Casale Marittimo – 17/08/2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First through Volterra…

Then down to Borgo Santo Stefano…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying in Volterra – 15/08/2020

Short one, this!

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!

The Cathedral – 14/08/2020

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Siena, and Shoe Shopping in Ambra – 13/08/2020

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.

The Tower and the Theatre – 12/08/2020

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!

The Acquarium in Livorno – 11/08/2020

Warning: this post is photo-heavy!

In an attempt to (a) fit in like a local, and (b) reduce the effort I have to make to maintain sunblocker on my person, I tend to wear long trouser/jeans in almost any temperature, unless I know I’ll end up spending most of the day in high heat.

I took a look at the temperatures I had been experiencing in Volterra, and the morning we decided to go to the acquarium in Livorno, I compared them to the weather there. A few degrees cooler on the coast today – easy-peasy!

We hopped in the car, and Niamh drove at first to near the outskirts of Cecina, before taking the carriageway north to Livorno. Towards the end, the road lanes reduced to one each side, and hugged the coast a bit more. My God there were tons of people attending beaches. In some cases, cars and scooters lined the roads for kilometers at a time. It was August alright – Italians on holiday everywhere! Some of the scenery along the coast was nice. I couldn’t take shots, as I was the navigator for the journey, and was glued to my phone.

We drove around the outskirts of town, and found our way to the acquarium carpark. There was a queue to get it. Not having sufficient patience, we motored instead to a carpark about 600 meters north, and parked handily enough – albeit in an exposed spot. The car would be warm when we got back, but so what?

I got out.

And I was hit with what I could only describe was something to the wall of steam you generate in a shower. I had neglected the check the humidity. It was around the 85-85% mark, versus Volterra’s mid 40’s. Ok, it’s not quite Florida or Thailand, but it didn’t take long to discover that I had made a cruel mistake by wearing jeans. Thankfully my anxiety wasn’t too bad on the day, or such oppressive heat would have exacerbated it.

I only paused a couple of times to take snaps on the way back to the acquarium. There was a little nervousness from the pair of us, as we were unsure from the website as to whether or not we had to book tickets in advance due to the Covid situation.

We got to the acquarium and we were able to get tickets just by queueing. They were only letting so many people in the building to keep people social distancing as best as possible. Everyone had to mask up – never fun when you’re anxious, but that’s what mindfulness tools are for.

We only had to wait 15-20 minutes and we were in and looking. Generally, people were waiting for sections to be free of people before moving on, so it sort of led to a giant queue going around the facility. I say ‘sort of’, because of course everyone lost their patience and moved on and mingled anyway. Humans gotta human.

We took a monstrous number of snaps.

One of the other reasons I wanted to visit Livorno was right next to the acquarium: Piazza Mascagni – a huge, checker-boarded promenade along the shorefront.

We first got to see it from a terrace a couple of floors up within the acquarium building.

We went back in, and had visited an exhibition of lizards and insects within the acquarium building. This was a nice little surprise addition.

And after we left the acquarium, on our hunt for food, we walked along Piazza Mascagni. It’s a fabulous little attraction, if a little dizzying at times to look down upon while you’re walking!

An unwanted side-feature was the how far we had to walk to find we couldn’t find any halfway decent restaurants ready to accept us as walk-ins. We were baking by now and were eventually happy to walk back and grab one of the last tables in one of the more touristy places near the promenade. I had a breaded escallop with fries, which hit the spot. Niamh was less than happy with her fritto misto, unfortunately.

Once done, we headed back in the oppressive heat and humidity to the car, scorched our bums on the seat and set off for home. It was a fun day, but next time Livorno: shorts! Apologies in advance. I took one shot on the way back to the car, and one on the drive home.

That evening, we headed out to Il Sacco Fiorentino for dinner. They do the nicest fries I’ve had so far in Volterra. I think my stomach was at me, so I just had grilled veggies as a starter and then pasta with some sort of seafood. I wasn’t mad about it and only had about half of it (a very rare event for me). Niamh, on the other hand, had a lovely stew of wild boar and black olives, along with a side of tried and trusted fries.

Osteria Fornelli – 10/08/2020

I got up, took out the trash and, all alone (in your face, anxiety!), traipsed around some of the walls in innards of Volterra. Unsurprisingly, she was looking lovely.

I couldn’t tell you what we had for lunch, I’m afraid, but we decided to go to Osteria Fornelli for dinner. Like Del Duca, this is a bit of the treat, as they do two menus: a traditional one, and a modern take on some classics. Or they used to. This time they only had the traditional offerings – I wonder if they lost their chef. They used to have this killer baked raviolo stuffed with pork – sadly, nowhere to be found.

However, they still had 3 excellent things:

  • Their bread was wonderful, as always
  • The cooking was fantastic, regardless
  • They also have one of the best views for a sunset in Volterra for any restaurant

We had a wee walk on the way.

Then we walked in without a booking and grabbed a table. We didn’t think anything of that, except that we thought that they were insisting we sit inside, for seemingly no good reason. We were a little disappointed, as we wanted to be outside to see the sunset, without having to leave the table.

About 10-15 minutes in, though, it turns out that we were incredibly lucky – the restaurant was actually booked solid. This was the first time that we had been given any kind of a clue that things were beginning to pick-up in Volterra. At first we thought that it was despite the pandemic situation, but it transpired that it was because of the pandemic situation – more on that another day.

Anyway, back to the grub! Niamh had mixed bruschette, and I had (surprise, surprise!) Zuppa all Volterrana. To follow, Niamh had a steak with mixed veg, and I had pasta (pacchieri, by the looks of it) with white ragu (either rabbit or hare – I don’t remember which). Everything was delicious!

I left my table (masked-up!) to take a few colourful sunset shots.

We went home, then – taking snaps on the way. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we stopped at Isola del Gusto for a sneaky gelato!

Down By The Riverside – 09/08/2020

Some time after brekkie (we probably let it get too warm), we headed straight for the car, as we wanted to check out a bathing area by a river in the nearish-by forested reserve of Berignone.

The latter stages of the journey were tricky, as we moved from dual-lane road, to single-lane road, to gravelled lane to pot-holed, dirt-track into a carpark, that was largely already full. I felt somewhat overdressed in my usual (t-shirt and jeans). It was hot, and I noted someone had set up a mobile bar near the beginning of the walk to the bathing area – I’d be making a bee-line for it on our way back.

We carefully forded a mostly-dry, but perilously rocky riverbed, and continued about 1.5km along a trail that led to the bathing area.

There were a couple of natural pools people were using; one of which was deep enough to jump into from a rock above. We weren’t properly geared to join, so we mosied around a short while, and feeling self-conscious that people were fairly unclothed around us, we headed back to car park.

On the way there, I must have picked up an insect bite (I don’t get them nearly as often as Niamh does), but it was the mother and father of them. Four months later, and I still have a mark. Anyhoo, we raided the bar area, and I got myself a chocolate and hazelnut gelato cone. Not bad, considering where it was, but no Isola del Gusto! The carpark was jammed by the time we got to the car, and it proved tricky to negotiate our way out past incoming traffic. If ever there’s a next time, we’ll park on the road that leads to the dirt track and walk. Here are some shots of a distant Volterra taken during our trip home:

We opted to go to one of the few (non-vegetarian/vegan) restaurants we hadn’t yet tried: Bar Trattoria Da Bado. Turns out to have been an inspired decision: I had one of the best pappardelle al cinghiale I’ve ever had – the pasta was homemade and so toothsome! We also had a nice antipasto platter beforehand. There were tons of locals eating there, which is always a good sign. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what Niamh had. If I had one complaint, it would be that we were rather close for comfort to other people, given the Covid situation. But anyway, we weren’t infected!

On the way back, I stopped at Isola del Gusto for a lemon granita – the perfect thing to cool you down during a 36 degree day.

Our hunger for pasta was obviously not sated, as we finished off homemade plates of spaghetti al ragu that evening.

That evening we went to Antica Velathri Cafe for some chat and cocktails. Always a lovely time there.

Gambassi Terme and Montaione – 08/07/2020

There is a cantina inside the walls of Volterra that Niamh and I occasionally (ahem!) visit to top up on our stock of red and white. It’s called Santa Lucia, and the vineyard responsible for producing the wine is located near a town called Gambassi Terme. We thought we’d head there. The vineyard was most likely closed in these Covid times, but at least we could stroll around the town.

It’s a nice drive there, and we passed an amazing looking restaurant on the way. One day, Osteria del Castagno, we will say hello!

Anyway, onwards to Gambassi Terme, which turned out to not only be lovelier than we guessed, but also held another surprise.

It was stinking hot. That’s hardly a surprise, but what was a surprise to me, is that Gambassi is on the Via Francigena – the pilgrim’s route from Canterbury to Rome. We saw a bunch of people geared for hiking and eventually put 2 and 2 together.

We decided to stop over for lunch at a nice and simple restaurant. We had pasta ‘n’ meat! Wasn’t bad, especially considering the price.

One done with Gambassi, we had to go food-shopping. We noticed that there was a CoOp in Montaione, and it was on my list of towns to visit. It was also only 10-12 minutes away, so off we went.

We finished our shopping, and had a stroll around the older part of town. It was still stinking hot, and very, very quiet. Montaione is also either on or very near the Via Francigena, but was much quieter! Maybe because it was post-lunch and people were inside, resting.

Anyway, it was a pleasant enough place, but we didn’t spend too long there because…well… heat! We went back to the car – I had to stop off for fruit at the CoOp again – and went home.

That evening we had a stroll around Volterra. We didn’t notice it at the time, but some of the streets were beginning to become a little busier.