I thought I’d break sequence again by posting some of the best photos I took during our recent 2-week holiday in Volterra. And I present them here in full resolution! The surrounding countryside was so green and spectacular. Enjoy.
The Pretty Deep Montecatini Val di Cecina (01/09/2022)
About 15 kilometers away from Volterra, across the valley, lies the old mining town of Montecatini Val di Cecina (hereinafter simply referred to as Montecatini – but not to be confused with the town of Montecatini Terme, which is somewhat farther north in Tuscany – also lovely).
We had visited it back in December 2018, when we first picked up the keys to the apartment – but before I started blogging. Resting in a hill, it too commands superlative views of the rolling hills and woods, but that last time, it was completely foggy and we couldn’t see past 100 meters. It was well past time that we made another visit, and I can say that after having done so, it won’t be that long before we visit again.
Is was essentially a mining town – chiefly copper – but the mine is now exhausted, but some of it is still open for exploration… well…. as part of a guided tour, anyway. So that’s what we were going to do today.
We drove through the town itself (we would back for an explore later) and directly to the free carpark of the mine itself. There should be loads of parking there, and you could potentially use it as a base from which you can explore the surroundings on-foot, without attending the mine museum at all.
We wandered into the ticket-office and had a family of Dutch people step in front of us – it turns out they had booked. We were still lucky enough to buy tickets upon walking-in. So do please book in advance if you’re going. I linked the site above. We all had to wear a hard-hat. As usual, the strap had to be adjusted to its max so it would fit my ENORMOUS head. Seriously, it’s deceptively cantaloupe-like. It surprised the heck out of the man fitting it. Anyway, the cost of the tour was €7 per adult. That sounded pretty good value, but we didn’t realise how good it was
The tour was split into two groups: English-speaking and Italian-speaking. The lady who delivered the Italian tour had great English and she was very engaging. She gave us the history, and we had a walking tour around the first level. We passed by the stairs to the second level. They were lit up and just deemed to go down endlessly, but were blocked off\. We hit a chamber which was a little warmer, because the shaft (railed and safe!) went down the entire depth of the mine, so warm air was circulating up, as it does (thanks, Science!). If I had one complaint about the tour, is that we didn’t get to go down to the second level. However, we were taken outside to the sifting and mining equipment and shaftworks.
It’s a fascinating place, and I strongly recommend a visit. At the end, the guide passed around some ore for us to weigh up. By the end of the tour we realised that the tour took around 80 minutes. Not too shabby for for €7 a head! We were unlucky in one other way, but you’d have to see it in the video below (basically the German and Dutch families accompanying us were a basketball team – I’ve never felt so much like a Hobbit in all my life!).
If it looks like I didn’t take too many photos, you’d be right – I spent most of the the time filming. You can catch a chunk of the tour below:
Lunchtime! We scrambled into our tiny Fiat Panda, marvelling at the towering Continentals as they drove off. We needed some food. There are a few places to go in the village of Montecatini itself, hanging off the main square. Last time we visited, we parked in a carpark leading off the main square up a lofty ramp. Going up wasn’t a problem. Coming back down inevitably meant we scraped the underside of our bumper. This time, we parked in the much more level, free place on the edge of town and walked in.
Because we had much better visibility, we were able to see that the village from the western approach looked absolutely gorgeous! Wow!
We went to Ristorante Pizzeria La Terrazza sul Borgo on the square. I was hungry enough for two courses, so I ordered two primi – a bean and kale soup, and a sausage and mushroom pici dish. Niamh got an amatriciana and my brother a pappardelle with wild boar (not pictured below). Because I’d ordered two primi, by golly I *got* them as two primi. In fairness, that doesn’t happen very often – restaurants will servce one after the other as separate courses. So, I had two dishes to juggle at the same time.
The food was nice. I really enjoyed my pici.
We left the restaurant and then took a stroll around the residential part of town – which is the hilltown proper, really. And like most hilltowns, offers several rewards for those who like to explore these urban mini-mazes. It’s a hilly walk up to one of the town, and as usual when walking about in a medieval place on a hill, always look behind you in case you miss some amazing views.
We strolled up and down through town, pausing to stroke the occasional cat, and to allow me to go astray to grab an epic shot of Volterra from across the valley. One of the best shots I’ve ever taken, I think.
We finished our walk in the Campo Santo Vecchio. It offers some grand panoramic views, provided you are over 165cm tall!
We went back through town, past the square.
As you may have spotted in the two galleries above, the light had gotten poorer, as clouds began to gather over the town. By the time we’d gone past the village proper on the way to the car, it had begun spitting rain. And then it absolutely tipped down when we were within 100 meters of the carpark, so we trotted there and hid safely from the rain. It was like actually being in a carwash. Mad rain altogether!
It didn’t let us spoil our time in Montecatini Val di Cecina, though. I would strongly recommend you visit if you’re in the area. A car is certainly required.
Below is a video I took of our walk of this special place.
We didn’t do much else for the rest of the day, except look for a place to eat in the evening. We chose Quo Vadis for the Guinness, the view over the ruins of the Roman theatre, and for food that suits most palates. It was fine.
Home, relaxation and bed. Thanks for reading to the end. Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!
Shopping in Empoli, eating at Del Duca (26/08/2022)
Glad to say we got out of the town today, and explored somewhere we’d never been before! Equally gladly, I got out for a walk that morning too. I left the town via the Porta Fiorentina (the gate nearest us) and walked anti-clockwise around the walls a bit.
The views across the road from San Felice were nice too.
I carried on, and avoided the temptation of cutting the walk short at Porta all’Arco.
I carried walking around the walls – taking fewer snaps, chickened-out of taking the steps at Docciola and re-entered the same way I came out, a full circuit of the walls complete! A gold star for Eoin!
A year previously, we had a wine-tasting session in Marcampo, and met a British couple there. We were talking about places to shop, and they told us to give Empoli a go. Empoli is a moderately large town just off the FI-PI-LI motorway, and with a train station, so it’s easy to get to. We decided to give it a go.
It took us a little over an hour, and we drove through some suburban areas before we got to the town proper. We had aimed towards a large car park in the middle of town – here. It was a pay carpark, but if I remember correctly, it was quite inexpensive. The town seemed quiet to us. Then, of course, we remembered that we were still in August. Moreover, it had just hit lunchtime, so maybe we wouldn’t be doing much shopping after all!
We still had an initial explore of the town:
As we were in a large town, we decided to continue our quest for good Asian food, and found Ravioli Dong. We wanted something a little lighter, and steamed dumplings over in Italy are usually pretty good. It’s just their stir-fry dishes suck. We just went for some spring rolls, fried rice (or Cantonese rice, as it’s known over here) and a collection of mixed dumplings. For some reason, I didn’t take any pics of the dumplings, but at least you get the rice and the menu.
It was nice – we would definitely come here again next time we’re in Empoli. Even their bathroom made us smile!
To the shops! Except… most of them were closed. This didn’t come as a huge surprise to us. While we searched for some open stores, we had a little explore.
We did stop in a household store and Niamh bought… long grater/zester. I remember the young lady behind the being very nice and giving us a discount we had missed. We also checked out a clothes store, but we didn’t find anything that suited us (read: fit us). We had another nose around the town:
We still wanted to do something shop-wise, but too little was open here. Make no mistake, there are still things for us to do in Empoli – explore the rest of the town, the park, dine in a kick-ass Indian restaurant, enjoy a nice river walk along the Arno. We skipped the centre and drove towards Centro Emploli, a decent-sized mall on the outskirts. Getting there was easy and parking was also simple – plenty of spots available at the time of year and day.
Anyway, we wandered around there until we found an OVS. Niamh bought herself a nice blue puffer-jacket, and we explored a bit more. Not being inspired to shop-til-we-dropped, we went to the food court. I was going to get some gelato, but the place we stopped at had mass-made stuff, and I was happy with having an ice-cold coke.
I didn’t take shots of the mall, as although it was nice and clean, there was little interesting in it, by way of design – except for this cool installation outside the gym.
What I would say about it, is that it’s a fab one-stop for most of your shopping needs: clothes, electronics & gadgets, bars, household goods and a big CoOp to boot. It’s also easy-in, easy-out if you fancy skipping town-shopping and stress about parking.
A good, relaxing time was had, so we headed home, satisfied. We chilled a while, and made our way to the second highlight of our day: dinner at Del Duca! We sat outside and unsurprisingly, had delicious food!
Afterwards, Niamh had a coffee, and I had an amaro – a digestiv – one of the most famous examples of something like an amaro is the much-maligned Jaeger. Amari can be hit and miss, sometimes tasting medicinal, but my favourites are ones that have a hint of chocolate in them. This one did! The last time I found an excellent amaro, I forgot to take a snap of the bottle. This time I did!
On the way out the door, we had a quick chat with Ivana, the Del Duca matriarch, and she slipped me a glass of her famous limoncello. It’s usually very strong, but this was more typical of the drink and was delish!
Afterwards, a short walk to help burn away the calories, then telly/music and bed. What else is new?
Thanks for reading. Let us know if you have any queries or comments. We’d love to hear from you!
Lunch Nearby, but in the Middle of Nowhere (25/08/2022)
Another short one – possibly the shortest ever – as we stayed in an around Volterra.
I went for a walk that morning.
As you can see, I kept it within the walls.
I have to admit that we really must have had a seriously lazy day. Thankfully, we did get out of the main town by going to lunch at a resort called Tuscany Forever. To get to it, we had to drive the winding way to Saline di Volterra, then head out of the town, toward the north-west before turning left at a gravel road which is a 1.7km drive to the carpark of the resort. As the crow flies, you’re almost halfway back to Volterra by the time you hit the carpark!
And this was the only thing wrong with it, for me, anyway. That blasted road is an uncomfortable drive – there and back. The resort itself looks lovely, and well-maintained. There are a couple of pools for residents among the mini-villas used for lodgings. The place is smack bang in the middle of the hills of the Val di Cecina – and commands some stunning views, so if you were looking for a place to chill for a while, without feeling the need to travel, this would seem to be a good solution. If it weren’t for that road. I understand that the road is not private, but the owner has been unable to successfully lobby to get the road properly paved/asphalted. You have to have your wits about you driving there and back.
Anyway, the restaurant there is called Osteria Etrusca, and given that it’s located in a resort, it’s very family-oriented and its dishes are what we would call at home ‘Italian’… i.e. there are common pasta classics, pizzas and steaks – just about everyone should find something here to eat. I hear that at nights they have live music and light the place up impressively.
Here’s some of the surrounding area:
Below is the food. I had a double-carb set of pasta and pizza. Niamh had fritto misto and a pizza. I think I was happier with my choices – I think most diners would be happy enough with the fare. The only thing that put me off while eating was being assaulted by wasps!
We drove back home on the bumpy track and slept off the calories and the heat of the day.
Our guests, bless them, had left a bunch of beers with us, and I had this little beauty:
We watched the sunset, and I finally found some space left in my stomach for my evening ‘meal’:
I had a traipse around the town a bit, watched the telly an then hit the hay!
Down by the Boboli Gardens (22/08/2022)
You’d think we’d have had enough time on our feet after the Medieval Festival the previous day, but no – today we would be bringing our guests into Florence. As we had already been there a number of times, we would leave them at the Duomo and head off to do one of the things we had failed to do on these numerous trips: visit the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens behind it.
But first: the electrician called! We opened the door, and in stepped a very young man with a tool-belt around his waist. We showed him the beeping alarm and after a quick chat on the phone with a colleague, informed us that yes, it was just a sonic repellant for birds. He clipped the wires necessary to stop it beeping – so I guess that is the end of the reign of terror for the pigeons. Hopefully next time we get to Volterra our terrace won’t be a holy mess.
As Niamh was happy with his quick work, she thought to nab him to wire up the new light over the new mirror in the new bathroom. I showed it to him, and within 10 minutes he had it done – good man! It didn’t have a separate switch, though, so now when you turn the lights on, it’s like bloody daylight in there! First world problems. He couldn’t accept payment then and there, but if I recall correctly, I don’t think the bill was for more than €20! Try getting even just a callout from a utilities guy in Ireland for that price!
When heading to Florence, we usually head straight north on the SP15, remaining north on the SP439dir until we hit larger roads past Montaione. Some of it has nice scenery, so it’s a nice way to show it off. Then we come back via the motorway as far as Colle di Val d’Elsa. However, we took the motorway route both way this time. It’s a little quicker (even though you have to head far south before you can begin to go north towards Florence), and we also wanted to show our guests the amazing countryside of the Val di Cecina and the Val d’Elsa on the way. We had a quick sightseeing stop just 3 minutes drive outside the town at one of Mauro Staccioli’s: L’Anello… one of a number of stark sculptures dotted around the nearby landscapes. This is probably the most famous and Instagrammable of them, due to the surrounding countryside and the hairpin road.
We got to our usual parking spot for a visit to Florence – the CoOp at Ponte a Greve (here in Google maps). It’s free! And you can grab the tram (don’t forget to validate your ticket on-board!) right next to it for a 10-12 minute trip to Santa Maria Novella station in the heart of the city. From there it’s a 10-minute walk to the Duomo.
Here, we left our guests to do their own thing. They wanted to shop and visit an engineering exhibition of Da Vinci’s. Niamh popped into the chemist to get herself some plasters for breaking in shoes, while I grabbed a bottle of water from a Tabbachi. Then we wound our way through the streets of Florence, through the Piazza della Republica and over the Ponte Vecchio.
We were pretty hungry by then, and wanted to find a reasonably-priced, less touristy place to eat. We had a couple of false alarms, before we grabbed a table at Trattoria de’ Guicciardini. Niamh had bruschetta (not pictured) and a nice place of fusilli pasta. I had stuffed pasta in a truffle cream, followed by Peposo – stewed beef in red wine and tons of black pepper. I have been on a quest to find a decent plate of it for some time now. Some pleaces don’t have enough wine, others barely any peppper. It seems to be a dish that’s hard to get right. When I saw the plate that came out, I have to admit I was initially disappointed, as there was an obvious lack of sauce/gravy. But then I tasted it. Absolutely delicious, and definitely the best Peposo I have ever had.
And they know how good it is too. I was halfway through my beef when a short, older lady came out and asked how my Peposo was, and was obviously very pleased at my reaction. I think she was the cook. Good service. If I had one quibble, it would be that our dishes were served according to their order of appearance on the menu. So, Niamh had her bruschetta while I looked on hungrily, then we both had our pasta, and finally I went solo with my Peposo. Served this way, however, you had a better guarantee of your food coming out as it should. Anyway, I would go to have that Peposo again tomorrow, if I could!
We saved some tummy room for gelato after we had visited the gardens.
The Pitti Palace was just minutes away by foot, and we arrived there and immediately trotted for shade. The piazza is super-exposed to the sun. The ticket office was only a few people deep, and we weren’t long in waiting. We noticed that, yet again, the palace itself was closed to the public. One of these fine years we’ll get to see it.
Anyway, we headed in, and I wasn’t allowed the use of my gimbal to shoot video, so I had to rely on my shaky hands. You can see the video farther below.
What can I say? We wandered around the gardens. They are quite lovely, but honestly incredibly warm in August. Additionally, although I’m no gardener or horticulturalist, I suspect there are better times to visit if you want to see some of the gardens within bloom. There were more tropical-style sections, as well as the opulent French-style. Some of it is quite hilly, and so if you’re not a fan of heat, your misery will be compounded with uphill slope or stair climbs. There are taps with cold drinkable water dotted around, however, and decent toilet facilities.
One great thing about them is that you can get some elevated views of the city of Florence, without having to travel out to Piazzale Michelangelo (this is recommended regardless at sunset, by the way – we’ve yet to do it, though).
So, yes – go to the Boboli Gardens – they really are beautiful, but maybe in April/May!
Here’s a short video of our trip!
We were roasting after exploring the gardens, and took a break at the café there. This was a mistake. Go out and find somewhere else instead. The menu was overpriced – this wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was how awful the shakerati we bought were. Very bitter, no foam and not at all refreshing. They just threw (bad) hot coffee over ice and served. It took a while for us to get served too, as there was only one overworked waitress on duty outside.
Bowed, but unbroken, we started our journey back to the Duomo, where we said we’d meet our guests. On the way, wanted to grab a gelato at place we had been taken to before – Gelateria della Passera, but it was closed. Wah! Instead we had to head back to Gelateria Santa Trinita, where we had also eaten before (I will always remember that eye-rolling girl – she could have been world-weary professionally).
We caught up with our guests nearby the Duomo. They crossed off their two most important goals of shopping and getting to that exhibition. They had also gotten lost, and – still to my astonishment to this day – not found the Piazza della Signoria, the Piazza della Republica or the Arno banks. On the plus side, they still have tons to return to next time!
The day had gotten quite humid and energy-draining, so we left for the tram to take us back to the carpark. We had a couple of pitstops – one in the CoOp for drinks and goodies, and the other in the electronics store to buy wireless mice and keyboards. By chance, we bought a phone holder for the car. This turns out to have been an inspired purchase – it worked like a charm – who needed a infotainment screen after all?!
I also noticed this phenomenon in (I repeat) THE ELECTRONICS STORE:
We chilled for a short while back at the apartment, tidied ourselves up and had yummy pizza in Pizzeria Ombra della Sera, along with a beer or two.
After it was a sit-up for a little more beer, then bed. And a sneaky pic of our neighbour’s amazing courtyard below!
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. Please add comments and ask me questions – I’d love to hear from you!
A Long Expected Party (21/08/2022)
Righto, this post contains a decent amount of media!
Back in 2019, we attended both of Volterra’s Medieval 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!
A Del Duca Memory (14/04/2018)
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this little nostalgic broadcast – yes, you read the date at the top correctly!
In early November the Del Duca family will shut the doors on their restaurant for the last time. In fact, they will no longer be running a restaurant after having run one for over 30 years. Niamh and I will miss them and their wonderful enoteca very much.
We first fell in love with Tuscany back in 2008 after an organised tour brought us to the hilltop towns/cities of Montecatini Alto, San Gimignano and Siena. We were blown away by the beauty of these places, the food and the surrounding countryside. As the years went past, we had other trips to Italy (Rome, Lake Garda, the Amalfi Coast, Sicily), but it was Tuscany that captured our hearts.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years, and we decided that we had enough money saved, and were earning enough to be able to buy a property in Italy. I used Google maps to look for coastal towns in Liguria, Le Marche, Umbria and Tuscany. It turns out there aren’t many hilltop towns right on the coast! So, we looked farther inland, and settled for a deeper scan of Tuscany, as although the prices were higher, air transport there was easier at the time than anywhere else, and Tuscany was just so huge and open, with plenty of things to do and see. That research, which took us nearly 6 months, had us eventually settle on Volterra. I had not heard of it (Niamh had, thanks to the Twilight Series), but I was amazed at how beautiful it was, how central it was and that it had all the amenities we could ever need. We bit the bullet, and made arrangements to meet with VolterraCasa and Milianti. We would arrive in Volterra on April 18th, 2018.
While we waited for that date to come, we entertained ourselves with videos on Volterra, especially ones by David McGuffin and Denis Callan.
The above is Denis Callan‘s video, with a great introductory guided tour by the incomparable Annie Adair.
Below is the video which helped us decide where we’d eat as soon as we’d arrive in Volterra: Del Duca. It’s by David McGuffin.
Aaaannnnyway… we arrived in Pisa in the evening, and took a bus to the farthest car rental area (thanks, Ryanair). I cannot for the life of me remember what we drove, but I remember it was the first time either of us drove on the other side of the road! I remember (being the passenger) that we always seemed so close to the verge! I think this is a common occurence with those who first do this. You lose the fear of it eventually.
Some time later (after super-careful driving) we arrived at our hotel outside the walls – Hotel Porta all’Arco. We chose this place as it had (just!) enough parking for our car, without having to pay for it. The place had advertised a bar, but really it was tiny and rarely manned. There wasn’t much choice in breakfast, but it was adequate. What sold the place for us were the people and the rooms. They were so friendly, and the rooms were spacious, well-decorated, air-conditioned and clean, the hotel being a converted palazzo. As I had not started my blog at that point, I didn’t take as many photos then as I do now. While I can say I was hampered by the iPhone’s 7 limitations, in reality you’ll see below that sadly my shot composition was generally terrible too!
After we had settled and freshened-up, we strode confidently outside. Then we took a good look up. I’m not going to lie: we thought ‘Oh shit!’. We had been to three other Tuscan hilltowns/cities at that stage: Montecatini Alto, San Gimignano and Siena. To get uphill to those, you have a funicular, a long gently-sloped road (to the most commonly used entrance) and multiple escalators, respectively. This time, we’d be using our own legs to travel just under 250 meters, but about 50 meters up…. on average a 1/5 gradient. That’s pretty steep!
We walked the first 50m, across a zebra crossing and up steps, then more steps, then a steep gravel slope, then even more steps until we reached Porta all’Arco itself, and the very first photo (fittingly) I ever took of Volterra.
Because we had never really heard of the phrase piano piano! we powered on up Via Porta all’Arco after a short break. We were pretty breathless when we reached the top!
It was so quiet! This was ok by us, as this town, if we could find a property, would be our chill zone.
When we had reached the top, I consulted Google maps, and saw that Del Duca was 30m to our right. I said to Niamh “Let’s go to that place the beardy lad recommended!” (Sorry, David!). So, in we went. It, too, was relatively quiet. We didn’t know the family, and so can’t quite recount who we were greeted by. I can remember for certain that Claudia wasn’t there, but Genuino was. Anyway, our waitress for the night was really lovely, and settled us at a large circular table, in a corner, quite near the entrance to their wine cellar. If I recall correctly, Alessandro Calabrese, their head chef, hadn’t been too long there – please correctly me if I’m wrong! I didn’t know that at the time, and assumed Ivana was still heading things up in the kitchen.
While we waited for our first course, two amazing things happened: we were given some bread, and then an amuse bouche. The latter was one of the most extraordinary things I had eaten up to that point in my life – I remember the crispy pork belly and anchovy on the top, but I can’t remember what the central part was. Here is a picture of it from a later blog. Do you remember Willy Wonka’s Three Course Dinner gum? This was like that! I took it all in one bite. I got the crisp of the belly first, then that was followed by a savoury pesto-like flavour of the middle substance, and finally at the end was a gentle hint of fishiness from the anchovy. It was incredibly tasty! Then we destroyed everything by thinking we were sophisticates and ordered olive oil and balsamic for our bread. Brutta, brutta, BRUTTA!!
Oy! We were obliged, which was nice of them. Our primi arrived, and I grabbed my first ever taste of cinghiale – I had the pappardelle. Niamh was likewise blown away by her ravioli with their delcious sweet and sour tomato sauce, topped with crispy pancetta.
Our secondi were just as tasty. I had fish with cabbage (a first for me!) and Niamh had lamb 3-ways.
I think we both had a chocolate fontante bomb for dessert. So yummy. We actually made both the sweet and sour tomato sauce and and these desserts when we attended a cookery class in the Del Duca’s home.
We had some wines from the Del Duca’s own range, so the waitress asked us if we wanted to have a look inside the wine cellar, which is in a small cavern at the back of the restaurant. I took a photo (with reflections) from outside the door, but not inside the actual cellar itself – which is a shame, as it was impressive!
We left, fully satisfied, and took some more awful photos outside.
So that was our first ever night in Volterra! We went on to visit 3 more times in 2018, eventually sealing the apartment deal in December. We got a lovely little plate from the Del Ducas as a warming gift.
We’ll miss this restaurant hugely, and can only hope that the new owners will still offer Volterrans a fine-dining option going forward.
The Del Ducas themselves are still carrying on with their other businesses (their highly recommended agritourismo and wines), so I am sure we will still see them about the town. And we have been offered the use of their pool on more than one occasion – we’ll take them up on the offer some day! So, thanks folks for all the fun times we’ve had in the restaurant. I think you are doing the right thing in slowing down a little. Your health is your wealth, and in the Pisan colline, there is no finer place than to take as much time as you can grab and enjoy your surroundings and each other’s company. In bocca al lupo!
A Trip to Livorno, Volterra Comics and Fantasy Day 2 (22/05/2022)
No walk today either… sorry!
We thought we had seen most of what the Volterra Comics and Fantasy had to offer on the first day. We were only a little wrong – we had the awards ceremony and further costumes to come – more on that later.
We had been intrigued by Livorno during our first visit there a couple of years ago, and wanted to go back to at least experience the food market. I remembered the humidity then, and my promise to wear shorts next time, but wussed-out over sun-cream maintenanced and went fully-trousered. This time parked in the Parcheggio Moderno, just a couple of blocks north of the market. We missed a couple of turns in the middle of town, but Livorno is strangely forgiving, and we just had an extra spin around a few blocks and the hippodrome-shaped Piazza della Repubblica. Not much fuss, only a little muss! It’s a storeyed car-park, and so the vehicle would be shaded. We found a spot quite handily just one floor up. Did I mention this was a Sunday?
Anyway, we got out of the car, and headed immediately towards the market. Again, did I mention this was a Sunday? Of course it was closed. Shrugging, as we weren’t hugely surprised, we instead went on an explore of the city. I have to say, Livorno is one of the most underrated cities in Tuscany. Yes, it has an air of dirt of grit about it, but it is also quite lovely in places and it is a genuine city – you are looking at Tuscans and work and play there. While the tourist count is increasing (lots of UK people, strangely), it’s still quite uncluttered. I think we are going to make it a must-visit for most of our stays in Tuscany.
I love Livorno’s ‘Venetian’ quarter – we hadn’t seen it the first time around, so the return trip had already paid us in gold, with or without the market. We skipped the fortezza, not knowing it could be entered. As we had left around the 11:00 mark, we had become a little hungry. We were still on our Asian food kick, and so looked out for whatever Chinese/Japanese/Thai food place we could find.
Google (eventually) led us to ZEN Livorno. We settled in and had what turned out to be pretty decend food.
What wasn’t photographed was some tasty (to us, we hadn’t had it before, but had seen YouTubers rave about it) okonomiyaki – a sort of omlette made with cabbage, flour and eggs. There might have been meat in this one; I can’t remember – but I do remember the dancing fish-flakes. It was all tasty enough and we left satisfied. I am still (even at the time of writing this – Sept 14th, 2022) on my quest to find a decent Cantonese-style food – but after having tried places in Florence, Siena, Poggibonsi, Colle di Val d’Elsa, Cecina, Pontedera and Empoli. We have drawn the conclusion that Cantonese food here is at very best about equivalent to your average takeaway (with far fewer choices of dish), at worst Godawful. But they do dumplings reasonably well (sold as ‘ravioli’ on their menus). If you know of any good Cantonese restaurants in Tuscany, or north Lazio/west Umbria please let us know! There could be a virtual cookie in it for you! 🙂
Anyway, food done satisfactorily, we continued our walk about the town. It wasn’t insufferably hot, so my choice of trouserware was adequate for the day!
We stopped off at a gelateria and sat down to eat our bounty. Literally! I had bounty gelato. It was nice enough. We then headed back to the car and high-tailed it back to Volterra. We decided to head back on a more scenic route, when we got closer to Volterra.
It was still remarkably green in May. Amazing to think how it changes in the hotter months!
After a brief chill at the apartment, we headed back out to see what the cosplayers were up to that afternoon. There were definitely some cool costumes on display. There was a guy there dressed as Sean Connery as Indiana Jones’ dad in The Last Crusade. He blew me away… looked so much like him… even had the same dimples when he smiled.
The talent spotting continued. We hit up Bar Priori for an aperitivo while we people-watched.
Later on we watched the awards ceremony. I didn’t know who most were dressing up as, but Wolverine was my standout, as he sprinted up to the stage to get his award. He had fabulous spirit, and looked pretty damn good too.
After the weekend we had been told by someone living in the town that it wasn’t nearly as well-attended as in previous years. That could have been down it being held 3 weeks or so earlier than usual, or that it was just post-pandemic – who can say? I hope it picks up again next year.
I have a youtube video of some of the festival down below. Take a look!
Later on in the day, I had a walk about to check out the sunset and grabbed a burger from L’Hamburgheria and ate it whole!
Screenwatching and bed! Not exactly detail-filled, but we enjoyed ourselves!
That was the (food of the) week that was – Photolog (16-19/05/2022)
This week saw me have little in the way of daytime free time, so in lieu of a verbose blog, here is a collection of photos with commentary for the above dates.
Monday 16th May
Some food today from La Terra di Mezzo.
Tuesday 17th May
Firstly a little walk down by the archaeological digsite.
Lunch from La Sosta del Priore – always tasty. We then met another ex-pat friend – John – for an aperitivo or three, before heading to Porgi l’Altra Pancia for dinner.
Wednesday 18th May
I went on some walks! First a morning one:
Followed by an afternoon one during lunch:
A rare trip to lunch to La Carabaccia. This is a cute place in Piazza XX Settembre (and to be honest, the only place worth eating there – the rest are rather touristy, but in fairness to them have fine outdoor seating). They have a tiny menu (2 primi, 2 secondi), and some desserts. They will also knock up an antipasti plate for you on demand. The cooking is nonna-style and tasty.
And we had a homecooked pasta meal from Niamh that evening:
Thursday 19th May
No walk today… had… not the most nutritious lunch, but it was tasty, then had a walk about the town to burn off some calories afterwards.
During the evening we had a severe hankering for some Asian style food. I’ve gone on the record before as loving SE Asian flavours, even over Italian – so after several weeks of the latter, we were gumming for something different. We’d noted the place in Poggibonsi and contemplated it, but instead opted for a place in Colle di Val d’Elsa – Ristorante Sugoi.
We got there and parked in the supermarket carpark just down the road. Turns out we didn’t read the signs properly and only got away with it by the skin of our teeth. But first the place. We walked into a narrow place that looked small and intimate. Then we were ushered into a much larger side room, and from there into a pretty big semi-covered outdoor space. Wow! This place could cater for 150! And the food:
Look, I am seriously considering paying someone cash money if they can show us a good Chinese/Japanese place that does decent stir-fry sauce-based dishes. All the ones we’ve had in Italy are so insipid. It’s the same pattern: the starters are pretty good, but the mains are chronic. Halp! Ok, the curry here wasn’t too bad, but the other dish was decidely ‘blah’. The quality of Asian restaurants in Italy seems to be no better than a mediocre takeaway back home. Bit of a shame. We had an ok one in Livorno (more another time) and a nicely flavoured Katsu curry from a truck the visited Volterra during the Volterra Comics and Fantasy festival (again, more another time).
In fairness to the restaurant, the service was nice, the food was ok and the setting was great. We left and headed back to the car, and only then spotted the carpark was about to close and we were one of the last people to go. Phew!
Next blog will be slightly more normal!
Lunch in the Middle of Nowhere and Exploring Poggibonsi (12/05/2022)
I stayed in bed a little while longer this morning, but still got up and did my walk. I could have been a lazy so-and-so, but I did it, so yay me! I had a short walk in mind, just around the block to walk up the stairs at Docciola. Short, but challenging. However, from there I just went on and on, past Piazza XX Settembre, up to the park, and from there to the panoramic viewpoint. The photos speak for themselves. I was in need of a wash at the end of it, so that’s good enough for me!
I also busted out my macro lens and took some nice floral shots.
After eating and making ourselves beautiful, we refreshed some toiletries and bought some cleaning and painting supplies, as there were a few jobs Niamh wanted to do before we headed home. We didn’t quite find the paint we wanted – so we thought we’d head out to Navacchio or Pontadera to grab some. We changed our minds later on, though – more below.
I thought I’d check in on the framers to see how he was getting on with the drawing we bought. It wouldn’t be ready until the next day. No worries – we’d pick it up then.
Once done, Niamh went to a Bancomat (ATM) got some money out, while I grabbed the goodies and brought them upstairs. Three quarters of the way down, I realised I’d forgotten to bring the bag Niamh asked me not to forget, so back up I went. At least I was getting some exercise in.
We’d driven the SP4 road a bunch of times before, especially to go to Florence, Florence and Florence, and that time when we checked out Gambassi Terme and Montaione. We passed by a couple of restaurants that were in the middle of nowhere. We’d pass them by and swear that one day we’d try them. I think you can guess what’s coming next. We decided to do lunch at one of them, called Osteria del Castagno, especially since it had a large, easily accessible carpark. It was only 30 mins away, so we walked slowly to the car to build up a hunger.
When we got to the carpark, we saw that it would be closed tomorrow, so we’d have to park elsewhere overnight tonight. Bummer. Small price to live in paradise, though.
I drove to the restaurant. As promised, it had plenty of parking and lovely surroundings. We decided to sit outside, but in shade. It had lots of lovely outdoor nooks and crannies where you could enjoy your meal.
The food was nice and the service very friendly. We played a guessing game with the waitress while she guessed what nationality we were. We even threw in a few random languages to throw her off the scent. In the end, she was pleasantly surprised to discover we were Irish. A subsequent conversation saw her recommending us places to visit, and being amazed again at how we had visited not only all her recommendations (“Have you heard of San Gimignano?” we had a chuckle at that one), but tons of other less well-known towns besides all over central, west and south-west Tuscany. We had a small chats with one of the male waiters too. Everyone was disarmingly lovely.
The food was very nice, but we felt that the prices were extraordinarily high. Here are the food pics:
I think the tortellini may have cost €24 (please correct me if I’m wrong, if anyone from the restuarant ends up reading this). I have had pasta dishes with truffle for 2/3 of that price. I would recommend the place, though, if you’re flush. The food is good and the service is friendly. I imagine that the setting in the evening would be amazing; very romantic – so maybe try it then.
As we were so far from Navacchio, and the route would be a little annoying, we decided to check out Poggibonsi for the first time. We knew it had a huge shopping/industrial area to its north, and we were sure we could pick up the paint and odds and ends we needed there. So off we went. Little did we know, this is also a route to San Gimignano, and on the way we had a jaw-trolley moment when we saw said Tuscan Manhattan in the distance, the centre-point of one of those Tuscany-in-a-bottle scenes that you have to pull over for. We did just that, and took a few snaps.
We skirted around San Gimignano, and were then taken along an unfamiliar road into Poggibonsi. We got some easy and free parking at Parcheggio Vallone – some Saturdays it’s closed though, so be careful. The old town was quiet, but we both really liked it. It has a few really chill piazze, and we sat a while after our explore to wait for the shops to reopen after riposo.
There were curious little sculptures of figures made of cuboids scattered throughout some of the piazzas. We made friends with them.
We wandered some more and I kinda fell a little in love with old Poggibonsi. It was very sleepy when we visited it, but there were places to eat and drink and I’d say it turns into a lively enough place during the evening. We found more alleys, another cubic friend and then a lovely circular piazza. All the benches in the shade were taken, and at one stage we had a little race with a local to grab a recently vacated seat – we lost; probably for the best.
We got back to the car, and drove north to the ‘Industrial Zone’ which is a large series of mini-malls and strip-malls in which you can find just about anything. It’s not the most salubrious of areas, so I didn’t take shots, but from a practical standpoint it will be a fabulous place to source holdhold and hardware stuff, and get food shopping into the bargain, should we be lacking in that department too. We also noted what could be a cool Sushi place to go to should we have a mind – we’ll go there some day. We stopped off in Casa and Brico and got what we wanted – terracotta paint for Niamh’s little job, and then got back in the car for home. I really enjoyed driving that day. We avoided a mini sports-car rally at a roundabout coming out of the town, and noticed a big frantoio, should we ever decide to grow olives!
Upon getting home, we screenwatched, edited, wrote a bit, and we had a rare moment of not going out to eat again! Niamh cooked up a pork-chop dinner (yum!) and after that we headed out for gelato!
I hope you enjoyed reading this. Let me know what you think. Have you ever visited Poggibonsi?