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.
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!
I had a shorter walk this morning, up Gramsci, bumping into Robbi, the owner of Terra di Mezzo, towards the end of it. We exchanged pleasanteries and I carried on. Only a few shots today:
My time wasn’t my own for most of the day, so I had to stay in. Niamh got to ‘enjoy’ the outdoors a little more on the terrace while she repainted the terrace railings and that lovely terracotta orange on the outside walls. Honestly, I dread almost anything DIY, so I was somewhat happy to have been stuck indoors while Niamh carried out this task. Thanks, hon!
We grabbed a quick mid-morning mindful walk around the park with a gelato. On the way back, we waved hello to Massimo, the owner of La Vecchia Lira. Our lives, you might have noticed, seems to revolve around food.
For lunch, Niamh made penne with an aubergine and tomato sauce she had cooked up previously and frozen. It was toothsome and rich. I usually shirk tomato-based sauces (which is why I enjoy Tuscan cooking so much – yes, that’s right, Stanley Tucci! Tomatoes are NOT actually a major staple ingredient in Tuscan cuisine), but this sauce was tasty indeed! I went to the framers to finally pick up the drawing I bought from Fabrizio, but discovered he only works half days. D’oh! I’ll guess I’d have to wait another day.
That evening, after I became a free man again, we had to choose between the two men I met earlier in the day. We chose over aperitivi in L’Incontro. We chose La Vecchia Lira as Massimo had seen us again from his restaurant and waved. Also, in the end, we over-ate.
We had a short walk to burn off calories and to catch the sunset, before heading home to screen-watch.
I had another walk this morning. I’m so proud of myself, to be honest. I had shirked somewhat on my previous few stays, so I’m glad to be back in the saddle, so to speak. This time, I walked a little longer than I had intended, but kept it mostly within the walls of the town.
After breakfasting and tidying myself up, I FINALLY managed to get Fabrizio’s drawing. We hung it up in the kitchen.
We just lazed about all morning, and then had lunch in Ristorante Etruria, in Piazza dei Priori. It’s a bit touristy, and is one of the few places that insists on limited table time during busy periods, which is rare. But there’s something for everyone here, and the food isn’t bad. In addition, they recognise us and treat us well – often presenting us with a half-bottle of Chianti to take home when our meal is over. If you’re ever there, and have someone who is a little picky with food with you, you should try it. Also, the inside seating area is lushly decorated and worth a quick view!
We then, rather unusually, spent some time walking about town. I say ‘rather unusually’ as (a) we know better than to walk around town during the hottest part of the say, and (b) we spent a couple of hours doing it! I took some snaps, sure – but most of the time was spent going from one part of town to another, and people-watching as the sun began to dip in the cloudless sky. It may not be the only way to enjoy Tuscany, but it’s one of the best: just sit back and enjoy the present.
I think I began to doze a little while sitting in the bench at Piazza XX Settembre! We had a gelato at L’Isola del… no, wait. We actually had it at Enjoy Café! I think they’ve upped their gelato-game in a the last year or so – it was actually quite good!
We rested back at the apartment, and when hungry again headed out to La Mangiatoia. I love the pizza at Pizzeria l’Ombra della Sera, but it just isn’t as lively as La Mangiatoia. To be honest, I don’t think I could have put a pizza away after the lunch I had. And you can’t share pizza in Italy. It’s a mortal sin. Although in La Mangiatoia, they actually make massive, family-sized pizzas, with multiple sections similar to a Quattro Stagioni (the family at the table next to ours was chomping on one). Anyway, I wasn’t up for it. Niamh was, but I had a burger instead. For those reading in Ireland, the burger here is the closest you can get to a chipper-style burger in terms of taste, if you fancy that!
Once re-stuffed, we headed back to the apartment for audio-listening and screen-watching.
I waited in again without a walk this morning, as the builder was due (again) to come (again). This time he did! He and his mate took the rest of the junk from the cellar away. Niamh was pretty much asleep when this happened, so she was pleasantly surprised when I told her that they’d already been. She had been settling in for a wait, but now we could head out somewhere instead. I suggested going to Colle di Val d’Elsa – the newer part of town, as we hadn’t really explored it fully. She agreed, and we headed out!
We drove past the old town on the ridge, and down into the newer old part of town to a carpark. Not sure how we avoided the ZTLs, but we weren’t fined so we must have done our job correctly. We parked at first in a carpark with white lines, which caused alarm bells to ring. That usually means that they are for residents only. The signs weren’t terribly obvious, so when we’d parked I ran back to the carpark entrance and saw that unfortunately, yes, it was for residents. Right next to this carpark was another with far fewer spots available. Luckily, a couple of cars pulled out, so by the time we got to it we found a handy place near the back. I put my filming rig together and we headed back into town to have a little explore.
We parked at these coordinates. Google says the carpark is closed, but it’s not: it’s the lift to the old town that’s currently closed (or was at the time of writing this – Mid June). We walked through to the main part of town, only to be immediately confronted by about a 9 or 10 market stalls in a small open area. Niamh was in the market for a small basket for our newly remodelled bathroom, and there happened to be a stall there that sold exactly that! Baskets, not remodelled bathrooms.
We bought a basket, and I thought that was the extent of the market… until we moved to the next open space. Then we saw more stalls. Which, when we reached the main square, turned into even more, with many more spider-webbing throughout the sidestreets leading from the square. The market was immmense – probably the biggest I have visited to date. There aren’t many photos of it, as I was filming instead – you can catch the video of it below. It was a regular market, rather than a collectible/antique market. It was mostly about food (local produce from farms, cooked food), clothes, electronics etc. It was super-impressive and many of the food stalls looked amazing – however, we really wanted a sit-down place.
We had been to a nice restaurant in the new town before under which flowed a stream, and it had a little water mill and everything… but we found out that it was now permanently shut. I’m not sure why – maybe it was another victim of the awfulness of the pandemic.
Colle di Val d’Elsa is famous for its crystalware, and I was hoping to visit the Museum dedicated to the glassware before we ate. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation on the day. There was no other thing left for us to do except stuff our greedy faces.
We found a place up a side street called Trattoria Bel Mi’ Colle. Our initial impression was that they weren’t particularly experienced with handling tourists. The service initially felt quite odd, a little stand-offish, but they soon warmed-up. I didn’t want another Coca Zero, and accepted a recommendation from the lady managing the restaurant. I wish I’d taken a photo of it – it seemed like a form of cedrata (clear, light citrus-based drink), and was really refreshing.
Niamh had a rigatoni pasta dish with a beef ragù, and I had a white ragù (usually one or more of pork, rabbit, hare or very occasionally chicken) with pappardelle, but the pasta was made with the flour of ancient grains – which is a great alternative for those seeking gluten-free options. Personally, I found the dish just a fraction dry, but I liked the texture and flavour. I would recommend the restaurant for travellers, but would suggest you practice your Italian a little! Our dessert was lovely, but was served on a hilariously outsized plate… not matter – we really liked it.
When done, we checked to see if we could get the elevator up to the old town, but it was closed. Niamh wasn’t in the mood to to traipse all the way uphill to visit the place (we have visited it before 3 or 4 times) in spitting rain. In hindsight, I can’t say I blame her! In the end, we ended up going home to place our basket in the bathroom and chill a while.
You can watch our video of our exploration of the market here!
We had been in touch with David McGuffin, a tour operator working out of Florida, who specialises in tours to Europe, especially Ireland and Italy. If you’re reading this in the U.S. I can say David has such a love of Europe and is super-knowledgeable about the places he tours, and is well connected too. On top of that – he’s just a good guy to hang out with too!
We met him in L’Incontro for an aperitivo drinkie, which turned into two or three. We mentioned that we were going to hop off to Ombra della Sera to grab a pasta, after having had lunch earlier. Out of the blue, he invited us to join is tour group in Del Duca for a set meal. We were hesitant at first, as we didn’t want to cramp anyone’s style, plus we weren’t sure that we could put away a Del Duca dinner! However, when he said that one of the courses would be a shared Florentine steak, we couldn’t say no. Neither of us had had it before, unbelievably – so we nodded enthusiastically and agreed. He left us to have another drink on our own, while he gathered his troop together and we met him at the restuarant. He generously offered to pay for our meal too… again, our protestations were not as strong as they could have been. The guy is a mensch, what can I say?
The rest of the people in David’s group were lovely, and some lively conversation was struck up between the 5 courses, most of which were paired with Marcampo’s own wines (the Del Duca family run the winery with with their agritourismo). Here’s the grub, including the fabled Bistecca alla Fiorentina!
Claudia was away in Sweden (if I recall correctly), but we got a warm welcome from Ivana and Genuino, and the waiting staff. The wine flowed pretty freely, and at the end of the meal we were given grappa. Now I am rarely one to turn my nose up at post-dinner amari, but this grappa was a nope for me… it was incredibly strong. We had a dessert wine instead… followed by a couple of other drinks. Truth be told we left the place quite merry.
Of course, one person often overlooked, was this time not forgotten. Niamh and I are huge fans of Del Duca’s head chef: Alessandro Calabrese, and when the restaurant was closing up and we were being kicked out (in a friendly way!), we came out and like a bunch of fanbois got our picture taken with him.
We all walked past our apartment entrance as a group, Niamh and I being somewhat gratified by the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahs’ when they saw we lived slap-bang in the middle of town.
We got home, and I stayed up a while listening to music, as I often do when a little merry.
David, thanks again for a wonderful evening. We still owe you and Charlotte a return dinner!
It’s been a while since I posted the first tour route, and so this sceond route is long overdue. This post will use the same concept – I will use larger photos. To view full-sized pics, if you’re on a PC:
Right-click an image and select to open it in a new window or tab;
In the address bar, remove all text to the right of ‘.jpg’, then press enter on your keyboard. Many of the photos are quite large.
Here’s the route we’ll be following. It’s starts at 1, travels anti-clockwise and ends up at 18.
Note that this will be a lengthy blog with tons of photos.
#1: There’s a nice little eaterie right beside the entrance to our apartment building called’ Porgi l’Altra Pancia, which literally means ‘Grow another belly’. With good reason: the portion sizes in here are quite big – certainly pasta dish sizes are bigger than average. They make one of my favourite things in Volterra: a crostino with mushroom and truffle creams, topped with melted cheese and flaked black truffle.
They naturally also have a great selection of wines.
One thing I’ll remember them for is that one of their waiters was really kind to us when our electricity went out, and contacted our building’s super to help us switch it back on (it was just a tripped switch, embarassingly).
#2: Turning right after leaving the building and heading uphill we pass a pasticceria: Dolceria del Corso, which is one of the three pasticcerie we usually frequent. Unfortunately, the closest thing I have to a photo of it, is one of our street, with the entrance under a burgundy awning.
Their cakes are yummy, and you have a great selection, especially in the morning – to cater for the typical breakfast over most of Italy: a sweet treat with an espresso. I’m down with the former; never developed a taste for the latter – although I love a good coffee gelato!
#3: Moving up past Dolceria del Corso, we come across one of the post popular bars in Volterra: L’Incontro. This is a full-on bar, and so has coffee, drinks, is a pasticceria (a good one!) and sells choclolate in the off tourist-season or gelato in-season. I think their gelato is great – maybe second to Isola del Gusto, but still really excellent – and they tend to rotate their flavours a little more often.
You’ll often see people here hanging around during breakfast, during aperitivo and after dinner hours. It can get really busy. Like with all places that serve coffee, you’ll pay normal rates to drink at the bar, and a little more to sit by a table.
#4: You’ll find a restaurant, La Vecchia Lira, almost opposite l’Incontro. We’ve only eaten here a couple of times, but are always impressed by the enthusiasm of the owner. The menu leans more towards traditional, but they have some modern takes too – and a daily specials board. Definitely give them a go when you’re in town!
#5: By now our bellies are ridiculously full, but we’re not done yet. Just beyond the crossroads where Via Giacomo Matteotti (the road we were just on) meets with Via dei Marchesi (look right and you’ll see the Palazzo dei Priori), lies the road we’ll be going straight down: Via Porta all’Arco.
Just a few meters down the road lie two restaurants: Il Poggio and Life Bistro – together they are often the most photographed exteriors in Volterra, due to them being on this beautiful sloping and curving artisan street.
I have to admit to never having eaten in Life Bistro, as it is a purely plant-based restaurant. I am not ethically opposed to this, of course, but there are few world cuisines that turn me on with its vegan offerings, and this includes Italian food. Only food from the Indian subcontinent comes close. However, if this appeals for you then I would say you’re in for a treat, even if just for the restaurant setting itself. I know Niamh wants to give it a go, just to see what it’s like, so we might do next time we’re over.
They seem to have a standard menu, plus a section where you select your own ingredients and ask them to assemble and/or cook them. However, look down, and you’ll see some of the floor is transparent – below it you’ll see some ruins that date all the way back to Etruscan times (2,300 to 2,800 years old).
Il Poggio is a more inclusive place, and has a bit of a touristic menu – with pasta, meat and pizza offerings. There are typical traditional dishes too, and if memory serves me correctly, a couple of German plates. The cooking isn’t stellar, but it’s fine to go to for something quick and maybe if you have kids, due to the variety of what’s on offer. In addition, it has some cute outside seating in a lane at the back.
For now, though let’s continue on down this lovely street, to discover why it’s been named the way it has.
#6: At the bottom of this street lines one of the old gates into the walled town. It’s called Porta all’Arco. Actually, “old” doesn’t really cut it. The larger blocks you can see in the photos below are Etruscan in origin, and are about 2,300 to 2,500 years old.
The three heads at the top, and most probably the arch are Roman. The detail of the busts has worn away over the centuries, but is said to be the heads of three Roman gods, most probably Jupiter along with Castor and Pollux (or Uni and Minerva – let’s not have a debate!).
Towards the end of the second World War, the Nazis threatened the gate with destruction during their retreat, in an effort to slow down the Allied advance. The townsfolk pleaded to save their gate, and said that they would instead block it. They were given 24 hours to do this, probably by those who thought “Yeah right, good luck!”. However, they did it by forming a human converyor belt and passing stones from hand to hand, and the gate remains to this day. Here are some photos. They are not mine, so I ask the forgiveness of those who may own the copyright.
#7: A ramp a little over 100m leads down to the parts of the town outside the walls. Passing a cute little bar (Giordani’s), we head southeast for a few meters, and where the road bends towards the east we pivot to our right to have a look at the belltower of Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro.
#8: We head uphill for a couple of hundred meters, until we have to cross the road to have a look at the lovely memorials at the bottom of Viale dei Ponti. In Ireland we don’t have an abundance of war memorials, whereas on continental Europe, they’re in a great many towns and villages.
#9: We don’t head up the gently upwards sloping Viale dei Ponti, but take a left then a swift right that curls backwards. We can see the walls of the Medicean Fortress here, and the steep path leads us to one of the main gates to the walled town: Porta a Selci. Caution as a pedestrian, as this the only gate where you might meet traffic coming in both directions.
#10: Through the gate and to the right, you’ll find Osteria La Pace. They serve one of the best pasta sauces in Volterra here: wild boar with black olives. I love it especially with pici (pronounced ‘peachy’), a form of thick noodle.
Not pictured is a killer tiramisù, served in a large coffee cup… delicious. This place is definitely worth a visit.
#11: Opposite the restaurant, there is a ramp which leads up to an old fortress, which is still very intact – and necessarily so, as it is a medium security prison. It was originally built in the mid-14th centry, and updated by the Medici in the late 15th.
It’s no ordinary prison, though. Rather than simply confining people for the purposes of punishment, they attempt to rehabilitate. The three major programmes I am aware of are:
Allowing trustee residents to occasionally leave the prison to gain work experience in some of the businesses in the town;
Teach residents how to run a restaurant from top to bottom, by having a chef come in and open up the prison as a restaurant, around once a month. You can book a table here, if you book well in advance. I suspect you’ll have to wait for the current pandemic emergency to be done with too; and
They also run an acting school and dramatic troupe from the fortress, one of the most renowned in Italy. They occasionally put on shows – both normal dramatic pieces, as well as experimental theatre.
I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, rather than simply throwing away the key. It would be interested to see the level of non-recidivism as a result of this.
In 2019, they opened one of the fortress’ towers for tours in September and October. I visited – more on this here. They may revert to doing this every year, pandemic permitting.
#12: If you clicked on the link which detailed the visit to the fortress tower, you will have seen that once a year, in mid-September, they have an arts festival one night. Many museums are free to visit, and many private buildings are opened for visit. It’s a great idea, and it enables you to see parts of the town you would never see otherwise.
One of these buildings is just up from the Fortress: Centro Danza Classica di Volterra. It’s a dance studio/school. At the back is a large garden, which you would never otherwise see… and it’s kind of spooky at night.
#13: Another 120-150 meters down on the right, you’ll find a gallery: Colpa del Vento, which features the works of Vanna Spagnolo. She’s a lovely, ethusiastic and talented lady who specialises in Tuscan bucolic scenes. Niamh and I, and later on, Niamh’s mother, bought lovely pieces from here. Here’s ours:
As far as I can tell, Vanna doesn’t paint using references, but from memory, and hikes around Volterra frequently for inspiration.
I hear that she may be closing her shop some time in September this year. Niamh and I hope to catch up and maybe add a piece to our apartment from her collection. Good luck, Vanna!
#14: To my regret, I don’t have any photos from La Vena di Vino, a wine bar just beyond Colpa del Vento. I’ve had some amazing fried fish in here, and the owner is always keen to recommend wines to regulars and first-timers alike. The ceiling of the bar is also one of the most notorious in Volterra: it is strewn with brassiers, presumably from ladies volunteering to give them up.
I have not witnessed, nor (thankfully) been asked.
#15: A little farther down on the right lies the entrance to the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. It is one of the oldest continuously open museums in the world (the pandemic notwithstanding), and has been welcoming visitors since 1761.
Within lie tons of Etruscan goodies: funerary urns, coins, warrior’s tombs, pottery with Greco influences. It has a couple of masterworks: the funerary urn of the married couple, and a spookily elongated bronze statue of a child called L’Ombra Della Sera.
#16: A little beyond the Guarnacci museum, and past Volterra’s library lies the Museum of Sacred Art. It’s worth a quick visit and a stroll around. I have covered this place in another blog post here.
#17: Just as we enter Piazza Settembre XX, we come across another restaurant: La Carabaccia. This place is the very quintessence of the Italian concept of cucina povera (peasant cooking). It is run by three ladies: a woman and her two daughters.
Generally, there is a limited menu of two primi (generally pastas, all homemade) and two secondi (generally meats, but sometimes they have vegetarian options), but they will also put together a lovely antipasto plate for you.
If you can book a table, this is a must-visit. I’ve been dying to try the peposo here (black pepper beef), and I hope to do this on my next visit over. Menus are in English and Italian and change daily.
#18: So many towns of decent size in Tuscany seem to have a Torture Museum, and Volterra is no exception. I have visited this place only once, and to be honest, once is enough. It can be draining to see the awful things we used to do to one another in the name of perceived justice.
There (inexplicably) is a werewolf model at the front door, and best of all, is a strong message denouncing torture in all its forms. To be sure: this museum does not glorify torture. You may leave shaken and maybe even a little queasy, especially if you have a good imagination.
Tuscany, when it was a state all its own, was always considered somewhat enlightened. In fact, it was the first ever state to abolish capital punishment in 1786. Anyway, give it a visit… but maybe not too close to, or too soon after eating. Note that the displays aren’t especially graphic, but it’s all down to the power of imagination.
#19: We finish our journey here, in Piazza Settembre XX at the War Memorial and viewpoint. It’s a nice little square, part of which is used to house an ice-rink over the Christmas period. There are some additional restaurants here, but they largely cater to the tourist trade.
There are some lovely views to be seen out over the railing.
Thanks a lot for reading this, if you got this far! I hope it has stirred you into thinking about making a visit to Volterra.
I will have a think about the next route I will take!
We drove 35 or so minutes from Volterra to La Rosa to check out (no pun intended) the MD Supermarket there. We were a little disappointed – no intrinsic fault of that supermarket itself – when we got there, and found out that it’s a bit of a reverse-tardis: it’s smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside. In fact, it isn’t much bigger than the Co-Op Supermarket we have in Volterra.
One slightly curious thing about supermarkets in Italy, and their fresh produce: it is considered both rude and unhygenic to handle fruit & veg without using the disposable plastic gloves (so nicely modelled by Niamh in the photo below), even if you’re handling stuff to put in your own basket.
In fact, our own local grocer’s has a sign saying “No self service!” – they pick out the produce themselves for you. I guess they know where their hands have been!
Anyway, we picked up stuff for lunch and dinner (which at least seems to have been more inexpensive than other shops) and went straight home.
Lunch was a series of cold-cuts and cheeses. With added balsamic and a truffle-enfused honey, I had a plethora of flavours on the plate – from creamy to earthy, from fresh to salty and sour. Yummy.
We had a bit of a kip after lunch, and then ventured outside again. We had to get wine refills. On the way, we stopped into a bookshop and antiquary to check what it had. We were greeted very enthusiastically by a thin man, who took it upon himself to talk rapidly in Italian to us, while miming everything he was saying. We told him we were Irish, and he showed us… no wait… he literally capered from shelf to shelf, indicating a map of Ireland with a shamrock-laden Leprechaun’s hat perched precariously on it; elsewhere, printed quotes by WB Yeats, one of which he discussed at length.
He was very handsy, but not suspisciously or creepily so – he’s just a really nice guy, who happens to love what he does. I asked him if he had any books in Italian suitable for ‘an idiot’. He cackled at this, and showed us a couple of novels. With each one, he showed us the synopsis blurb on the back, and not only read it out, but mimed it too. Bless him, he was like Mr. Rogers on crack.
I ended up buying a chick-lit book in Italian. Two reasons right there why I won’t be reading it today or tomorrow – so he got his sale! We signed his guestbook and went back outside.
I don’t know how much money he makes, but he seems a great deal happier than most people I know. I’ll be back.
There are a couple of wineries which have stores in Volterra, which sell directly to us great unwashed. One of these is Santa Lucia, which is a farm about a 40 minute drive, north-east of Volterra. Not too sure about their whites, but their reds (I think) are 100% San Giovese, and so are very drinkable. And cheap.
You can waltz in, and sample up to 5 or 6 wines, and then take home what you fancy. The wines are there in vats. You can either get a bag-in-box or bring your own bottles, and fill them up like you would a car with petrol.
Did I mention how inexpensive they are. The wines vary from €1.20 to €2.10 per litre. We got 5 litres of red and 5 of white and paid just under €18 for the lot. That’s 13 bottles of wine. And it ain’t plonk either – it’s very drinkable.
There’s another place outside town (Cantina di Fabio) that does this too, but they do 8 litre bags, and given that it’s an uphill struggle to the apartment, we tend to stick with Santa Lucia.
I wrote a little bit in the afternoon, and lazed some more.
That evening, Niamh served up gnocchi, with mushrooms and smoked pancetta (bacon lardons, essentially) in a cream sauce. It was yummy – next time we’ll had something with a fresh taste to offset the other flavours – parsely or peas, maybe. But look how tasty this is!
I’m sorry to say we stayed in all night. I looked at telly for a bit, finishing off the John Callahan biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”, on Amazon, and the next ep of Orange Is The New Black on Netflix. The movie was really good – give it a go – but OITNB is still a bit rubbish (although this episode was better than the previous one).
Despite being early to bed, I woke up tired, and thought I was going to cut short my walk, but I gave it a bash anyway, and went a particularly hilly route.
Not sure what the plans are today – maybe head up to Lari to check out the producer of one of the poshest pastas in Italy: Martelli.