My brother likes to hike, so that day we started from the apartment (well, duh!), and went to the main viewpoint at Piazza Martiri della Libertà, and continued downhill all the way to the bus parking station.
We went back uphill a little to Viale dei Filosofi and circumnavigated along the walls as far as the Docciola free carpark. This was about halfway around. Normally we’d do the full circuit, but we had a busy day ahead of us, so to compensate, we took the less severe stairway at Docciola!
I was pretty huffy by the end of that, but we carried on back towards Piazza Settembre XX and down Gramsci and home again. Not a bad morning’s walk, when taking all the hills into account.
Today, we were going to explore a couple of the main attractions in Livorno we had never fully experienced before: the food market (aka Mercato Centrale) and the fortress. We had been to Livorno on a Sunday back in May, but the market was closed. It’s open all other in the morning ’til about 14:30. We drove a slightly different route, setting Mrs. Google to avoid both tolls and motorways – maybe only 10 km of it was different – we still had to head towards Cecina and bypass it. Still it’s always nice to drive in new areas, and we saw a couple of hilltop towns we hadn’t seen before (we didn’t stop – tight schedule!).
We parked in Parcheggio Moderno. I honestly didn’t think there would be space on a market day, but there were still a good number of spots left. And best of all – it’s just a couple of blocks north of the market. We walked (duh!) from the carpark to the market. What surprised me was that outside the food market building was another market; a more traditional town market. And it was huge. I think that it too is open every morning (exlcuding Sundays). You won’t see as many photos as you might have thought you’d see, as I was filming at the time. You can find the video of our trip to Livorno below.
Now, depending on the entrance you take, you might be hit with a strong fishy smell, but you’ll soon get used to it – and it’s not all over the stalls – mostly in one section.
The central stalls in the fish market area were empty, so I am assuming they operate earlier in the morning. The other sections inside were for fruit, meats, and a few were for breads and pastries. There were even one or two packed alimentari and household goods stalls. We stopped to look and smell at a great many, but only really bought some pastries – mini cannoli. Sadly, these were nothing to write home about – but the stall was lovely to look at. The Italians really do make good with whatever sales space they’re given, especially indoors.
When we’d finished exploring and filming there, we walked to the hippodrome-shaped Piazza della Republica, and from there to the mini-canal system around the fortress. We entered the fortress at the south-western corner, thinking it might be some sort of museum, but it turns out to be a pretty public space. There was a bar on the way in, and a few (closed) food stalls were clustered about, waiting for accompanying food and music festival that were advertised on posters about the place. There was a kids play area beside a short leafy pathway where you could amble along, or park yourself on a bench and watch the world go by.
At the northern end, there is another space by the surrounding wall, which gives a lovely evelated view of the surrounding canal, bridges and colourful buildings. Boats occasionally whizz past, or carefully steer back towards their berthing. A fabulous and peaceful space to chill a while – with plenty of shading from the August sun under its trees.
Now hungry, we walked towards the sea, and along the canals in an effort to find somewhere to have a little bit of lunch. I was breaking one of my own rules (about sacrificing cost and quality of food for a nice view), but maybe me (and Google) would be proved wrong.
We weren’t. They were friendly enough at L’Ancora, but Niamh’s and my fried fish didn’t quite live up to the Livorno promise. My brother, on the other hand, is a reasonably conservative eater and his pasta al ragu was the best of the dishes by a considerable way. As for the compensating view? Well, I got the rough end of the stick… I was looking at dockside trashcans and dumpsters, but Niamh and my brother had this instead.
It reminded me of the contrast that is Livorno: grit and glam. I didn’t take a photo of my view!
When lunch was over, we contemplated heading towards the seaside promenade to show my brother the amazing Terrazza Mascagni, and the aquarium there. We looked at it on the map, but it was a 3km round-walk in little shade, and we just didn’t have the appetite. We *did* however have an appetite for gelato, and once again stopped at L’orizzante for some tasty frozen deliciousness.
And so, home again. Livorno has a bunch of things to see, and that market is right up there with them. Don’t overlook this fun city!
Here’s the video of our trip:
We screen-watched and chilled a while back at the apartment, before building up an appetite to go to Terre di Mezzo for our evening meal. We had pasta and followed that up with dessert. My brother had his expensive beer, making us remember the last time he’d been here and was happy to pay extortionate prices for craft beer (they weren’t extortionate – we misunderstood the pricing!).
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Market day! Yes, Saturday means market day in Volterra. During the tourist season, it sends to be on in the Vallebona carpark outside the walls, rather than in Piazza dei Priori, Via Roma and Piazza San Giovanni. It tends to be a little smaller as a result – not just as a result of a lower real-estate space, but people are on holidays. Plus this year, the remnants of Covid were still hitting. Still, they’re usually pretty lively events, and a great place to buy cheaper ingredients.
We picked up some foodie bits and bobs. Niamh checked out shoes and something light to wear to a beach, should we venture – but came away with nothing.
We had a light lunch of cuts, leaves and cheeses. In fact, I think this was possibly our lightest day of the holiday, apart from the first day, when we drove from Ciampino. Afterwards I went out to scout for a handbag for a friend (who visited us in 2019). I was an expert by now, so I was happy to advise.
I sent her the photos from the shop, and a day or two later I bought it for her! With one thing and another (mostly Covid and return to office) I didn’t get it to her for another couple of months – in fact, I had to drive to her house to get it off my hands!
Good deed done, I rewarded myself!
That evening, Niamh made a super little risotto, complete with parmesan crisp. It was delicious. And just the fare we needed for the attraction that evening!
It was time for one of the medieval sports events of the year – the crossbow competition – Ludus Balistris. There were a representatives (ballistrieri – crossbowmen/women) from towns across Italy (mostly Tuscany – Lucca, Massa Marittima, Pisa, Pisa Porta San Marco, San Marino and Volterra), all of whom had a squad of people aiming from 70 meters (guess) to try to hit a small target. Hint: they were all bloody marvellous at it. There were two trophies up for grabs: for the team, and the best crossbowman/woman.
I have some photos, but not much of the opening cerermony because I was shooting it live – videos below.
As you can see in the last couple of shots, no bolts are removed from the targets between rounds. This makes it progressively more difficult for the team members featuring later in the competition.
When the entertainment was over, the best of the group competition were selected for the indivual competition, and they had a shoot-off on a single target. You can see that in the last of the photos above.
When all was done, and judged. The winners were announced: Volterra had won the team competition, and one of the Luccan contingent won the individual. Yay us!
To close out the competition, there was some pyrotechnics!
Below are the videos of the opening ceremony.
The next day, we collected another guest from Pisa airport, but before we did that – I didn’t walk! We picked up my brother, who had been with us previously and drove home.
We also did something for lunch we hadn’t done in a long time, and there is no good reason why: we went to Don Beta, just a couple of doors up from the arched entrance to our apartment.
When looking at the menu you’d be forgiven, if you were an Italian purist, for thinking the menu was more than a little touristic. And it kind of is. There is something for everyone here – be it pizza, pasta, meat or fish – the menu is fairly enormous. In addition, they do something most other Italian restaurants don’t do: foreign food! Yes, they do Poke Bowls here. Now, I have no frame of reference with these, so I don’t know how good they are – but I appreciate that they’re giving it a go. I think it’s a progressive move.
Now, with such an extensive menu you’d think the food would be so-so, but it’s actually pretty good. It’s by no means ostentatious, but it’s tasty and honest, and the service is friendly and pretty fast for a Tuscan restaurant. We had pici with ragu and pappardelle with wild boar.
My brother’s all about the chilling, and we would have a busy day tomorrow (more in the next blog!). So, chill we did. Before dinner that evening, we had a short walk.
Food! We went to Pizzeria Ombra della Sera and had some food and a couple of beers apiece. I had been missing my veggies over the previous few days, so I had a Zuppa alla Volterrana, while the other two had pizza. Once done – it was TV and music time back at the apartment and to all a good night!
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Glad to say we got out of the town today, and explored somewhere we’d never been before! Equally gladly, I got out for a walk that morning too. I left the town via the Porta Fiorentina (the gate nearest us) and walked anti-clockwise around the walls a bit.
The views across the road from San Felice were nice too.
I carried on, and avoided the temptation of cutting the walk short at Porta all’Arco.
I carried walking around the walls – taking fewer snaps, chickened-out of taking the steps at Docciola and re-entered the same way I came out, a full circuit of the walls complete! A gold star for Eoin!
A year previously, we had a wine-tasting session in Marcampo, and met a British couple there. We were talking about places to shop, and they told us to give Empoli a go. Empoli is a moderately large town just off the FI-PI-LI motorway, and with a train station, so it’s easy to get to. We decided to give it a go.
It took us a little over an hour, and we drove through some suburban areas before we got to the town proper. We had aimed towards a large car park in the middle of town – here. It was a pay carpark, but if I remember correctly, it was quite inexpensive. The town seemed quiet to us. Then, of course, we remembered that we were still in August. Moreover, it had just hit lunchtime, so maybe we wouldn’t be doing much shopping after all!
We still had an initial explore of the town:
As we were in a large town, we decided to continue our quest for good Asian food, and found Ravioli Dong. We wanted something a little lighter, and steamed dumplings over in Italy are usually pretty good. It’s just their stir-fry dishes suck. We just went for some spring rolls, fried rice (or Cantonese rice, as it’s known over here) and a collection of mixed dumplings. For some reason, I didn’t take any pics of the dumplings, but at least you get the rice and the menu.
It was nice – we would definitely come here again next time we’re in Empoli. Even their bathroom made us smile!
To the shops! Except… most of them were closed. This didn’t come as a huge surprise to us. While we searched for some open stores, we had a little explore.
We did stop in a household store and Niamh bought… long grater/zester. I remember the young lady behind the being very nice and giving us a discount we had missed. We also checked out a clothes store, but we didn’t find anything that suited us (read: fit us). We had another nose around the town:
We still wanted to do something shop-wise, but too little was open here. Make no mistake, there are still things for us to do in Empoli – explore the rest of the town, the park, dine in a kick-ass Indian restaurant, enjoy a nice river walk along the Arno. We skipped the centre and drove towards Centro Emploli, a decent-sized mall on the outskirts. Getting there was easy and parking was also simple – plenty of spots available at the time of year and day.
Anyway, we wandered around there until we found an OVS. Niamh bought herself a nice blue puffer-jacket, and we explored a bit more. Not being inspired to shop-til-we-dropped, we went to the food court. I was going to get some gelato, but the place we stopped at had mass-made stuff, and I was happy with having an ice-cold coke.
I didn’t take shots of the mall, as although it was nice and clean, there was little interesting in it, by way of design – except for this cool installation outside the gym.
What I would say about it, is that it’s a fab one-stop for most of your shopping needs: clothes, electronics & gadgets, bars, household goods and a big CoOp to boot. It’s also easy-in, easy-out if you fancy skipping town-shopping and stress about parking.
A good, relaxing time was had, so we headed home, satisfied. We chilled a while, and made our way to the second highlight of our day: dinner at Del Duca! We sat outside and unsurprisingly, had delicious food!
Afterwards, Niamh had a coffee, and I had an amaro – a digestiv – one of the most famous examples of something like an amaro is the much-maligned Jaeger. Amari can be hit and miss, sometimes tasting medicinal, but my favourites are ones that have a hint of chocolate in them. This one did! The last time I found an excellent amaro, I forgot to take a snap of the bottle. This time I did!
On the way out the door, we had a quick chat with Ivana, the Del Duca matriarch, and she slipped me a glass of her famous limoncello. It’s usually very strong, but this was more typical of the drink and was delish!
Afterwards, a short walk to help burn away the calories, then telly/music and bed. What else is new?
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Another short one – possibly the shortest ever – as we stayed in an around Volterra.
I went for a walk that morning.
As you can see, I kept it within the walls.
I have to admit that we really must have had a seriously lazy day. Thankfully, we did get out of the main town by going to lunch at a resort called Tuscany Forever. To get to it, we had to drive the winding way to Saline di Volterra, then head out of the town, toward the north-west before turning left at a gravel road which is a 1.7km drive to the carpark of the resort. As the crow flies, you’re almost halfway back to Volterra by the time you hit the carpark!
And this was the only thing wrong with it, for me, anyway. That blasted road is an uncomfortable drive – there and back. The resort itself looks lovely, and well-maintained. There are a couple of pools for residents among the mini-villas used for lodgings. The place is smack bang in the middle of the hills of the Val di Cecina – and commands some stunning views, so if you were looking for a place to chill for a while, without feeling the need to travel, this would seem to be a good solution. If it weren’t for that road. I understand that the road is not private, but the owner has been unable to successfully lobby to get the road properly paved/asphalted. You have to have your wits about you driving there and back.
Anyway, the restaurant there is called Osteria Etrusca, and given that it’s located in a resort, it’s very family-oriented and its dishes are what we would call at home ‘Italian’… i.e. there are common pasta classics, pizzas and steaks – just about everyone should find something here to eat. I hear that at nights they have live music and light the place up impressively.
Here’s some of the surrounding area:
Below is the food. I had a double-carb set of pasta and pizza. Niamh had fritto misto and a pizza. I think I was happier with my choices – I think most diners would be happy enough with the fare. The only thing that put me off while eating was being assaulted by wasps!
We drove back home on the bumpy track and slept off the calories and the heat of the day.
Our guests, bless them, had left a bunch of beers with us, and I had this little beauty:
We watched the sunset, and I finally found some space left in my stomach for my evening ‘meal’:
I had a traipse around the town a bit, watched the telly an then hit the hay!
It was our guests’ last day, but they weren’t leaving until the early evening. It gave them a chance to pick up some souvenirs before they left, including an elusive boar-themed t-shirt.
But first, I had a walk on my own that morning, to and from the archaeological dig site, back and around the town a bit.
Then back to town and the rest of the walk!
After I had tidied myself up and eaten, then we wandered out and did some shopping. We split up into multiple ranks and went hunting.
We met up with our guests at a souvenir store on Via dei Sarti, where, if I recall correctly, a t-shirt of a boar on a motorbike was finally bought by our guests. Both couples bought also walked away with a pro corkscrew – one with a double-flanged lever that we’ve seen all the waiters use here… by touristy themed!
Oh yeah, and this happened:
They are super-handy, especially for lugging around water and my filming tools (gimbal, microphones). Would I wear it anywhere? Absolutely not. If I were to attempt to wear this bag at home, especially, near where I work, I would have seven shades of snot beaten out of me. Dublin is fun!
We then had the sad task of bring our guests back to the airport. Never a fun time, not least because we’ve travelled that road a few dozen times already! But really, we enjoy showing people about the region. A short enough visit, but plenty of scope for a re-visit!
Unsurprisingly, I took no photos of the airport. You only have 10 minutes to get in and get out of the drop-off carpark without charge. This leads to us looking like we’re giving our guests the bum’s rush. Which is pretty much what’s happening. “Bye, then!”, “Buh-bye… bye-b-b-byebyebye!”. Cue validating our card and running for the exit.
What *IS* surprising is that we finally stopped at a store in La Rosa we had been threatening to stop in for 4 years. It has a huge hiking boot outside it and, to our embarassment, spent almost all of those 4 years wondering what the shop sold. Shoes. It sells shoes. In fact, it is a shoe outlet store, and a pretty damn big one at that!
The less we have to pack going over, the better – so I wanted to build a small stock of footwear so one day, all I’d have to bring over is my laptop bag! There is about a half a column of men’s shoes, a half a column of kids’ and 2 columns of ladies’. ‘Twas ever thus. Anyway, Niamh found flip-flops and other shoes for herself, and I found a nice pair for Bugatti’s for myself. I had found another pair too, but what they have on the floor is what they have in stock, and sadly they didn’t have them in my size. Still, I’d put a hole in my goal and was happy enough.
We carried on towards home, rested and then went to Ristorante Etruria for a slightly windy meal outdoors.
And that was that for the day. We were alone again, naturally.
It’s been a while coming. I have spent so much time editing a compilation video, that everything else (apart from my job!) has been put to one side. Sorry about that! But I’m back, and going to continue our August/September trip.
It was the last full day for our guests, and Niamh had to work and therefore couldn’t leave the apartment. They were keen on seeing an Italian-style market. They also didn’t want to drive halfway across the region to find one, understandably – they would have a day of travel ahead of the them tomorrow. I looked up Tuesday on this Market Days in Tuscany site – so useful if you’re looking for a market yourself, by the way! Peccioli was one of my suggestions, and it’s not an awful drive if it happened to be closed that day – it’s just that I didn’t know where it was in the town itself. San Miniato was perhaps too far away. Then, BOOM, at the end of the Pisa section they said that there was a market just 8km away in Saline di Volterra! We picked that, said our goodbyes to Niamh and headed out.
It can take a little while to drive 8km in Tuscany – more than you’d reckon. The road from Volterra to Saline begins with a large series of hairpins (switchbacks), and it can take about 20 minutes. Anyway – the scenery is fab and there were no complaints.
We arrived and parked, and I had to admit to being a little excited myself. It was going to be fun to show new people the buzz and clamour of an Italian market. Except, oh dear. Usually you would see people returning from a market with bags of produce and household goods, and you’d hear the excited calls of hawkers and customers as they exchanged. We saw one lady. When we turned the corner, I counted the stalls and just about ran out of fingers on one hand. It was incredibly quiet. I don’t know if it’s always like that, or if it was because that Saline is a genuine working town, and a lot of people (both stall-owners and customers) may have been on holidays during August, which is frequently the case in Italy.
I grimaced an apology to my guests. They had a quick look around, and gave me some kind words to placate my embarassment. We then had a debate about what to do. It was still early enough, so I played my 2 Aces: Casale Marittimo and Querceto. I definitely picked the right hand, but I definitely picked the wrong order to play them in.
We went first to Casale Marittimo, and parked in the free carpark there. We strolled to the central piazza, which has many lanes and ramps leading from it, promising an explorer’s dream. It is impeccably clean and as quiet as a funeral home.
We had a wander from one side, to the other, up and down through multiple layers of the town and gave ourselves a decent workout in the heat.
It is, in my opinion, one of Tuscany’s most beautiful villages, and after having talked with our guests since, it certainly left a hugely positive impression – they were blown away by it.
Towards the end of the walk, we stopped off at a leatherworker’s shop. Inside we bought belts and masks. He fitted and worked the belts while we were there. I’m wearing the belt as I type this. Tuscan leather is saving me from public scandal! Here is the mask I bought – Niamh added it to her creepy collection.
We breezed past the church and realised we had a gently sloping walk back down to the carpark. Before heading there, we had a debate about what we’d do for food. It was just after lunch time, but we weren’t quite hungry yet. We agreed to heading to Querceto for an explore of that small hamlet, and then go for lunch there, as Niamh and I had done previously.
We got back in the car, and it took us 20 minutes on a very narrow, winding road to get to Querceto. We parked here, just before the road into town. As we hit the place, we say one of the places you could book a degustation was locking up for riposo. Damn. They wouldn’t be back for a few hours. Anyway, I trotted to Locanda del Sole and found it shut too. Noooooo! We consoled ourselves with a look around the place anyway.
I love Querceto, but after Casale Marittimo and the disappoinment of lunch, I don’t think the guests were quite as enamoured of it was I am. The clock was pushing 14:00. I don’t think we’d get a table at Casale Marittimo if we flew back, so I googled places that were opened.
On the plus side, I got to drive some back roads I hadn’t driven on before, looking for a place to eat. I almost jammed on the brakes when I saw a place on a bend, but wasn’t too sure if it was just an agritourismo with food for its guests. When I look at it now (it’s Locanda Le Giunche), I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t bite the bullet and stop there. We drove to another place, and when I put saw it I didn’t at first recognise its name or the area where it was located.
It was La Baracchina, and Niamh and I had driven past it a ton of times on the way to/from Cecina and other towns on the coast. Parking was handy, made even more so by the availability of shade on a hot day. We approached the restaurant, and saw that it was not a table-service place. It wasn’t buffet either – they had tons of salumi for sandwiches and tasting plates, and a menu of pasta and meat from which you order at the till, take your number and wait for your order to be cooked, so you can bus it back to your table. Hand enough arrangement, and what followed was simple enough fare. I thought my pasta was ok, and the roast chicken was said to have a good flavour, even if it was a little dry. It was fine for lunch – not a meal to remember, but fine. And reasonably inexpensive!
Once done we headed back to Volterra, but we had a stop at the Veronika and Fabrizio’s art gallery (as Niamh and I had done on a few occasions). I ended up buying another of Veronika’s pieces, and the guests came close to buying something of Fabrizio’s but relented at the last minute.
Then home for a rest. We were a little boiled by the time we got home, and Niamh was finishing up in work too. As it was our guests’ last night, and the lunch we had earlier notwithstanding, we headed out for a little walk and ended up in La Vecchia Lira to make pigs of ourselves once more.
Then the meal:
I have no memory of what occurred afterwards, other than I must have drifted into a food coma. It was a fun day, but sadly our guests would be leaving tomorrow.
You’d think we’d have had enough time on our feet after the Medieval Festival the previous day, but no – today we would be bringing our guests into Florence. As we had already been there a number of times, we would leave them at the Duomo and head off to do one of the things we had failed to do on these numerous trips: visit the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens behind it.
But first: the electrician called! We opened the door, and in stepped a very young man with a tool-belt around his waist. We showed him the beeping alarm and after a quick chat on the phone with a colleague, informed us that yes, it was just a sonic repellant for birds. He clipped the wires necessary to stop it beeping – so I guess that is the end of the reign of terror for the pigeons. Hopefully next time we get to Volterra our terrace won’t be a holy mess.
As Niamh was happy with his quick work, she thought to nab him to wire up the new light over the new mirror in the new bathroom. I showed it to him, and within 10 minutes he had it done – good man! It didn’t have a separate switch, though, so now when you turn the lights on, it’s like bloody daylight in there! First world problems. He couldn’t accept payment then and there, but if I recall correctly, I don’t think the bill was for more than €20! Try getting even just a callout from a utilities guy in Ireland for that price!
When heading to Florence, we usually head straight north on the SP15, remaining north on the SP439dir until we hit larger roads past Montaione. Some of it has nice scenery, so it’s a nice way to show it off. Then we come back via the motorway as far as Colle di Val d’Elsa. However, we took the motorway route both way this time. It’s a little quicker (even though you have to head far south before you can begin to go north towards Florence), and we also wanted to show our guests the amazing countryside of the Val di Cecina and the Val d’Elsa on the way. We had a quick sightseeing stop just 3 minutes drive outside the town at one of Mauro Staccioli’s: L’Anello… one of a number of stark sculptures dotted around the nearby landscapes. This is probably the most famous and Instagrammable of them, due to the surrounding countryside and the hairpin road.
We got to our usual parking spot for a visit to Florence – the CoOp at Ponte a Greve (here in Google maps). It’s free! And you can grab the tram (don’t forget to validate your ticket on-board!) right next to it for a 10-12 minute trip to Santa Maria Novella station in the heart of the city. From there it’s a 10-minute walk to the Duomo.
Here, we left our guests to do their own thing. They wanted to shop and visit an engineering exhibition of Da Vinci’s. Niamh popped into the chemist to get herself some plasters for breaking in shoes, while I grabbed a bottle of water from a Tabbachi. Then we wound our way through the streets of Florence, through the Piazza della Republica and over the Ponte Vecchio.
We were pretty hungry by then, and wanted to find a reasonably-priced, less touristy place to eat. We had a couple of false alarms, before we grabbed a table at Trattoria de’ Guicciardini. Niamh had bruschetta (not pictured) and a nice place of fusilli pasta. I had stuffed pasta in a truffle cream, followed by Peposo – stewed beef in red wine and tons of black pepper. I have been on a quest to find a decent plate of it for some time now. Some pleaces don’t have enough wine, others barely any peppper. It seems to be a dish that’s hard to get right. When I saw the plate that came out, I have to admit I was initially disappointed, as there was an obvious lack of sauce/gravy. But then I tasted it. Absolutely delicious, and definitely the best Peposo I have ever had.
And they know how good it is too. I was halfway through my beef when a short, older lady came out and asked how my Peposo was, and was obviously very pleased at my reaction. I think she was the cook. Good service. If I had one quibble, it would be that our dishes were served according to their order of appearance on the menu. So, Niamh had her bruschetta while I looked on hungrily, then we both had our pasta, and finally I went solo with my Peposo. Served this way, however, you had a better guarantee of your food coming out as it should. Anyway, I would go to have that Peposo again tomorrow, if I could!
We saved some tummy room for gelato after we had visited the gardens.
The Pitti Palace was just minutes away by foot, and we arrived there and immediately trotted for shade. The piazza is super-exposed to the sun. The ticket office was only a few people deep, and we weren’t long in waiting. We noticed that, yet again, the palace itself was closed to the public. One of these fine years we’ll get to see it.
Anyway, we headed in, and I wasn’t allowed the use of my gimbal to shoot video, so I had to rely on my shaky hands. You can see the video farther below.
What can I say? We wandered around the gardens. They are quite lovely, but honestly incredibly warm in August. Additionally, although I’m no gardener or horticulturalist, I suspect there are better times to visit if you want to see some of the gardens within bloom. There were more tropical-style sections, as well as the opulent French-style. Some of it is quite hilly, and so if you’re not a fan of heat, your misery will be compounded with uphill slope or stair climbs. There are taps with cold drinkable water dotted around, however, and decent toilet facilities.
One great thing about them is that you can get some elevated views of the city of Florence, without having to travel out to Piazzale Michelangelo (this is recommended regardless at sunset, by the way – we’ve yet to do it, though).
So, yes – go to the Boboli Gardens – they really are beautiful, but maybe in April/May!
Here’s a short video of our trip!
We were roasting after exploring the gardens, and took a break at the café there. This was a mistake. Go out and find somewhere else instead. The menu was overpriced – this wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was how awful the shakerati we bought were. Very bitter, no foam and not at all refreshing. They just threw (bad) hot coffee over ice and served. It took a while for us to get served too, as there was only one overworked waitress on duty outside.
Bowed, but unbroken, we started our journey back to the Duomo, where we said we’d meet our guests. On the way, wanted to grab a gelato at place we had been taken to before – Gelateria della Passera, but it was closed. Wah! Instead we had to head back to Gelateria Santa Trinita, where we had also eaten before (I will always remember that eye-rolling girl – she could have been world-weary professionally).
We caught up with our guests nearby the Duomo. They crossed off their two most important goals of shopping and getting to that exhibition. They had also gotten lost, and – still to my astonishment to this day – not found the Piazza della Signoria, the Piazza della Republica or the Arno banks. On the plus side, they still have tons to return to next time!
The day had gotten quite humid and energy-draining, so we left for the tram to take us back to the carpark. We had a couple of pitstops – one in the CoOp for drinks and goodies, and the other in the electronics store to buy wireless mice and keyboards. By chance, we bought a phone holder for the car. This turns out to have been an inspired purchase – it worked like a charm – who needed a infotainment screen after all?!
I also noticed this phenomenon in (I repeat) THE ELECTRONICS STORE:
We chilled for a short while back at the apartment, tidied ourselves up and had yummy pizza in Pizzeria Ombra della Sera, along with a beer or two.
After it was a sit-up for a little more beer, then bed. And a sneaky pic of our neighbour’s amazing courtyard below!
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. Please add comments and ask me questions – I’d love to hear from you!
Righto, this post contains a decent amount of media!
Back in 2019, we attended both ofVolterra’sMedieval Festivals, the second time with a guest – where we also played dress-up. The instances of the festival are only a week apart in mid-August. We missed the first week, but we really wanted to catch the second. I think you can already guess what happened to the 2020 and 2021 festivals – that stupid pandemic! Anyway, we were going to party like ’twere 1398 (sort of).
But first, a walk! I wanted to check out what kind of preparations were being made that morning for the festival, so I took my gimbal and phone with me and did a little filming, pausing to take photos too. I tried recharging my microphone receiver, but it overheated massively – to the extent that the charging jack melted a little, so that was that system broken. At the time of writing this (mid November), I still don’t have a mic system – roll on Christmas!
There really wasn’t anyone additional about beginning to set up the festival, so I assume that the people involved are so used to it now, that they have it running like clockwork.
One of my favourite things about the landscape surrounding Volterra is that if the climate conditions are right, fog will descend in the shallow valleys between the rolling hills, giving the latter the appearance of islands amidst a foamy sea. It’s so awesome looking. Hence, most of the photos in the gallery below are of this phenomenon.
I filmed, as I already said, so here’s a link to the (long-ish) video too.
The Festival – The City We thought we left the apartment in time to avoid a large crowd, and we did so… at the ticket office. The ticket system is a 2-staged affair. Firstly, pay your fee at one desk to get your ticket. Secondly, present your ticket at another desk to get your wristband for showing at at any of the border gates. I presume this is to keep things motoring when lots of people arrive at once. Once adorned, we presented ourselves at the nearest gate which led to the square. It turned out that getting there early seems to have been a popular decision: there was a large crowd already in the square enjoying a display by the sbandieratori (flag jugglers) and their accompanying musicians.
There aren’t really any photos of this, as I was filming – so you can catch that near the bottom of this post. After having taken in the spectacle, headed straight to the costume hire shop, which was no longer through the main doors of the Palazzo dei Priori, but through the Via Turazza entrance. I wanted to hire another monk’s costume (see the blog about the second festival in 2019), and managed to find one. I changed there and then, but eventually regretted not also losing my shorts. Note – you must have some photo ID (driver’s license or passport) to hire the costumes. Everyone’s was hired with my driver’s license. The other three wanted to preserve their dignity and instead change back up in the apartment. After a little confusion about what was and what wasn’t paid for, we headed out, me in my monk’s robe. Being linen, it was quite breathable, and not too warm. I was comfy enough in it.
While I waited for the return of the others, I headed to La Sosta del Priore to buy a couple of bottles of water. I was given an enthusiastic welcome by Ilenia and I got a chance to practice my shoddy Italian. I stuck the bottles in my pouch and headed back to the main square. Something happened to me on the way back: I fell in love with man-bags. The monk’s costume came with a large over-the-shoulder pouch, and it not only was handy for holding the water, but my phone and gimbal when I needed to. I vowed later that I would buy myself a man-bag later during my stay!
I sat on the ledge outside Palazzo dei Priori and people-watched while I waited for the others to return.
I was waiting for ages for some reason. My guess is the 76 steps up to/down from the apartment. I had to call to find out they were at the side of the palace again and ready to start their walk about the first festival area. So we did just that! We contemplated exchaging our money for the fair’s own currency, and that can be fun alright, but we stuck with the slightly more convenient modern cash. We checked out some of the stalls, and signed our name on parchment using old-school quills.
There were stalls which were demonstrating various trades such as jewellery crafting, salt-making, wood cutting and carving, and a barbeque pits were dotted here and there too. The locals added to the atmosphere by playing ‘parts’ while walking around of hawking wares. One guy was hobbling about with a bandaged foot on a crutch.
In other parts, there were games and activities for kids (including a hobby horse and a medieval merry-go-round) – some of these were usurped by (probably tipsy) adults. No photos of that – but see the video near the bottom of this blog.
We wound our way to the abbey on Via Roma. It is usually closed to the public, but it opens on during the medieval festivals, and some of the monks participate in demonstrations. Some of the ‘monks’ are also townspeople, as we met our regular contact in our Bank (Cassa di Risparmio di Volterra) dressed as a monk and demonstrating bread-making. The monk on the way in asked if I was from the north. I assumed he was referring to my pasty skin, and I declared that I was from Ireland. He was actually referring to my ‘fur’-lined hood… duh! We had a chuckle at my idiocy, and checked out a couple of other things going on there (art, old sheets of music and gospels and mosaic-making). The courtyard was not accessible, but you could see it through a shut gate.
When done, we headed back out onto Via Roma. It was a little quieter than in 2019 – there were simply fewer stalls; maybe only half as many as usual. This is a shame, as when it’s fully-lined, there is no street that looks as medieval when looking south-west to north-east, taking in the arch that spans the Buonparenti house towers. I know I keep harping on about this, and not producing the photographic goods – but you can see it all in the video below.
By now we were back at the main square, and were hungry. We headed to Voltaterra and grabbed some wine, beer and sausage sandwiches. We people-watched as we deveroured and drank. The pyrotechnical group (see the festival’s closing section below), marched through with their drummers.
The Festival – The Rustic Village We’d had enough of city-life for now, and leaving this section of the festival, we headed over to the main part, which was in the town’s municipal park (Parco Enrico Fiumi), a lovely green above the town, which used to contain Etruscan temples and palaces of nobility. Now it’s a lovely relaxing green area, with a circular path surrounding a dell around which people can sit for performances and demonstrations. Essentially they had set up a village with eatieres, armories, games for people to play and participatory activities.
There were animals there for the kids to watch (and everyone to eat), bottle fishing where the prize was a fritella dolce – a sort of sweet donut-like little ball. A tasty treat, but you could pick up a nice big cone of them for €2. There were suits of armour on display, and lots of townspeople wandering about in medieval costume adding to the ambience.
Trumpets blared, heralding the approach of a nearby town’s marching band, with flag throwing. We settled underneath a large tree and watched them do their stuff. They were a smaller troupe, and so weren’t as polished as a Volterrans, but you can’t say they didn’t give it their best.
We took to the path, acknowledging the bowmen who were having lunch – so that would be no archery for us, sadly. However, the ballistrieri (crossbow men/women) were facilitating target practice. A few Euros for 3 shots. We had a go – and astonishingly one of our guests hit the tiny target. We all came at least close, but his shot was fabulous. The targets are a good 20 meters away and tiny. First time I’d ever seen someone hit it. The crossbows you’re given probably have seen better days and the bolts not properly weighted (so they don’t kill people!)…so yeah – very impressive. You can watch all that footage on the video below.
August in Italy gets stinking hot, so by now we were gasping for a nice, cold drink. We left the village and went to L’Antica Velathri Café. Last time we were here during the festival in 2019 we had some delicious chilled mulled wine. This time we had some cocktails – the star of which a variation of a Mojito with bitters and ginger beer. The outdoor bar they had this year was far bigger and was very busy. The drinks were absolutely delicious!
The Evening Meal It was time for riposo – a mid-afternoon break. We went back up to the apartment and rested a while. We weren’t going to be wearing the costumes again, and I wanted my driver’s license back – so we left the apartment an hour or so later. The two ladies were champs and took the costumes back while us lads waited around the main square. We then went on a short walk, including a little walk into Vicolo Mazzoni, where the manhole which is said to be the entry to the home of the Volturi – the vampires of the Twilight series. I love this lane. It is gloriously spooky, but you do play a little pigeon roultette there, and hope you don’t get crapped-on whenever you go there. Niamh made her now signature move of frightening the bejesus out of our female guest!
After laughter and apologies, we found ourselves in L’Incontro for aperitivi. We had nibbles there too… always a nice welcome there!
You can see in the pic above that we were still wearing our wristbands, as we had the closing ceremony to go to.
Anyway, hunger was the new order of the day, and we decided on somewhere close to home – next door, in fact – to the always lovely Porgi L’Altra Pancia (literally, ‘grow another belly’). We might have had too much.
The Festival’s Closing Nice and stuffed, and perhaps a little wined, we headed back home again for a while to let the tummies settle, before the festival closing show at 23:00. I was disappointed when I remembered that we had missed the falconry exhibition in the park. We caught it in 2019. The birds were a little uncooperative then, but regardless we would have to wait until next time.
Anyway, after a short walk to check out the main panoramic viewpoint we hit the square on time, but it was packed. We managed to get close to the fence at the corner where it met the bleachers. I filmed a little and shot a little. It was a fun event. The sbandieratori put on a display, and after that, the band that we had seen traverse the square at lunchtime had brought all sorts of pyrotechnic paraphernalia with them and began to do their thing!
They ate fire, whipped with it, danced and hoola-hooped with it, all to the unceasing tattoo of their drummers. Right at the end they lit numbers ‘1398’ (AD1398 is the official name of the festival), which blazed in front of the seated audience. We could only catch it from the side.
I have to confess something. I missed the last 5 minutes of the show, as my feet and back were protesting terribly. Fortunately, Niamh’s constitution proved better on the day, and she managed to capture video of it. You can check it, and all of what we got up to, in the video (finally!) linked below:
If you’ve gotten this far, firstly fair play to you – secondly, thank you! Drop me a line if you like this, and I’d love to hear from you if you have questions or comments!
We had been informed that some sort of alarm had been beeping on our terrace. Apparently, a couple of people from Napoli lodged a complaint, so our building super arranged to have our electricity cut off. Lovely. It had no effect, so we were reconnected before we arrived back. We lost food in the fridge and freezer. Thanks, Napoli!
Anyway, that morning after we had dragged ourselves out of bed, we checked it out. Yes (and we had noticed this the previous night), the thing was beeping avery few seconds – very annoying! To me, it sounded like a smoke alarm whose battery is about to run out. We cracked open the large circular frame and had a look inside.
I think that the large grey cuboid near the top of the ‘stuff’, held in by the large metal bracket, is the battery. Anyway, we were too chicken to play around with it, even though it really looked like it wasn’t connected to any mains wire). We contacted our property manager, who arranged for an electrician to call over on Monday (today was Saturday).
Back to the fun parts!
Volterra was to hold it’s first Medieval Festival in 3 years the next day, and we had to drive to Pisa to pick up a couple of guests – people from our workplace – as they would be staying over with us for a few nights. I think Pisa is a hugely underrated town, and honestly believe that people with access to a car could make it a good base for a week’s holiday – particularly if you have already been to Florence and Siena. The problem we have with it, is that people new to Tuscany always want to see the Leaning Tower. I know it sounds like sour grapes, and certainly is a first-world problem, but if I were to be truthful, we accept their visit to that over-visited square with something approaching an eye-roll. But we do it. And we try to be as gracious as possible, but if you were to listen deeply to us, you would hear us sigh when people decide not to climb up the tower. Having said that: it’s a must-see if you haven’t seen it before!
So, we were delighted when the people staying with us had actually stayed the day previously, andd so had already seen it. Their hotel was nearer the east side of the square, so we figured we’d have to park the car in our favourite spot, and walk to meet them. However, as we were running a little late as a particular artery nearby was clogged with traffic, we spotted them waiting by a corner at the west side of the square. Yay! We signalled to them; they saw us and we were able to take a left and double-park while they bundled themselves and their luggage inside.
We took off and headed back to Volterra. We stopped at the Conad in Capannoli and bought essentials (salad, cheese, salummi, beer!). Rather than take the left after La Sterza, we continued straight on the SR439 – the sexy route to Volterra. The SR439dir route is nice in spots, but the former takes you so much closer to the rolling colline, through scenery that – to my biased eyes at least – rivals that of the Val d’Orcia. Here’s the route we took:
A couple of weeks previously, there had been a serious heatwave in the area, which sparked a couple of forest fires. We saw the devastation first-hand and for a couple of kilometers, the road cut through dead woods, the trees charcoaled by flame. Here and there, roadsigns were blackened and twisted. That was a sorry, if fascinating, sight. But then the road broke out into the open hills. The Torre dei Belforti standing sentinel over Montecatini Val di Cecina could be seen for miles around. Lone trees decorated the tilled fields, and you could see sculptures in some others. You can see some examples in this blog from back in May, when the hills were somewhat greener, but you’re always better off seeing these things for yourself. I think our friends were suitably impressed! As they were with the view from our terrace (they were less-impressed with the steps!).
We debated about whether we should lunch on our CoOp purchases, or head out to a restaurant. Our puppy-like exhuberance for showing the town won-out, and we headed to La Taverna della Terra di Mezzo instead!
We had a pasta course each and a little vino. I usually like the house red here – only one year out of four has it been a little iffy. I think the white fares about the same. Both are dangerously drinkable, but light.
With fattened bellies, we took the guys on a calorie-busting tour of… hmmm… maybe half of the town. I have to profess that Niamh and I really are like toddlers when we remember yet another vista we haven’t shown guests yet.
That evening, we had the Conad purchases as a light dinner/supper and drank a little and chatted. We took things quite easy, as we knew we would have a hell of a fun and long day ahead of us tomorrow!
Good night! The next one will be a little longer. Please leave a comment or like.
We had to wait another 12 weeks before could return. It’s wrong to wish your life away. And you should try to be grateful for what you do have, no matter where you are – if you want to maintain healthy mental balance. However, it’s hard to put this all into practice when you have a little slice of heaven waiting for you just over 2 hours away by airplane.
It turns out that our usual gateway to our slice of heaven would require you going through the eye of a needle! Car rental in Pisa had become incredibly expensive, and we had an idea to shop from a different airport. We would have to ensure that the agency we rented the car with could take the car back in Pisa, as we would fly out from there. Anyway, we found that Thrifty, who also have an office in Pisa, were renting the exact same car class for the exact same period for almost €1,000 less (although see below!) in their agency in Ciampino Airport, Rome. The name ‘Thrifty’ didn’t exactly instill confidence, but we had no issues throughout our stay.
We decided that it could be a win/win if we got an early enough flight, and found a route we could enjoy. We had 2 basic choices:
To head immediately to the coast and take as coastal a route as possible. I love coastal drives, but planning a route would be tricky… as quite often many of the roads right next to the sea are gravelly or sandy, or simply prohibited. Often the road closest to the coasts is still several hundred meters away from the sea, which defeats the purpose. In addition, there are very few coastal towns with true ‘centro storico’ charm in Lazio and Tuscany.
Drive inland instead, skirting around inland lakes and exploring a couple of lakeside towns on the way. The towns on the lakeside would have a better chance of being ‘oldy-worldy’.
So we decided on the latter and I plotted, which would take is through parts of Lazio and Umbria – we’d never driven outside Tuscany before. Including a couple of scheduled stops, I estimated it would take us 7-7.5 hours.
Firstly, we had to fly!
We did exactly what we did that last time we flew out: booked the night in the Maldron at the airport so we could walk directly to the airport and get a couple of hours extra sleep. My brother kindly gave us a lift to the hotel. Our room was grand, and we ate in the bar instead of the restaurant this time. Not bad at all. We slept well enough and, with no breakfast, got up at sparrowfart and walked to departures with a nice young lad from Cork. Niamh and I just had carry-ons; he had nothing but the clothes he had on him.
We got there, positively sailed through security and walked much of the way towards the gate to an eatery that was, mercifully, open. We somehow grabbed a table – the airport was freaking mobbed at the gates – and sat by a multigenerational family of 6 or 7. I had a sandwich; Niamh a sweet breakfast – to start the time off Italian style!
Everything was going to plan. We got to our gate, were checked and began our Ryanair cattle-queue to the aircraft, close to the front. The sky was blue, the birds were singing…
So we queued and waited, and waited. We chatted for a bit with a funny older couple who were hung-over and going for Rome for their first time. Grounds-people and boarded staff wandered in and out of the craft. Several times I could have sworn we were going to be allowed to board. But then, alas, a man told us we all had to go back into the terminal. There was an issue with the aircraft, and we would have to wait an hour for another craft.
There was no waiting area in the terminal, so we had to walk past the gates again, which of course meant that we would have to be re-checked on the way out. On the plus side, the dude who said an hour was actually pretty much spot on. Any delay, however, was going to eat into our ability to wander around the couple of towns we had chosen.
Anyway, we were re-boarded an hour later and spend about 30 minutes longer than usual in the air, as we were flying to Rome, rather than Pisa. The flight was pleasant and without incident. We spotted a couple of lakes – one of those at which we would stopping. We disembarked, got through the passport check handily, and broke out Missus Google to search for the Thrifty agency to pick up our car. It had just finished raining heavily and the sun was making its reappearance. It was therefore becoming both hot and humid. Fortunately, we were at the agency in 9 or 10 minutes. We took up a couple of options, not realising one of them was an additional driver. We checked our booking, and lady was quite correct – the booking didn’t include me as an additional driver, and it would cost just under €300 more for the month. It took a little gloss off our saving, and cast a shadow over whether or not we should have flown to Rome in the first place. But was done was done, and the day and the journey ahead were still ours to make the most of.
We got the keys and checked the car out. It was a Fiat Panda and was as basic as cars get – even in these modern times. There was no infotainment screen – almost a basic requirement, but our budget was set and we gave it a shot. In truth, once we had bought the phone holder that clipped into the airvents we grew to love the old girl.
Off we went towards the ringroad around Rome, and then, quite quickly, we seemed to be doubling back before we felt he’d left the airport. And then back again. We re-checked Google and re-input the route, but it seemed to be right. We hit a roundabout that we’d hit before and took a different exit. Very odd. Anyway, we were off and in 3-lane traffic around Rome. Well, they certainly drive a little more aggressively here, don’t they! We were only on the ring road about 30 minutes, before we were back on more the more civilised 2-way roads. About 20 minutes later we entered the lovely lakeside town of Anguillara Sabazia. We very luckily got parking right by the lakeside restaurants, and had a little explore.
Not too far away from us, there was a Ferris wheel, and people lounging in the sun on the dark sand. But the town itself is gorgeous, like a mini Positano, with a pyramid of buildings crowing a nearby hill. A lovely and peaceful place. I took a little video footage you can find farther down below. Sadly, due to the lateness of our flight we had to do the thing we came here for: have lunch. There was no time for a proper explore.
Sadly, this is where things go a little pear-shaped. I have been using Google maps street view to ‘drive’ along the Italian coast, sussing out amenities, restaurants and properties. One thing I can say with reasonable accuracy is that a great many (i.e. not ALL) lakeside/seaside restaurants will force you to sacrifice the quality and price of food for the aesthetics of the location.
I’m afraid this was the case here too. I won’t name the restaurant. Niamh had a passable Amitriciana, but my Cacio e Pepe was utterly abortive. I’m usually not harsh in my food critiques, but this was a crushing disappointment. While the tonnarelli noodles were done well and toothsome (and I at least ate those with relish), the sauce was a total mess. The dish arrived with the noodles swimming in a soup with congealed cheese parked in marble-sized packets through out the serving. I finished the pasta, but left the sauce, which had by then looked like a plate of porridge. I wouldn’t have expected it to be so badly cooked halfway around the world, let alone in Italy, in the region considered to be the home of Cacio e Pepe.
Anyway, let’s move on.
We left Anguillara Sabazia and had a 10km or so pleasant lakeside drive, before we joined the main road towards Passignano sul Trasimeno. We circled around the walls of Nepi, and past tantalisingly close to Narni, Todi and Perugia – but we will have to visit those some time in the distant future. It was anethema to the explorer in me to pass them by, but our time was limited. I really enjoyed the drive, and didn’t really notice it pass by too much. I even drove this leg!
Anyway two and a half hours later we arrived at the large pay carpark to the east of Passignano itself. It lies alongside the lakeside promenade. We paid for the parking ticket and got out of the car and had a little explore.
Lake Trasimeno at around 130 square km is Italy’s 4th biggest lake and something of a boon to the otherwise landlocked, yet beautiful, region of Umbria. The photos above look a little gloomy, but the sun was on the other side of town, and we were just in time for the sunset and a gelato!
The touristic side of town has a lovely promenade lined with restaurants and shops. We only had the gelato and walked a little farther to have a look at the pier and check out the golden hour. Behind the promenade buildings there were hints of an older town, begging to be explored – but alas, we had no time.
The pier was essentially a dock for the ferries which can take people to and from a couple of other towns and a couple of islands. The other plus side to Trasimeno is that it’s not a huge drive away – a little under 2 hours, so it’s a ripe target for exploration at another time. In fact, we had planned on visiting again, but other things got in the way and we never made it.
We got back in the car and Niamh drove the last leg to Volterra. Passignano was a little larger than we expected and the more modern part had its virtues and amenities too – quite a lovely place. On the way home, we actually passed very close to Cortona – another gem of town that we’ll have to visit at some stage in the near future.
We knew much of this road, and it was multi-laned. We didn’t stop off anywhere, and once parked, we wheeled our bags to the apartment, changed the bedsheets and collapsed into our beds.
Below is a short video of some footage of Anguillara and Passignano – take a look!
I hope you enjoyed the read. Let me know what you think!