.  But what the hell, our bags were finally coming out!

Once our bags were snatched, we dashed through customs, squeezed our way through the hilariously over-crowded arrivals area and out into some refreshing air.  The car we picked up from Hertz 20 minutes later was a Lancia Ypsilon (we’re here for 9 weeks – our budget is limited!).  I will be as nice as I can and say that it was a time-machine: just like driving was back in the early 90’s.  Niamh sent the mail to Volterra’s Municipal Police to request that our ZTL & Parking resident’s permit be updated with the registration of our little Tardis.  A town’s ‘ZTL’ (Zona Traffica Limita), is an area through which no traffic can pass, save for those with special permits.  Each time you break a ZTL sign, that’s a 3-figure fine!

The winding journey to Volterra from the airport was in the dark, save for eruptions of lightning, which flickered across the sky.  There were a couple of instances of forked-lightinging, and were I to do this all over again, I’d (remember my wallet!) have parked a GoPro on the dash to capture the journey.  The forks were colossal!  

We arrived in a partly fog-shrouded Volterra about 70 minutes later, and with 70 kilos of luggage, were reminded how unfit we are.  We eventually arrived in our apartment at around 23:00, local time – exhausted, and only fit for our bed.

T-minus One

We’re flying tomorrow, and are stupidly excited about it. I have a minor chest infection I’m trying to shake, which is impacting my breathing a little, so hauling suitcases around a hilltown to the top floor of our block should prove nicely challenging!

I *think* we have everything prepped for our nine-week absence:

  • Fridge emptied of spoilable goods
  • House security/sitting arrangements made
  • Bins ready to be put out over the weekend
  • Cash transferred
  • Lift to the airport arranged (thanks to my brother!)
  • Packed! (Well, duh!)  Sufficient electronics stowed and ready-to-go, along with peripherals like headphones and rechargers, and, of course, the ubiquitous Ireland-to-Continent plug adaptors
  • The cats will be housed early tomorrow morning
  • Sunglasses, books and audiobooks!

Just one more thing: can someone do something about the weather for the weekend?!

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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

Rawr!

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.