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.
Now here’s a thing: we both hopped out of the bed, left down the trash and took a walk. She was intrigued by my little diversion by the bus station, and I was more than happy to have a hiking partner.
The route wasn’t too brutal. We went to the panoramic vewpoint, and took Viale dei Ponti, down past the fountain, past the Garibaldi and war monuments and straight to the bus station. I didn’t take any more shots around there.
From there, we took a road we’d never taken. It led to a quiet residential area, which had cul-de-sacs everywhere, but which eventually led to the sports stadium. During our second ever visit to Volterra, we stayed in Park Hotel le Fonti near the stadium, which has a swimming pool, but also has a fairly savage uphill walk to the walled town. We took that route, up to Porta all’Arco and up again towards the centre of town.
We were a bit socially bold: instead of going home to tidy ourseleves up, we headed straight for L’Incontro for a cornetto con crema and a cappuccino (Niamh)/hot chocolate (me). Delish!
We went home and showered and beautified ourselves, and did a little screenwatching. What to do for the day, though? We settled on going to San Gimignano. I am sometimes a little down on SG, but really if it weren’t for our visit to that town years ago, plans to buy a property in Tuscany may never have germinated. We have over-visited it, but there was one major thing we still hadn’t done there: climb one of the towers for which the town is famed.
We hoped for a plum parking spot in P2, but had to settle once again for P4. The town was busy, but there were a lot of spots in P4. First order of the visit? Lunch! We had wanted to try La Mangiatoia (unrelated to the restaurant of the same name in Volterra!), but it was closed, and we settled for Osteria Delle Catene instead. ‘Settled’ is probably an unfair word. There were a couple of older gentlemen waiting on us, and they were so nice. An English family near us had a baby with them, and they doted on it. They served us up some rural Tuscan food, and very nice it was too!
Once done, we stopped off in two places before we hit the famous Piazza della Cisterna. Firstly, we stopped at a gelateria. It was priced highly and not bad… the lady serving had great English, and kindly offered us samples. Certainly no L’Isola del Gusto, but it was ok. The second stop was at a perfume store, in which a man was selling his artisinal perfumes and eaus de toilettes. We must have tried about a half a dozen mixes before settling on a 100ml bottle of his black pepper unisex scent. We both liked it, but Niamh has since worn it a great deal more than I have, lest we become Mr. and Mrs. Stinksthesame.
We found where you head up to buy tickets to climb the tower. The tickets doubled as an entry fee for a small museum too. We climbed the tower first. American travel guide, Rick Steves, had said it was 400 steps, but when we asked the guide, she said it was 217. So maybe Rick mean 200 up and 200 down. Anyway, the climb was interesting:
They never tell you, but frequently you have to contort yourself in some way, shape or form to actually get outside to the top of a tower. In this case, you have to climb a ladder, and watch your head and arms as you make your way through the opening. The hassle is worth it, but if you had issues with flexibility you might find the ladder a bit of a pain. And it’s a little awkward coming down, especially if you’re carrying stuff; you really have to watch your head, shoulders and arms. Anyway, back to the pretty of the topside:
You have to squat underneath a bit of structure to enjoy all sides of the tower. When we were done, we braved the ladder (glad nobody was filming me!), and had a mosey around the museum there. It may have been the old town council building. Not sure why I have no photos of it, but heck the whole experience is worth a visit.
Our mission complete, we headed back to the car (after a quick bio-break), via San Gimignano’s charming main square (the aforementioned Piazza della Cisterna), and saw parts of the town we hadn’t seen before.
We drove back in the rain to Volterra. Instead of going directly to the apartment, however, we stopped off at Antica Velathri Café for cocktails and nibbles. Pietro (the owner-mixologist) brought us our drinks, then gasped. He told us not to even take a sip, and then ran back downstairs. He came back up seconds later with the sexy garnishes he had forgotten to add! We had a good laugh at that. It’s all about the bella figura!
Later on, after watching our respective screens, we had a small hunger on us. We didn’t want to go out for a full meal, so I suggested L’Hamburgeria for burgers and fries. I headed out, and grabbed order forms. You ticky-box what you want (type of bun, meat, salads, cheeses, sauces, fries, other nibbles) and hand the chits back over and wait. There were a bunch of U.S. kids there creating lively noise while I waited. It was good seeing people being normal, and helping us to reshape this post-pandemic world.
I brought them home and we gobbled them down. Very nice. And for those reading in Ireland, the fries are like chipper chips! Just a little skinnier. Yum.
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!
There’s a bit of write-y stuff in this one, but there are photos and a video below – I promise!
The town of Castiglione della Pescaia is one of those rare coastal places which has an old-town feel to it. This is because there was a profusion of dwellings settled nearby a large fortress, protecting them from potential raiders. The possibility of Saracen (and others) attacks was so high, that people tended to settle on hills inland, rather than risk slaughter. Perfectly understandable. Tuscan towns with an old-charm feel are incredibly rare in Tuscany, with many places with beaches having become more settled in post-war Europe. So, it’s always cool to find something that matches the tastes of the culture-vulture, the history-hound and the beach-baby. The foodie? Well… see below…
But first, bathroom remodelling! After our failed attempt to engage the builder, our appointment was properly set up for this morning. Our nice lady from Milianti (estate agents and property managers), Alice, arrived early, and although she’s young and slender she commented that climbing the 76 steps to our apartment whilst wearing a face-mask was tricky! A few minutes later, there was another ring at the door, and we let two gentlemen in: one was the builder, the other was an older man. This latter guy turned out to be the consulting geometra. What is a geometra? They are essentially internal building surveyors. One of their responsibilities is carrying out technical reviews of buildings for extensions and changes etc. We took them through the changes we want, with Alice translating all the way. All was tickety-boo.
Once gone, we headed out and took our 8 minute walk to the carpark, to our little stick-shift Fiat 500. Definitely one of our favourite rides we’ve rented since coming here. We stuck on Missus Google, and headed down SS68 towards Siena.
I don’t have any photos of the journey, because I was filming! You can catch the video towards the end of the blog. We decided to head the ‘country’ route, rather than along the coast. That made the journey very long, but it was interesting to see new towns appear on the signposts. I love to explore, so even new signposts alone sometimes give me an endorphin rush.
We passed tantalisingly close to Casole d’Elsa. We have visited it a few times (blogged about it once), and it’s a lovely little borgo, but we had a schedule! We blasted past it. Other highlights include also blasting past the Instagrammable Ponte della Pia. We didn’t stop. You can hear me squeal about it in the video below. We drove through the lovely Rosia, and shortly afterwards the 12 year-old in me was pleased by seeing signs for a town called ‘Orgia’ (literally ‘orgy’ in Italian). I imagine the property prices there are quite steep, but the people fit and healthy. Just outside Rosia, we were stopped for the third time this year, by a randomly parked police checkpoint. Once they found out we were tourists, they waved us on – but we found it prudent to carry identification documents with us at all times just in case. Just past Siena earlier in the year, they had us pulled over checking passports and licenses for a good 15 minutes.
When we were in the latter stages of the journey, on the multi-laned SS223, we flew past another hilltown. I checked my phone, and I’m pretty certain it was Civitella Marittima – one on my list to visit… but we ploughed-on!
If there’s one thing I really enjoyed about the journey, it was it showed us how hugely varied the countryside is in Tuscany. From the typical undulating hills and olive groves and vineyards, to winding valley roads with streams. Sometimes, yellow-golden, sometimes grass-green. Here and there farmhouses dotted throughout, with the occasional castello or hamlet crowning a lonely hilltop. It is beautiful land.
We knew we were getting close to the coast when we started seeing the coastal pines (I think they’re sometimes called Stone Pines) – tall trees topped with wide, flat foliage. They began to line to roads, once we left the highways.
I think that the journey took us a good two hours. Blame me… I just wanted to see more of the countryside. It took us 20 minutes less on the route home. Anyway, we got handy parking here, and had a quick stroll by the marina before heading up into the town itself.
It was close to lunchtime, so we just wanted to explore a little before having food. We strolled up the what we considered to be the main tourist drag, checking out some restaurants and a gelateria (for later!) on the way.
Now for some much-needed controversy. I have often considered my blog to be something of a hagiography of Italy, so a little criticism is overdue. For a while, I have been exploring the Italian coast on Google Maps (yes, I have a sickness). So far, I have gone from the French border, and have just past Naples. It takes a long time! Anyway – one of the chief observations I have made is that generally, restaurants in touristy coastal towns are poorer than you will find a little inland – especially those along promenades. There are, of course, exceptions – but many… hmmm… I would say most, would seem to rely on seasonal, transient trade. My chief point is: do your research on Tripadvisor, Google etc. before selecting a place to eat, if you have a definite preference of quality over location.
Despite the time of year, there were still a few restaurants still open. We went to Pane e Vino on Corso della Libertà. It was open and seemed to be getting favourable reviews. We were shown to our outdoor table and were attended very quickly and enthusiastically. We needed the bathroom, and apart from a little lighting issue, all was good – the bathroom was nice and clean. We had a little struggle with the menu, as we aren’t huge seafood fans – mostly whitefish, salmon and mussels – I sometimes eat tinned mackerel too. Although, one of the nicest things I have eaten – in fact the very first thing I ever ate in Volterra – was an amuse bouche in Del Duca, of which anchovies were a part. I also kept hearing how anchovies in Italy were way better than they are elsewhere. Anyway, we found stuff we thought would be interesting and ordered. The results were…. mixed. The ingredients were cooked well, and some of the ideas novel, but in the main, they just missed the mark – one in particular was frankly bizarre. I laud restaurants for trying to experiment, and I think these guys were trying to do that – so, hats off on that front. One thing that bugged me outright, was that I had wanted a fritto misto, but didn’t see it on the menu. Nonetheless, a couple of parties came in after us and were served plates of it. Grrr! Off-menu items annoy me. Anyway – back to what we *did* get:
The staff were lovely I have to say, and attentive, but we left in something of an unsatisfied daze. If you love seafood, good presentation and experimentation (and what looked like amazing fritti misti – grrr!) then this place could be for you. I have to stress again, that the cooking was good. And Niamh’s coffee was great too.
Once we were done eating, we decided to delay our gelato fix until we were done exploring the old fortress part of town. What a lovely place it was. And hilly. Also, cats – cats everywhere! On our way we passed by an Irish bar – Tinakilly Pub. At first I thought that was a bit of a spurious name, as Irish town/townland names often derive from an Irish name that actually means something. However, I see that there is a Tinakilly House Hotel just a little over an hour from us – so it’s the real deal! Tinakilly is derived from the Irish words ‘Ti’ (house), ‘na’ (of/of the) and ‘Coille’ (woods) – so ‘House of the Woods’. There you go – very interesting! Of course, having blown a paragraph on that, I now have to tell you that we didn’t go in.
We briefly and indadvertently walked outside town through a porta at the top end. Beyond it was a carpark and what looked like a school, plus a hint of the bay view to come.
Next, we returned back into the town, and found a church. It was nice and cool inside, but not as decorated as many you’d find. There was another cat guarding the door.
Upon leaving the church, we walked uphill past some lovely houses – passing by yet another cat – an enourmous fluffy lad, and then looked left. Wow. The view of the gently curving bay was amazing. I think you could also make out Monte Argentario farther along the horizon. The closer mountain I think is the Parco Rgionale della Maremma.
We walked over the hill to the other side of the village, and down to another porta in the fortress walls. We jostled for our space with some other tourists there to get our shot by it. There wasn’t much beyond that porta, so we headed all the way back town to the newer part of town. It was gelato time! We grabbed some yumminess from Bar Gelateria Angolo Gelato and sat on a bench around the corner in the shade.
We headed back to the car after our gelato and, driving past the cemetary we saw earlier behind the church, opted to go home via the more coastal route. It was a good bit quicker. I was too slow to grab a shot of Follonica and its bay as we crested a hill to look down upon it. It was a gorgeous sight. Follonica itself looks to be an interesting place to stop for a modern beach-city – I have read that it’s promenade is nice (remember the tip about restaurants, though!). We skirted around the outside of the town, through its more suburban areas, and shortly after there joined the multi-laned E80. We turned off just before Cecina, and headed through Saline di Volterra back to our home-from-home.
You can watch a video of that part of our day here:
I took a couple of shots of Volterra on our way back from the car to the apartment. I do this because all too often I only catch some shots during my morning walk when the light favours some scenes, but not others.
We weren’t quite done with the day yet, though.
We wanted some way to help celebrate my writing competition win (see last week’s blog), and it was going to be our last night for this trip. We decided pizza and beer was in order. We headed out later than usual and were very lucky to find La Mangiatoia still open – they closed shortly after we left. Many Italians eat very late when compared to the Irish – often at 21:00 or 22:00 – but La Mangiatoia looked like it was closing around the 22:00 mark. They looked a little worried when we ordered, but brightened up when we selected pizza – I presume we’d be told that a lot of the stuff was off the menu otherwise. I like their pizza – it’s second only to Pizzeria Ombra della Sera. The didn’t have any Moretti left, so we had one of their own beers. I wish I had taken a photo of it – it wasn’t bad at all!
Once done, we had a walk to the Piazza dei Priori, and then thought… No! We’re not done yet!
I wanted something sweet, but already had a gelato that day – so we went to Antica Velathri Café and had a couple of cocktails (ok, I had an amaro). But then I saw a homemade panacotta on their menu, with a variety of different sauces. I think I grabbed one with a chocolate sauce, or it might have been caramel… I do remember it being eye-rollingly delicious, though!
And then we were fit for our beds. Thanks for reading – I really hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!
While my brother and I walked together, Niamh took a separate walk. I took some pics of my walk – how much of a surprise is this to you by now?
And Niamh’s photos are below. There is one in particular which is incredibly striking.
After having had a couple of longer trips recently (to Val d’Orcia and Chianti), we decided to stay a little closer to home, and drove to the town of Chianni. As we were still in August, it was still quite sleepy. We had a short wander around. I decided not to film, just so I could have a break from it and enjoy the day more mindfully.
It is a cute little town, and worth a little walkabout. But we were hungry (what else is new?!), so we found a hotel still open. Now, I blow hot and cold on hotel-based restaurants, but I’m glad we stopped at Le Vecchie Cantine.
The welcome at first seemed a little indifferent, as we were shown to our table (inside because, you know, blasting furnace outside), but it turns out they had a couple of other groups there, who must have arrived shortly before us, so they were a little busy. Once we got personal attention for our order, normal Tuscan service had resumed and our waitress was warm and enthusiastic.
We made our choices, and it seemed that I would be driving back home, which was fair enough. I think I had one glass of red. Only I had both an antipasto and a primo. Niamh had a Caprese salad she raved over, and my brother went for a pasta.
I have a vague memory of having had a a tiramisu too… but I’m not certain. It sure sounds like the kind of thing I would have done.
Afterwards, we got a little lost in Chianni. Ok, not so much lost as not being able to find our way to the church, the apse-end of which met flush with cliffs at the end of the town. Google was throwing us everywhich way and back again, so we eventually abandonded the idea in the heat, took a few more snaps and headed back to the car.
We drove past the church on the way home. Sadly, I don’t have much of a memory of what else happened that day, apart from the ubiquitous:
I hate to leave on a bitter note (sorry!), but I hope you enjoyed this shorter blog. Please leave a comment!
Hello again! A little warning that this blog will have a ton of photos.
As we knew we had a day-and-a-half in front of us, we didn’t go for a walk in the morning. Instead, we left early and drove the route to Siena, past the starkly lovely Colle val d’Elsa. Rather than take our usual exit to head to Siena, we motored past that and on into the Crete Senesi. This is an unofficial region of which you probably already have seen if you’ve seen postcards of Tuscany. Rolling hills and winding dirt roads abound, lined with Cypress – everything you’ve seen is true. Then there are other parts which seem almost lunar – it’s a remarkable place.
However, we didn’t stray off the main roads, as you risk damaging your car if you do. The result was that we really didn’t see the best of it. In fact, what we did we didn’t thrill us any more than the surrounding area of Volterra: the Val di Cecina, Val d’Era etc. I would be tempted to say that those areas are actually nicer! Anyway, I didn’t take photos of the journey, as I was filiming instead – you can find the movie of this day near the bottom of this blog. We did see several signs with kilometer indicates to Rome – you know you’re heading south in Tuscan when you see those!
After winding our way through several towns, we stopped at Buonconvento – at first in the large pay carpark outside the walls of the old town, thinking it was the free carpark. The free one is in a small triangular section just beside it, so we moved the car just in case and had a wander around the old town.
It was lunchtime, so we checked Google where to eat. We passed by a couple of places that looked ok, including a bit of an oddity I’d never seen in Italy before: choose your noodle, then choose your sauce – a bit like the prescriptive menus you get in Chinese places. We skipped that as I thought you should be guided towards the right pasta for the right sauce.
Instead, we went for one of Google’s highest-rated places. It was outside the town walls, and when we got there it seemed to be a simple bar with a small menu. I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the best thing about the experience were the kickass soft drinks which were made locally. Niamh had a cola, and I had a lemon. The pasta dish Niamh and I both had was so-so (some sort of zucchini sauce), but the dry, bunless burger my brother had with undercooked potatoes was a shocker, to be honest. What a shame. Anyway, with our tails between our legs, I suggested we had the time to visit Pienza, little knowing the route we’d travel through to get there. Things were about to get better. So, to sum up – definitely travel to Buonconvento, but if you want a decent lunch, maybe actually stick to the old town!
Originally, I had in my head that we’d just travel around the Crete Senesi, maybe driving to another town or off-road to some of the more photographed. But then we blew through Buonconvento so quickly, and I happened to see that Pienza wasn’t a million miles away. I suggested it and it was accepted! Yay!
What I didn’t realise was that our road to Pienza went past what is possibly the most photographed section of Tuscany. In fact, one of the most photographed countryside scenes in all of Italy: the Cypress Circle in the Val d’Orcia. The first of my regrets of the day happened here – that I didn’t have a drone. Here are the photos. One of them is one of the best landscape shots I have ever taken.
There were about a dozen or so vehicles there, and so it was a comfortable number of people by the relatively new mirror monument. We saw tractors ploughing the land, and I’m pretty sure it was purely for aesthetics: the whole of the Val d’Orcia is a UNESCO heritage site.
How I wish I’d had a drone! It’s a stunning place. We only stayed 20 minutes, as it was murderously hot, and we wanted to have a wander around Pienza.
We got back in the car, ignored the one-way system out of the carpark (which was ok, as everyone else was ignoring it too!), and headed towards Pienza. On to the second regret: we blew past San Quirico d’Orcia, and there was a ton of parking space available. Ah well – apologies, San Quirico – maybe next time!
We arrived at Pienza, and found some free parking about a 5 minute walk outside the walls to the old town and wandered inside.
Pienza is a bit mad. It’s gorgeous, but was one of the first towns to ever have been replanned from the bottom-up by Pope Pius II. Pienza was his home town, and he suddenly had both the resources and clout to order it’s total redesign. So understated was the initial estimate by the architect (’twas ever thus!), that the Pope congratulated him on lying so convincingly so that the town was built and now the envy of the region… and gave him a bonus!
The whole walled town is a UNESCO heritage site, and so here and there you will find pockets of loveliness – but it’s also awash with tourists. I would not call Pienza a true representation of a lived-in Tuscan hilltown. Volterra is a better mix of a tourist site, mixed with real Tuscan life. I know I’m biased, but it really happens to be true in this case.
With such a high degree of tourism, you always run the risk of getting sub-par food and drink within a town, unless you do a little research. We were melted by the time we got into Pienza, that the first thing we needed to do was get some gelato. We just headed to the first place that was open. The gelato was so-so, but at least it cooled us down.
We went for another wander once we had cooled down.
We had to cool down again, as well as rest our feet, but had difficulty finding a bar with suitable seating. I also remembered that the artist who produced one of our favourite paintings in our apartment had her studio here, so we Googled it and off we went.
We found her working on a piece and managed to interrupt her. She knew me from Instagram, so we had a chat (her English is good) and we had a look about her studio and found this little beauty.
She had to spray it to protect the paint, and we’d have to come back. She started and the chemical smell from the spray was overpowering, so I asked her to recommend a bar at which we could sit, and she directed us towards Idyllium. We grabbed a seat there and had refreshments. The bar runs parallel to the wall which overlooks most of the valley. A camera with a good optical zoom would be a strong recommendation here!
After we finished the drinks, we headed back to the artist’s studio to find that she’d knocked a good 30% off the price of the piece. You should check her stuff out. I just found out she’s (she being Isabella Bisa) opened up a shop selling her work in Volterra! Anyway, you can check her out in Pienza or on her website.
We headed home then, having picked up our bonus artwork. We went a different way home, and so missed San Quirico again. I think we drove between Foiano della Chiana and Lugignano – towns I will blog about later, as we visited them during our return trip in October.
It was a long drive home, and you can see some highlights of the day in this YouTube video.
By the time we got back to Volterra, we were both hungry and thirsty, and so stopped at L’Antica Velathri Cafe for apperitivi.
The carbs didn’t end there, as we stopped for pizza. We found it hugely difficult to get a table anywhere, but we were shown down the back in Alla Vecchia Maniera. Afterwards, I had an obligatory stop in L’Isola del Gusto for a refreshing lemon sorbet. Then screenwatching and bed. An exhausting but incredibly fun day.
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As it was just after our first night, we had no trash to take down, so I could afford to take my time. I still had to move the car by 08:00, though. I grabbed my phone, grip and mic and headed to the carpark.
I got in and drove down to the free carpark, at Docciola. At that hour, I found a spot with no hassle. However, the downside of that carpark is that you have to climb up a couple of hundred steps to get back into town. When there, I walked along Via Gramsci, and stopped off at Pasticceria Migliorini for some pasticcini for breakfast. Italians’ breakfasts are usually sweet, so I just wanted to fit in.
I have a little video about my little walk here:
Once done, I yummied down the pasticcini, had a shower and headed out to meet Alice from our estate agents, who have a great property management service. We gave them a gift of a ton of drink-themed chocolate, and we were given a quick tour of their new office; a great upgrade from their previous one! Very nice indeed.
We had to renew our parking permit, so Alice brought us to the municipal police station in Torre di Porcellino. We waited in line here while the queue slowly moved along.
While we waited, I ran to a tabacchi to buy stamps to affix to the permit… a sort of mini-tax to be affixed to the permit itself.
It was finally our turn, and we were served by a dapper young gent in civilian clothes. For some reason, and we’re still not sure why, our permit was downgraded from ‘R’ (pretty much full resident’s permit – you can park almost everywhere, and drive through town on designated roads), to ‘F’, which allows us park in 3 areas – and we’d have to ask for permission to drive through town. Now, it annoyed me, but in practical terms it didn’t really impact us, as we were still able to park in our usual carpark.
Anyway, next year, we’ll see if we can get upgraded again… but maybe not get so upset if we can’t pull it off.
One of the traditions Niamh and I have is to try to have our first major meal in La Taverna di Terra di Mezzo – largely down to the time we were welcomed back by them at the beginning of our second ever visit to Volterra. So, we went there for lunch! And we weren’t disappointed.
The food was amazing! We also doused ourselves in the house red and white. When all was done, Aurora opened a bottle of limoncello, and left it and three glasses with us! We weren’t abusive, and just had maybe five shots between the three of us. I ended up leaving satisfied and perhaps just a little tipsy!
The lunch took over 2.5 hours…. but I loved every minute of it. Afterwards, to burn off the calories (and some boooze), we had a stroll around the town a little. This was cool, as I so rarely take photos of it at this time… most of mine are taken in the morning. Anyway, here’s a selection!
We chilled for a little while, before inexplicably getting a little hungry again! So I said I’d pop out to Ombra della Sera pizzeria and grab a couple of pizzas to share. But on the way, sure I had to stop off in L’Antica Velathri Cafe for a quick aperitivo!
I ordered at the pizzeria, and was told it was a 20 minute wait, so I had a quick stroll.
I collected a veggie pizza and a 4-cheese…. I love Ombra’s 4-cheese!
And then to bed! Or maybe some time out on the terrace, then some TV, then bed!
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!
I needed to look pretty for my trip back to Dublin, and went to the nearby barbers for a head-shave. Fortunately, he was standing outside with three buddies, gossiping, and was able to see me immediately. The dude takes his time and does an awesome job, but getting it done here is at least 25% more expensive than back at home.
Anyway, when that was done and paid for, I went to the Palazzo dei Priori. It is reputed to be the oldest townhall in Tuscany, its construction beginning in 1208 and finishing in the middle of the same century. It’s still the centre of local government today.
Inside, is the main seat of government, along with large areas for exhibitions. Finally, at the top floor, there is a stairway up to the bell-tower which gives you excellent views of the town below. It costs €6 per adult to enter.
At the time of writing this, they had exhibitions of modern sculture, and a photo-log of patients in the ex-mental hospital.
After finishing up there, I contemplated having lunch, but thought I could squeeze in a visit to the Guarnacci Etruscan museum before my belly really started to complain.
I went the shortest route, which involves a steep climb past the park, and then down some steps into Piazza XX Settembre, and then a 100m walk to the museum itself. The museum is one of the oldest in Europe, having opened in 1761. It is €8 in for an adult, and is housed in a lovely medieval palazzo.
Collections there include jewellery and other items found in very old funerary urns, a warrior’s burial tomb (along with his artefacts), hellenistic-style decorative urns, coins from the old Roman republics, statuary, and of course the omnipresent carved funerary urns. If I had to level one criticism of the museum, it’s how prolific the urns are – there are rooms and rooms of them. Most are carved in alabaster, and as they become newer, their carvings become more intricate and impressive – but the whole scene begins to bore a little after a while. Note also, that most of the descriptions do not have translations – but you can get an audio guide with select descriptions for an extra €3.
There are some masterworks in the museum. The first is a very creepy-looking statue called Ombra della Sera (shadow of the evening), and is of an elongated child. It’s extremely modern-looking for something that’s well over two millenia old – this probably adds to the creep factor. You can buy copies of it all over town. I might get one for myself.
The second is the funerary urn top of the ‘married couple’, an exquisitely carved older couple in alabaster. There is a school of thought that Etruscans carved people in their proper likenesses for these urns, but other scholars say that’s hogwash.
The last, and most controversial, is an early bust of (possibly) Apollo. You may notice that written in a large font beside it is the word ‘COPIA’, meaning that this bust is a copy of the original. The regional government in Florence saw fit to pilfer it for an Etruscan collection of their own. So annoyed was the mayor of Volterra (at the time – there’s since been a new one) declared it the ‘second sacking of Volterra’, the first being the Medici conquest in the 1470’s. Such language seems a little grandiose, but I totally understand it when Florence is already swimming in other cultural and historical goodies.
I met Niamh in La Mangiatoia for lunch. She had a veggie pizza, I had a burger – and a lovely one it was too – no photos of mine, I’m afraid.
Not much was done for the rest of the day, except that we went to La Sosta del Priore for sandwiches. Niamh had their burger, while I had a fab little mix of wild boar salami, pecorino, grilled zucchini and caramelised onions. That way you get fresh, sweet and salty one after the other. Fab stuff.
We did nothing else for the rest of the evening.
I got up for my last walk of this 9-week stay – we are heading home tomorrow morning. I made it a short route, but Volterra didn’t disappoint with more fantastic cloudscapes.
We don’t have anything planned, except for packing today. This may be the last blog, I’m afraid – but I’m toying with the idea of posting about other places I’ve been to in Tuscany, but not during this 9-week stay – there are a good number of them.
We began our mammoth day a little earlier than usual, so we could fit in all three towns. The route we took was largely wooded, and so wasn’t as photo-friendly as others. On our way to Suvereto, though, we tantilisingly passed by Canneto and Monteverdi Marittimo; two other towns on my ‘list’. However, we couldn’t be detracted from our main objective, and so parked in one of Suvereto’s free areas close to midday.
I know nothing really of the history of any of these places, save that the first two are topped with fortress ruins, and the last was an old Etruscan area – possibly the main necropolis. There are tombs dotted about, but we didn’t go to the archaelogical park – we’ll definitely go on a return visit. So, with that in mind, there won’t be too much narrative, so sit back, scroll and enjoy the pretty.
There are lots of photos in this post!
It turns out Suvereto was bigger than I’d thought. The exact same thing happened in Campiglia Marittima – the explorable area looked small, but ended up being huge, thanks to the higgledy-piggledy nature of the streets there. The latter was very impressive: every turn we made induced an “ooh” or “ahh” out of us. We also had lunch in Campigla Marittima in Ristorante La Tavernetta, and it was a tale of two portion sizes. Niamh’s was correct (ravioli with ragu), mine was way too big (little gnocchi in a leek and gorgonzola sauce. I really liked mine at first, but it just got too ‘samey’ halfway through.
The town was gorgeous, though – although it seems to be residential-heavy – only a couple of streets were devoted to shops and eateries. Every few footsteps brought a new arched stairways, nicely-decorated homes, squiggledy staircases… definitely worth a visit (as is Suvereto, which has more amenities to offer the tourist).
We took so many photos of Campigla Marittima, it was silly.