Casale Marittimo, as I’ve said before, is my favourite hilltop village. It’s is a mini-labyrinth, left and right, up and down. It’s infrequently visited by people, easy to find parking there and is impeccably arranged and clean.
I had just visited a week earlier with our previous guests, but as Niamh hadn’t been that time (she had to work) and my brother had never been at all we thought we’d give it a bash. We would also attempt to eat a proper lunch there for the first time! We’d been foiled time and again in our attempts to eat eating there, so we were overdue some luck.
We parked in our usual spot at lunchtime, and then survived the 4 minute walk into the village. Incidentally, the approach from the east (which is almost always the way we approach the place), offers the least interesting views. From the west, you will see some fleeting glimpses of the villages upper strata towering over you. If you can, approach from the south, where you get to see the place in all its glory, where you can see it all crowning its hilltop.
On the way to the central square, we stopped to take snaps, in particular at an old chapel I hadn’t seen before.
Ok, now where to eat? I’d fancied the look of the Taverna via di Mezzo, but it was once again closed. There was a place open (Osteria L’Impronta). There are a couple of tables sitting outside on a small covered veranda. I had heard that there might be a small amount of seating within. The tables were full, so I didn’t hold out much hope. It turns out I was very wrong!
We were welcomed to lunch, then went up two short flights of stairs, past one dining room, then another higher up, which had a nice view out onto the main piazza. Then we were led up *again* and were shown to a table on a covered terrace with wonderful vistas over the hills and woods to the east and south of the village. The food was good, not award-winning, but honest and homemade. I enjoyed it. The surprise of the place itself may have added to the whole package. The staff were friendly, and yeah, I’d recommend it if you’re in Casale Marittimo of a lunchtime!
We had dessert there in the form of gelato after the meal – they serve some homemade flavours on the ground floor by the small bar. Then we had a wander around the town. I took Niamh and my brother on more or less the same route as I took our previous guests.
At one stage, we popped out at the southern entrance and had a long look over the coastal plains, noting the huge ferris wheel just south of Marina di Cecina. Google says it’s permanently closed, which is a shame if that’s the case.
We took a bunch of staircases and ramps to the upper section, passing through the main square again. I wanted to take the other two to the leather goods artisan. On the way, we spotted the car we often spot here and gave him a rub hello. Sadly the leather workshop was closed. After taking in a few more viewpoints, we went back to the car. We were pretty roasted by then, and so drove home.
We made a video! It’s a nice gentle post-lunch walk.
That evening, we went to La Mangiatoia for beer and pizza. I’d never had a Calzone before in my life, so after seeing several others have it here before I thought I’d give it a bash.
And I’ve been put off them for life. Not that it tasted bad. I could be churlish and say I liked the dough, and it *was* nice, but sadly there was little else to enjoy. There was just a smear of filling and I was crushed. Pity – the pizzas here are usually really nice, as evidenced by how much Niamh and my brother enjoyed theirs. I consoled myself with a house beer, which was lovely!
At the end of the night, it was home for screenwatching and bed!
I know this was shortish, but I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless. Please feel free to leave a comment or question!
My brother likes to hike, so that day we started from the apartment (well, duh!), and went to the main viewpoint at Piazza Martiri della Libertà, and continued downhill all the way to the bus parking station.
We went back uphill a little to Viale dei Filosofi and circumnavigated along the walls as far as the Docciola free carpark. This was about halfway around. Normally we’d do the full circuit, but we had a busy day ahead of us, so to compensate, we took the less severe stairway at Docciola!
I was pretty huffy by the end of that, but we carried on back towards Piazza Settembre XX and down Gramsci and home again. Not a bad morning’s walk, when taking all the hills into account.
Today, we were going to explore a couple of the main attractions in Livorno we had never fully experienced before: the food market (aka Mercato Centrale) and the fortress. We had been to Livorno on a Sunday back in May, but the market was closed. It’s open all other in the morning ’til about 14:30. We drove a slightly different route, setting Mrs. Google to avoid both tolls and motorways – maybe only 10 km of it was different – we still had to head towards Cecina and bypass it. Still it’s always nice to drive in new areas, and we saw a couple of hilltop towns we hadn’t seen before (we didn’t stop – tight schedule!).
We parked in Parcheggio Moderno. I honestly didn’t think there would be space on a market day, but there were still a good number of spots left. And best of all – it’s just a couple of blocks north of the market. We walked (duh!) from the carpark to the market. What surprised me was that outside the food market building was another market; a more traditional town market. And it was huge. I think that it too is open every morning (exlcuding Sundays). You won’t see as many photos as you might have thought you’d see, as I was filming at the time. You can find the video of our trip to Livorno below.
Now, depending on the entrance you take, you might be hit with a strong fishy smell, but you’ll soon get used to it – and it’s not all over the stalls – mostly in one section.
The central stalls in the fish market area were empty, so I am assuming they operate earlier in the morning. The other sections inside were for fruit, meats, and a few were for breads and pastries. There were even one or two packed alimentari and household goods stalls. We stopped to look and smell at a great many, but only really bought some pastries – mini cannoli. Sadly, these were nothing to write home about – but the stall was lovely to look at. The Italians really do make good with whatever sales space they’re given, especially indoors.
When we’d finished exploring and filming there, we walked to the hippodrome-shaped Piazza della Republica, and from there to the mini-canal system around the fortress. We entered the fortress at the south-western corner, thinking it might be some sort of museum, but it turns out to be a pretty public space. There was a bar on the way in, and a few (closed) food stalls were clustered about, waiting for accompanying food and music festival that were advertised on posters about the place. There was a kids play area beside a short leafy pathway where you could amble along, or park yourself on a bench and watch the world go by.
At the northern end, there is another space by the surrounding wall, which gives a lovely evelated view of the surrounding canal, bridges and colourful buildings. Boats occasionally whizz past, or carefully steer back towards their berthing. A fabulous and peaceful space to chill a while – with plenty of shading from the August sun under its trees.
Now hungry, we walked towards the sea, and along the canals in an effort to find somewhere to have a little bit of lunch. I was breaking one of my own rules (about sacrificing cost and quality of food for a nice view), but maybe me (and Google) would be proved wrong.
We weren’t. They were friendly enough at L’Ancora, but Niamh’s and my fried fish didn’t quite live up to the Livorno promise. My brother, on the other hand, is a reasonably conservative eater and his pasta al ragu was the best of the dishes by a considerable way. As for the compensating view? Well, I got the rough end of the stick… I was looking at dockside trashcans and dumpsters, but Niamh and my brother had this instead.
It reminded me of the contrast that is Livorno: grit and glam. I didn’t take a photo of my view!
When lunch was over, we contemplated heading towards the seaside promenade to show my brother the amazing Terrazza Mascagni, and the aquarium there. We looked at it on the map, but it was a 3km round-walk in little shade, and we just didn’t have the appetite. We *did* however have an appetite for gelato, and once again stopped at L’orizzante for some tasty frozen deliciousness.
And so, home again. Livorno has a bunch of things to see, and that market is right up there with them. Don’t overlook this fun city!
Here’s the video of our trip:
We screen-watched and chilled a while back at the apartment, before building up an appetite to go to Terre di Mezzo for our evening meal. We had pasta and followed that up with dessert. My brother had his expensive beer, making us remember the last time he’d been here and was happy to pay extortionate prices for craft beer (they weren’t extortionate – we misunderstood the pricing!).
Thanks for reading. Please leave a like and a comment or question. I’d love to hear from you.
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.
This will be a short one, as we stayed in Volterra all day.
One of the things I like most about my morning walks outside of the summer season are the clouds that form lakes between the colline (hills) in the surrounding countryside. They burn off in the mid-morning enough, so you have to get up early enough to catch them. I caught some!
I generally stuck to inside the walls and leisurely papped what ticked my fancy.
I got home a cleaned myself up, and we both had to wait for visitors. We had a ring at the door, and let in the apartment building superintendent and our (very much out of breath) geometra. Think of a gemoetra as a cross between an architect and building inspector. You have to engage one when you need work done on your property. They had a look at our damp patch on the kitchen wall, and again at the neighbour’s balcony where the problem originates. They drew the conclusion that they will have to get in touch with the owner of the apartment – he rarely lives there. At the time of writing this (July 119th 2022), they have gotten in touch, but it remains to be seen what the next step is. I’m not too worried right now, but we’ll need it fixed before it gets cold and rainy.
We probably were a little lazy in deciding that too much of the morning had gone for us to travel out of the town, so we stayed in for a while, and then treated ourselves to lunch (what else is new?) at Osteria La Pace down the other end of town, by Pota a Selci (the gate beside the fortress). But first, we had a bit of a stroll around the town centre to work up an appetite!
La Pace do lovely homemade pasta there, with a boar and black olive stew that is outstanding. But we made the mistake of ordering two courses. You see, their pasta dishes are incredibly filling. But we gave it our best shot!
Although they do a killer tiramisu there (served in a huge coffee cup), I just wanted a little gelato as dessert.
We lazed about it bit – we couldn’t do much else with full bellies. For a while now I had wanted to go on one of Annie Adair‘s tours of the town. She does them a couple of times a day, a few times a week. I waited outside her usual spot at the alabaster and artisinal goods store opposite the leather good shops at Piazza Martiri della Libertà. What Annie doesn’t know about Volterra probably isn’t worth knowing. Ordinarily, I would have been excited, but for some reason my anxiety had kicked in and I unfortunately didn’t have the wherewithal to reframe it. Them’s the breaks. So, Annie, if you’re reading this and were wonding why I was a litte quiet – that’s the reason. Nothing to do with you (or me, directly), it just rears its head from time to time. Anyway, it turns out I was the only one there today, so I excused her the tour.
But we did chat for a good 20-30 minutes instead about the new Roman amphitheatre, the sad and slow demise of alabaster craftsmastery (I thought the seams of alabaster were running out, as well as the youth not particularly wanting to do ‘manual’ labour). She corrected me on the former point, but confirm the latter. Also she said that a lot of the alabaster also comes from Spain (if I recall correctly), as that stone is easier to work. We chatted about San Gimignano (wondering why the more genuine Volterra was often overlooked in favour of San Gimignano). We found out we both have the same fear/wanting relationship with Volterra potentially becoming a UNESCO site. I think I used the phrase “But you can’t wipe your bum without contacting the UN if you’re UNESCO.” She agreed. It might be best if Volterra was left independent of UNESCO, but if it happens, it happens. It was a nice chat, and it helped me with my stupid cortisol.
I had mentioned that Niamh and I had met with David McGuffin, and told her that she, David and a guy called Denis Callan featured in videos about Volterra, which helped us make up our minds where to buy. When we were saying our goodbyes, she indicated that she could ask David if Niamh and I could one of his group’s tours with her – the fee was flat for the group, so there would be no charge. Nice! We made a date, with me having to ok it with David later on. It would be the latter 2 hour tour, which would take us into Alab’Arte – one of the chief alabaster workshops in town. Yay!!
Met Annie Adair for a tour at 18:00. Sadly I was the only one to turn up, but we had a good chat for 30 mins or so, before suggesting I join David McGuffin’s group on May 21st for a good 2 hour tour that would take us into Alab’Arte – one of the premier alabaster workshops in the town.
On the way back home, I stopped off for a couple of smallish arancine (stuffed rice balls), as I knew Niamh was going to have some cold cuts and cheeses as a light evening meal.
Back home, we ate, drank and screenwatched. Niamh went to bed earlier than I, so I streamed ‘Joker’ on Netflix. My third time seeing it – a great movie! Zzzzzzzz.
Thanks for reading – please send any questions and comments my way!
Got up late, as I was paying for drinking a bit the day before. I was too hungover to walk, but I made a promise to myself that I’d go tomorrow instead.
We went to Migliorini for a slightly sinful breakfast. Just had a rice tart, and a hot chocolate that was a bit too watery for my taste. I need the Italian gloop! Here’s a stylish slot, which summarises the state of my head at the time.
We went to the market afterwards. Wow, it was a great deal smaller than normal – but we got what we wanted: strawberries, garlic, asparagus, an eggplant. We headed to back to the Bottega after for milk and stock cubes. It really didn’t get much more exciting than this, I’m afraid!
We spent the rest of the morning writing or screen-watching. Unfortunately, (or for healing purposes, fortunately!) anxiety began flicking me in the forehead. For lunch, we went to Gallina d’Oro (our first time there). Niamh got panino, and I got a bowl of Zuppa alla Volterrana. Mine was lovely, and was for only €8.50 – nice to find another good purveyor of my favourite way to get veggies in Tuscany!
We had a slow walk around the town and said hello to a couple of people we knew. On the way back to the apartment had a gelato. Unsurprisingly, this perked me right up! Before heading back, we stopped off at what would be considered our local church: Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo. For the past couple of years it was being renovated, so we thought we’d pop our heads in to have a look. Lovely and quiet little place, with the usual renaissance art in situ – and so cool inside too. A fab haven.
We screenwatched back at the house, and for a rare occasion on this sojourn, Niamg cooked up some of the ingredients we picked up at earlier in the day: a lovely risotto with parmesan crisp.
I was feeling a little anxious, and so went out for a walk in the evening. Volterra very quiet at night, except for a couple of pockets where there were small packs of revellers. These contrasts only make me love the place even more – there’s something for everyone here. Ok, it’s not Ibiza, but I’m down with that.
Back at home, we raided Netflix and had a look at Metal Lords. I enjoyed it a good but – worth a casual watch if you’re running short of stuff!
I know this was a short one, but I still hope you enjoyed the read. Please leave a like and a comment if you did so – I would love to hear from you!
Because my time wasn’t my own today, I got up just for a shorter walk and shot some classic scenes.
And the hits continued:
While I was indisposed, and not at my leisure, Niamh was more fortunate and cleaned the place a bit! I did manage to nip out during the mid-morning for a quick block-walk and a gelato!
We headed out to La Sacca Fiorentina and I had a ribollita, while Niamh had a salad with eggplant parmigiana. Both our dishes were reported yummy.
After lunch, we wandered over to Cappella della Croce di Giorno, a chapel inside a larger church near Porta San Francesco. I hadn’t heard this existed until I saw it in the Volterra walk by Prowalk Tours. It’s almost fully frescoed and a marvel to behold. But it’s also a little grim, as it features scenes of battle and violence, including infanticide (Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents), made all the more so by the dim lighting within. I took a couple of shots, examined the fresoces and headed back towards the apartment, via the ruins of the Roman theatre.
On the way back to the apartment, we booked ourselves in for dinner at Porgi L’Altra Pancia afterwards as last year we found that it was a good idea to book ahead, as many restaurants, particularly the good ones, or those in good locations, would fill up very quickly. Most restuarants don’t place an emphasis on turning tables over, so few become available. I was being prudent and, as it turns out, unncessarily so, as it was May, and not August!
While we were waiting for dinner time, we chilled at home and screenwatched. Suddenly, Niamh stopped watching her iPad and said to me “Is that you rattling couch?” I stopped and we both immediately noticed a rattle in the furniture, as if someone was standing behind us, gently shaking it. Niamh thought I was scratching myself or something, but I wasn’t. It continued for another 10 or so seconds, and then stopped. The next day we found out later it was an earthquake! Our first one! Awwww!
We headed out again to L’Incontro for aperitivo. They recognised us and our nibbles were upgraded! We took the long way around just for the sake of a walk for 15 minutes to the restaurant right beside our apartment entrance. They are such nice peoople there, and the food is so good too. They have an insane collection of wines there, and you’re practically tripping over boxes and bottles as you make your way to your table.
We thought we’d only have enough room for one course (with wine), but we were persuaded to have a dessert, which was followed by a free dessert wine afterwards. When done, we headed back up to the apartment and chilled by listening to music and screen-watching.
I had another day of non-leisure the next day, so I had to be rested. The end of another grand day.
For the first time in a long time we wouldn’t be flying RyanAir. Don’t get me wrong, I will always be grateful to them for flying during the pandemic, as we managed to get to Volterra in both 2020 and 2021, but a change is as good as a rest, as they say. The problem with the Aer Lingus flight was that it was at 06:00. We took the never-before-taken step of booking ourselves into the Maldron the previous day, so we could get to bed and rise early. We also had the bonus of Aer Lingus allowing you to drop your bags off the airport, should your flight be at sparrowfart the next day.
So, that’s just what we did! We got a lift from my brother on Saturday afternoon and checked our bags in. We had more difficulty walking back to the front entrance of the hotel than we did checking in the bags. It all went so smoothly. We dined in at the Maldron itself, and to be honest I was expecting a duff meal at a one-night-stay traveller’s hotel, but the food was actually pretty good! Well done, The Maldron! I was caught between wanting a pint after and just wanting to rest so I wouldn’t be destroyed the day after. The latter won out, and we went back to the room and stayed there ’til 03:30.
We got up and dragged ourselves the 7 minute walk to the airport. Truth be told we were excited, and there was no dudgery involved. We were quite hungry, however, and didn’t grab anything from the hotel (not sure if that was even possible at that point). We’d looked up the Dublin airport site, and sure it looks like there was a bunch of stuff opening at 04:00-04:30, so we’d be ok.
Because we’d checked in the big bags, we went bull-headed for security, and were stopped in our tracks by a 30+ minute wait. Not so bad, really, when you consider that a few weeks ago the queues were hours long thanks to an inept firing/rehiring policy. Anyway, we got through, and marched towards the shopping and dining area. We were stopped in our tracks again by the fact that absolutely nothing was open, but there were big queues outside everywhere. We joined the one at Starbucks, but left it after about 15 minutes, as people were busy behind the bar, and maybe it was going to open soon, but then Butler’s did open… and was instantly mobbed as we ran to it. Oh well.
We went to the gate hungry instead. Café Bar near the gate wasn’t open at all, even though it should have been. We were hangry. First world problems. On the plus side, Aer Lingus were super-efficient at getting us onto the plane, we were seated in a jiff. How nice it is not to be treated like a farmyard animal. I’ll always be grateful to RyanAir for flying during the pandemic, but I much prefer the treatment you get Aer Lingus. We had comfy seats, jacket holders, SEAT POCKETS!!
I think the flight was only about two-thirds full. We had to wait a bit before takeoff, as there was some air traffic control snafu. No biggie. We were up, up and away 20 minutes later, and as it happens more or less made up the different on the flight over.
If I had one gripe, it was that they didn’t begin their service until about an hour into the flight. We managed to get sandwiches, crisps and drinks and were happy at last. However, I believe got the last toasted sandwich, and I was suddenly reminded that Aer Lingus often run out of hot food by the time they get to you if you are sitting in the middle of the craft. I have to say, I was still surprised, given that the flight wasn’t packed. Anyway, enough of that – I got my grub and it satisfied perfectly.
We landed with no issues and with no temperatures or other checks of Covid documentation we were through passport control quite quickly, and into a 15 minute wait for our bags. All went smoothly, and off we went to Avis (for a change) to pick up our car. We love Sixt, but it was just too expensive for a full month, especially given that we’d be travelling little in the latter two weeks of our stay. It took a while to process our rental at the desk – the colleague of the person who was dealing with us had two rentals processed while we were still waiting for our keys. We weren’t in a rush, in fairness. We picked up the keys to a Citroen C3. I have to say, aside from the fact that it’s a manual, it’s one of my favourite vehicles so far. It has a little bit of power, and the hookup of to Apple CarPlay was near-instantaneous. Why doesn’t our Hyundai Kona at home play ball?!
We motored towards Volterra, and got there without any scrapes – it was just raining a little. Niamh dropped me off in Piazza dei Martiri delle Liberta with my backpack and the two large suitcases, while she had to go looking for a free parking spot in La Docciola. We had yet to renew our resident’s parking permesso, and so had to look for something else. This is something we’d have to take care of tomorrow.
Being a man, we are not given to multiple trips involving bags. This rule most often applies to dragging shopping bags from the car. The effort to wear my backpack whilst shifting two 18+ kg bags up a flight of 76 taller-than-average steps was nothing short of Herculean. I was quite wrecked by the end of it. Niamh arrived at the apartment 5-10 minutes after me – ok, she had 276 steps to manage, but only one light backpack. I took a couple of shots outside the guest bedroom to sicken a friend back home.
We rested a while, before heading out to Terra di Mezzo for lunch. It’s a general tradition that we dine here first whenever we arrive in Volterra, opening hours permitting. We said our hellos and were greeting with the same enthusiasm as always. After an antipasto sharing platter, Niamh had pasta with zucchini, I had pici alla boscaiola…. mushrooms and sausage. Tasty indeed.
We skipped dessert, as I had a very important date to keep. I hadn’t seen this in nearly 9 months!
We went back to the apartment, and burned off some of the calories by cleaning the apartment. I was on sweeping duty. We had the bathroom remodelled, and some repainting done, so the place was a little dusty. I’m glad we got it done, rather than sleeping in that overnight.
As it was our first day in Volterra, and we (believe it or not) considered our lunch rather light, we headed out to La Mangiatoia for pizza and beers. It was the first time I ordered speck and marscapone, and boy did it deliver. This place, along with Ombra Della Sera Pizzeria do the best pizzas I’ve had in town (so far).
We took a stroll around the town during the latter half of golden hour to burn off some more of those dreaded calories! The town and its surroundings are simply beautiful and video and photos rarely capure the true essence of the light there, nor the vastness of the landscape opened out in front of you.
I took some video of our journey and also included a little footage of golden hour.
We were very tired by then due to our early start, and so went to bed early enough, having thoroughly enjoyed the day (apart from those stairs!).
It was St. Stephen’s/Boxing Day, and I was tasked with driving to Florence. We had a mission: the ladies wanted to buy some gloves. I went with our usual idea of going the country route there, and parking in the Coop Carpark, and then going back via mostly the autostrada. I was thinking to myself “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to be able to show Lily and Mark (Niamh’s sister and her husband) some of the wonderful countryside, in particular between Volterra and Montaione!” Three unfortunate things occurred, which somewhat spoiled the journey:
The weather. It was foggy in Volterra, then we got further down to a corner of the Val d’Era where it was relatively clear, but the climb began again into more fog. Well…. dang! Then came the rain, which further reduced visibility. It’s a shame, as some of the countryside is beautiful – so reserve it for a sunnier day if you ever wish to explore.
I was perhaps driving a little too quickly. Niamh and I are usually so used to both the road and having no people in the back seats, but about 20-25 minutes into the drive, I was informed that the ladies in the back were feeling queasy, so I had to slow down (sorry, ladies!).
I joined a much busier road a little after we passed Montaione. I took a left onto the route, and saw a huge puddle in the road – a lane wide, which chunks of asphalt aroud the rim of it. I had no doubt that if I had driven into the puddle, I’d have probably hit a hidden pothole – a bad one. I swerved to avoid it, but didn’t properly notice a mini-cooper coming up behind me in the other lane. He was still a little away from me, but made a show of his anger by blasting me out of it with his horn. Almost a kilometer down the road at a roundabout, he blasted me again as we parted ways. I can never get over the fact that Italians are so chill, but put a good number of them behind a steering wheel they can turn into demons!
We got to the Coop carpark in the end, and from there hopped onto a tram into the centre. We were hungry, and somehow all had a simulataneous hankering for pizza, not having had any while Lily and Mark were with us. I tend to lean away from restaurants where the staff are selling seats outside the door, much preferring to let the food do the talking. However, we were ravenous, and the establishment into which we were being ushered had some pretty good reviews (Lorenzo di Medici), so in we went and had our pizzas. They were delicious! In fairness, the service was good and the staff friendly too.
It was damp when we got out, and getting damper. Fortunately, we dressed for the occasion! We wended our way towards the Duomo, passing a few landmarks on the way, both old and new.
On the outside of the Basilica, at its north-eastern an alternative presepe (nativity scene) had been set up, but instead of a stable, it was a medical facility where doctors and nurses working to exhaustion in surgical PPE. This was a wonderful mark of respect to them during these past couple of years when the pandemic had put us, and them in particular, to the sword.
We reached the Piazza del Duomo, and wandered about the front of the cathedral. We had never seen the presepe there, nor the Christmas Tree, so it we covered off visiting Florence in yet another season. You’ll see that the town was pretty busy!
We then wandered to the Piazza delle Signoria. The city still looked great in the rain, and there were no complaints about the weather. I’ve seen videos of Florence’s Christmas lights in the evening, and they look amazing, so some of the following photos don’t really do them justice.
On the way to the Ponte Vecchio, Lily pointed out a shop where they were selling what looked like artisanal gelato. I checked the window briefly, and saw that they were serving the creamy goodness from little sunken tins (I forget what they’re called). I hopped straight in, without checking the awning on the store. I’d made my order when I noticed that it was a well-known brand of coffee (and despite trawling the map, I’m having difficulty locating the brand), who just so happened to be selling gelato in their store ‘on the side’. Too proud to cancel my order, took a goodly sized cup of it away. It was ok – not really artisanal, but ok – but it was still ok gelato, right? Yay!
We wandered over the bridge, all the way over to Palazzo Pitti, and guess what? Well if you’ve been following these blogs for a while, you’ll be pleased(?) to know that we kept up our habit of not actually going in! One of these days, I swear!
We were happy walking around and exploring though. Staying on the Altr’Arno, we headed over to the Piazza Santa Spirito. We were overdue a coffee (me, a hot chocolate), and found a place with indoor seating (Café Cabiria), and were promptly greeted by a lady with a Dublin accent! The world is too small. She sounded pretty fluent when she was talking to Italian customers, and had been over here a while. We had a 20 minute pause for refreshment, to chat with the Irish lady and to use the facilities.
Once finished, we had one more errand before the trip back home: the ladies needed to buy some gloves at Martelli on Via Por Santa Maria. It was only a trip of a few hours, but we really wanted to limit the time we would be driving in the dark. Anyway, we re-crossed at the Ponte Santa Trinita and made our way there. The ladies went in. Mark and I waited outside. And waited. And we waited a little more, a little more impatiently. It began to rain again, so Mark waited across the road, by the awning of a fancy men’s shop while I stood outside Martelli.
Then I was accosted by one of those African doo-dad sellers. Listen, I agree that every person needs to make a living, but the hucksterism some of these guys pull-off really try my patience. It began well, and we fist-bumped and chatted for a minute. Then out of nowhere he held out his hand to shake. This is where you back off, or move on etc. What happens here is that they attempt to pull and bracelet over onto your wrist and get aggressive when you refuse to buy it. I refused the handshake and immediately moved away, despite some weak protestations from him. He wandered off, while I joined Mark on the other side of the road to wait some more.
The ladies certainly spent way more time in that shop than we did in th café… not much fun, I have to say, when it’s grey and drizzling. But we bucked-up (glove-buying was our #1 mission after all), and waited stoically. They came out eventually, mission accomplished and very happy – and even a little apologetic. Satisfied, we walked back towards the tram.
We had a couple of unscheduled stops on the way. First, we paused briefly at Piazza di Santa Trinita to admire the conical Christmas tree there.
The one thing I regret this trip (no, not not Palazzo Pitti!) is not going to check out the lights at Piazza delle Republica. I saw videos of them afterwards and they are spectacular! Anyway, we instead continued farther north, and stopped in the vestibule of the Strozzi Palace to check out Jeff Koons’ balloon bunny. We didn’t go into the exhibition proper, as it was beginning to get dark.
Time for one final touristy photo-op before we boarded the tram. Yet another visit to Florence with too much time spent outdoors. We really have to pop inside some of these landmarks!
Mark had to drive home in the dark and rain… not the most pleasant of drives, but we got through it! We didn’t head out that night, but instead we had antipasti bought at La Bottega and the market a couple of days previously. Then Lily made a wonderful risotto with the blue cheese and kale, topped by a parmesan crisp (we picked up everything for this at the market). It was absolutely delish. Below is a photo of an adulterated one: Niamh doesn’t like blue cheese.
Unfortunately, the next morning it was time for us to once again leave Volterra. At the time of writing this blog we haven’t been back yet since, but are looking forward to going some time in May. Our guests were staying another couple of nights on their own, so we were more than a little jealous – but we had to head home to get our booster shots, which was more important in the grand scheme of things.
It was actually quite a nice day in Pisa itself, and Mark and Lily joined Niamh and I for one last cup of something hot and a slice of cheap pizza before we headed into the airport for the flight home. It was at a circular kiosk outside. The coffee and pizza were ok, but the hot chocolate I almost spat out. I had taken one watery mouthful that was barely tepid and left it at that. In hindsight, I should have taken it back to complain, but at the time I didn’t want to end the holiday on a downer.
So, this wraps-up this series of blogs until some time in May. I will have another one or two in the offing, in particular about Volterra being Tuscany’s inaugural capital of culture, so keep an eye out for that!
I hope you enjoyed reading this and admiring Florence’s beauty, even in the rain. Please leave a like and a comment to let me know, and please ask any questions. I’d love to hear from you.
Happy Christmas everyone! Sorry – it’s just the timing and nature of these blogs. I have a busy working life, and between that, social balance, blogging, vlogging and writing fiction I just don’t have enough time to post more frequently. As it is, this blog may be going on hiatus for about a month after a couple more weeks… we’ll see.
Anyway, we got up and exchanged gifts – that was fun! I got my main Christmas present early: a gimbal to help me shoot video more steadily with my phone. I got a fab bottle of Jo Malone from Niamh’s sister and brother-in-law. I will wear any scent if it smells good on me, whether traditionally male or female. I love what I was given, and will buy another bottle of it for meself in Dublin airport next time I fly to Italy!
Here’s what Christmas looked like from our terrace this year:
We had another breakfast of cereal and panettone, and settled in for a couple of hours screen-watching or reading. A good few weeks previously, I had booked Christmas lunch with La Vecchia Lira. Their main fare is traditional Tuscan, but they do have some modern twists. Both of us have a few favourite pasta dishes there, and we couldn’t wait to show them off to Niamh’s cheffy sister. Unfortunately, none of them were on the menu. The menu itself seemed a little small, only offering what we thought were a few choices for each course. None of us would be going for the tongue, we joked. I saw that it included wine, and surmised that whatever we will choose would be cooked excellently. And it was all for only €60 per person.
Irish and English people might balk at the idea of not having roast turkey or goose for Christmas, but it really does pay to expand your horizons. Here’s the menu:
We arrived slightly ahead of time, and gave our now ubiquitous cylinder of Bailey’s truffles to the owner, whose name we sadly don’t know (yet!). He was extremely grateful, and thanked us for coming to his restaurant today. It was at least half full, but he was disappointed, because a few tables had cried off, leaving some space empty. Later on in the meal, I saw he actually also turned over a couple of tables with new families/couples, so it wasn’t that bad a day for him, attendance-wise. The owner’s English is pretty good, but he has waiting staff there with excellent English. I still tried my hand at Italian!
We were sat at a decent table in the back where it was warmer, and were given a printed menu each, and then set about deciding what we’d have. We had a glass of prosecco each… very nice!
Anyway, we were wondering where the waiting staff were to come and take our order when the first dish arrived: fried pumpkin fritters. I began to wonder.
We were then given a glass of red each. And when we were done with the fritters, the artichoke came out, and finally the penny dropped: we would be getting everything on the menu! I still marvel at the value of it all, not least the amount of work put into it all by the chefs. I had never eaten in Italy on a celebration day such as Christmas, New Year’s or Easter – so I now assume that all restaurants that pubish a special menu mean for customers to experience everything on it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. If I’m right, I’ll be doing this again!
To round out the antipasti, we had a carpaccio of Chianina beef. Very tender and lovely. The salad was perfectly dressed.
Next up – the first primo: a beautitful onion veloute/soup. It was souper flavourful (sorry!). But it really was!
Ok, it isn’t the sexiest looking morsel, but the heck with that – it went down very well! I could have downed a pint of it (I like soup – always have – what can I say?).
Then we had the pasta course. People who aren’t familiar with Italian cuisine, please take note. That’s one pasta course, out of nine courses. And not a pizza in sight. See? It’s not just a carb-fest in Italy! It was agnolotti (a filled pasta), stuffed with cinta senese, with a sauce of mostly chicory. Now I’m not a fan of chicory – I find it bitter, but don’t mind a little bit of it. If the stuffing and sauce had been swapped, I would have been a bigger fan. Having said that I know the others liked it, so it was a matter of personal preference. What I *will* say is that the pasta was, of course, cooked to perfection.
Then it was on to the first secondo, and the most contentious dish of the night. Certain among us Irish and English – those of us of a certain age – may remember offal being used much more frequently back home than it is today. In particular, I remember my grandmother having tripe with milk, onions and bread, and to this day I have rarely seen anything so gross. This is why I shy away from Trippa alla Volterrana and Lampredotto. For the ladies with us today, it was tongue. They couldn’t do it. In fairness they gave it a quick go, but pushed their plates towards me and Niamh’s brother-in-law. We both yummied down both portions!
I can sort of see why it might not be to some peoples’ tastes… again it’s a texture thing. It was very soft, but at least it wasn’t gristley or chewy. To me it was gently, broke down very quickly in the mouth and had a fabulous beefy flavour. The sauce complemented it really well.
Another thing slightly contentious in certain circles is veal. I almost never order it when I see it on menus, as there is rumoured cruelty involved in raising veal-cattle. However, I think modern methods are supposed to be more humane than they used to be. The Irish and British are also voracious consumers of lamb, so the ‘baby’ aspect has to be somewhat muted. Anyway, we all got a plate of it, and we all ate it!
I think we’d well moved onto our second bottle of wine by now, and to be honest, I think we were beginning to get a little bit merry. The veal was tender and delicious, and served with fanned, roast pear and pomegranate seeds. These added alternated hits of sweet and sour to the meat.
Finally, there was my favourite dish of the night. Roast fillet pork with a light gravy and delicately curried creamed potatoes.
Niamh’s sister isn’t a huge fan of pork, so there was more for her husband, the lucky b….. blighter! I loved the meat, and the creamed potatoes were sublime – I could have eaten a kilo of the stuff, despite it being the eighth savoury course. It was so delicious.
The final course was lovely and light – a nougat mousse and a local vermouth. I then asked for an amaro, and was was given a shot glass of it. I asked what it was and when the waitress (whose English is excellent) told me it was Jaeger and asked if I’d heard of it, I couldn’t suppress my laugh. The poor girl asked if I would rather something else, and I said no – that it was perfect. Jaeger is a fine digestif, but has become much maligned because of how it’s been abused in British and Irish drinks cultures. You basically drink it to get pissed. In this situation, however, it’s absolutely fine.
The mixture of prosecco, wine and digestivi were bolstering my bravery somewhat. As you may recall, Niamh’s sister had just completed a 3-month intensive course in the prestigious Ballymaloe cookery school, with distinguished results. I knew she would have loved a tour of a busy Italian kitchen, so I got up out of my chair and asked the owner if he wouln’t mind. He was only too delighted, but given the space in the kitchen and the need for a translator (the waitress), I wouldn’t be able to accompany. That was ok – she couldn’t believe her luck and spent about 20 minutes in there, having a good look and a good chat.
Incidentally, she has her own business as a private chef, so if you’re planning a stay in Suffolk and want to impress your friends, family, or colleagues please do check out Noble Prawn‘s feasts!
We finally left and left a pretty big tip, which, much to my embarrassment, the owner trumpeted all over the restaurant. You have to be careful with tipping in Italy. I do it frequently, but I have made a mistake on at least one occasion where I left a tip with someone who was in fact offering a gift to me – that still haunts me, although she was ok about it – if a little mock-grumpy at first.
On the way out, the owner offered Niamh’s sister a chance to volunteer in the kitchen for a week or two, and she grabbed at that with both hands. I tried my best to let the guy know that this wasn’t an offer made ‘to be nice’; she really wanted a shot at this, so I told him so. He still seemed amenable, so she has that to look forward to now too.
We went for a walk through the town in an attempt to burn off the excess alcohol. It was mostly misty and very quiet. There were one or two breaks in the cloud, but then the sun dropped very quickly. I remember that when I’d posted these shots in Instagram and Facebook, that a couple of the residents were upset at how quiet it was. I reminded them their town is still lovely, no matter what, and that it was in the early evening; not quite passeggiata time. And it is lovely, and always will be.
We then went back to the apartment, where we bloated and still had room for wine and the occasional chocolate or olive. I was last up, as I’d found Ed Wood (the biopic of the worst ever film director) and watched it through. I hadn’t seen it in years – a good little movie!
I hoped you enjoyed this oddly-timed Christmas-themed blog. Please share it with your friends if you did. If you have any other recommendations for spending Christmas Day in Tuscany, please let me know!
‘Twas the day before Christmas! We decided to stir, but only stay in Volterra for the day. We had our breakfasts (including some yummy chocolate and orange panettone). It was market day too. It’s usually held on a Saturday, but that would have been Christmas day, so they brought it forward.
Out we went out to a very misty Volterra. I know many locals were lamenting the weather, but to me it made the whole town look enchanting, even mysterious. The first thing we saw was that the market was somewhat lighter that it usually is.
The food market is in Piazza San Giovanni, where the cathedral and baptistry lie. We turned into the square…. and there were only a few stalls available, much to our disappointment. However, it turned out that these stalls had everything we needed.
You might remember in the last blog, that samples are the way to go when operating a stall, and the lady working the fruit and veg one below very much subscribed to that school of thinking.
She had several different types of olives and nuts, and almost everything we sampled, we bought. We had good fun there too. We ended up buying some olives, including some chili-enfused ones which were delicious. We also grabbed a couple of hundred grams of some amazing roasted almonds, and some grapes. I was just a little annoyed with myself that I didn’t film at the time.
We went over to the salumi and cheese stall, and sampled some more! We ended up buying a boar salami (if I recall correctly) and several cheeses (pecorino, parmiggiano, a creamy gorgonzola). We then left the market and extended the walk.
The cathedral beckoned, and we went in. Earlier in the year, they were charging €7 for entry. This is a recent thing, and annoyed me somewhat. Today, the stall was inside the door, but it was unmanned, so we skipped inside. They’re not keen on filming there, and because I’d been there a coupleof timesbefore, I just took the one photo.
We continued our stroll.
On the way back to the apartment, we stopped in L’Incontro for a coffee and cake. I had a hot chocolate, not being a coffee-drinker. I also threw a cornetto con crema into me. Ahhh… I wish we had more bakeries where we lived, although in fairness Armelle (a French lady who moved to Kilcullen) makes some amazing treats, so I can’t be too upset!
After having had a lunch of what was bought at the market, plus a few other salumi from the local mini-market, we thought that to spend the day vegetating wouldn’t be a good use of our time, so we took another stroll. Niamh’s brother-in-law was wondering if the Irish bar (Quo Vadis) was open. I was wondering too, as when I took my morning walk a few days previously, I’d noticed that there was a bunch of recycleable boxes left there for collection.
Unfortunately, it was closed, but the Roman Theatre by the pub entrance gave me an idea.
Would our guests fancy a look-see at the new archaeological site of the newly found amphiteatre? Turns out the answer was ‘yes’! We headed through the Porta Fiorentina, and wandered down towards the cemetary. You can’t enter the dig site itself without a a guide, but we were able to have a good look anyway.
They have secured a ton more funding for the dig, so hopefully we’ll soon see a colosseum-like ruin someday in the next few years.
When we’d finished checking it out, we went inside the cemetary grounds. I rarely get a chance to do this, as almost all of my walks are early in the morning, and the cemetary is never open. Anyway, we went inside and had a look. The cemetry here is typically Italian. Some are buried in the ground with ‘traditional’ tombstones, but many are in drawers in the walls of the grounds. This is really typical throughout Italy.
I noticed a couple of things about these “drawers”. Firstly, they were very well taken-care of. Many had lights and fresh flowers. The other thing I noticed was that of those that had photos, almost none of them featured people smiling. I found these two, and one of them moved me somewhat.
That young girl. She was only 14 or 15. It looks like she died during the war. I wondered what her story was. Was it by disease, misadventure or was she a casualty of the war itself. It’s such a wonderful photo, that it was upsetting to think she died so young. If someone from Volterra is reading this by any chance, I’d love if you left me a comment or mailed me to let me know.
We left and headed back up towards the apartment. I took a few shots of the town’s distant skyline on the way back. She is lovely from any angle!
We rested back at the apartment, dollied oursselves up and then headed out to Terra di Mezzo for our Christmas Eve dinner. I had booked it a couple of months previously. We took one of our cartons of Bailey’s truffles with us to give to Robbi and Aurora. We got there and found the restaurant quite empty. We were nonetheless welcomed warmly, and asked where we’d like to sit. It was cold out, and the only table large enough for us is pretty near the door, so I suggested we head down to the cellar. In hindsight (in fact, not just in hindsight) this was a mistake. The cellar here dates from Roman times, and was probably used to keep foods fresh etc. It was cold and a little damp down there. They hadn’t been open all week, so the sting of cold hadn’t been taken out of the air by the time we arrived, and there were heaters and dehumidifiers working overtime there.
Still, aside fromt that, it’s a really nice environment – it’s not often you get to eat in a near 2,000 year-old cellar! We’d eaten in the cellar a couple of times before, and so were not expecting the cold. Anyway, we got settled-in, a couple of us throwing on a scarf or light jacket as an extra layer and presented our gift. Robbi came back down to thank us, but said “Next year two, eh?” which made us crack up. Fortunately, the tube of sweets have separate bags of truffles within, so sharing wouldn’t be a problem.
I had to go back up to Robbi before our food landed, to see if we could do anything about improving the heat situation. He adjusted and moved a couple of heaters, and it did get a little bit better. I did notice, however, that there was only one other table occupied upstairs. I had been expecting the restaurant to be a bit more full, but remembered then that Italians often celebrate Christmas at home on Christmas Eve. I wasn’t going to let the lack of bodies reduce our enjoyment.
We ordered, and got an antipasti sharing platter. I followed that up with some Zuppa alla Volterrana (che sorpresa!) and a pici cacio e pepe with truffle. I think the winners of the night were Niamh and her brother-in-law who order a beefsteak, each about the size of an adult face! I’d had it before in August, and it was very tasty.
I didn’t take photos, as I knew tomorrow was going to be a day for food photographs, and I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself. Although I did grab another bad selfie!
When finished, we said our goodbyes (and tipped well for Christmas). I saw that the restaurant was still so empty, and not only did I feel a little bad for Robbi – and I hoped he hadn’t opened just for us – but I was beginning to wonder about our Christmas lunch the next day. Would it be similarly quiet?
Thanks a lot for reading – I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment to let me know!