Another ‘non-walking’ day today, with a visit to the hilltop town of Volterra scheduled. First settled in Neolithic times, the town has flourished in Etruscan and Roman times before becoming an important bishopric and falling under the control of the Medici family in the C16th.
Nowadays the C12th city walls encompass the predominantly mediaeval old town. Issued with a tourist map, we were left to discover this little gem for ourselves, rootling around the narrow streets and alleys (edged by an assortment of boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, museums and galleries) that occasionally blossomed into handsome piazzas.
There is much to do for a relatively small place, including the Etruscan Museum, the cathedral, Art Galleries, alabaster workshops, a Roman amphitheatre – and the Museum of Torture. Judging by the number of these we encountered – there seems to have been at least one (if not more) in every town or city we have visited – torture must have been a thriving business (indeed art form) in mediaeval times. And, for those not aware, Volterra’s bloody history continues thanks to its association with the ‘Twilight’ series of vampire tales.
However, despite the lure of such attractions, our wont was to wander the streets and see what we could find. So far our city visits had revealed little of Roman origin, so we headed first towards the amphitheatre located just beyond the city walls on the northern edge of town – this orientation to provide as much shade as possible for spectators, given that performances were open-air. Clever, eh?
The history of Volterra is inextricably linked with that of alabaster, and Tuscany is still the centre of the European alabaster trade. This fine-grained mineral is quarried in the Volterra area, and – being soft and easily worked (for example compared to marble) – it is ideal for statuary and other works of art. Walking back into town we passed one of the workshops and popped in for a look. Sadly, we were unable to take any photographs of the many beautiful pieces, but we did buy a small souvenir as a reminder.
After a coffee in the main Piazza dei Priori, we strolled the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys to the south of the piazza before finding ourselves at the cathedral. We took a look inside, relishing the cool. Whatever your thoughts on the validity of such an edifice, its hard not to be impressed by the grandeur of the art and architecture on display, the sheer effort that has gone into realising this place of worship, and the sense of calm and awe it engenders even today.
Having been spiritually refreshed, it was now time for some bodily sustenance too. So we took lunch at a small café huddled in a nook of the cathedral walls – simple pasta with a ragu of Wild Boar and baked cheese-filled crepes, plus a glass of chilled Vernaccia. Wonderful!
So, spiritually and culinarily fortified, we set off into the streets once more, making our way up to the park. A shady bench provided the excuse we needed to sit for a while, resting and reading.
Then it was back into town. A little shopping was undertaken, and the ice creams proved irresistible, then we made our way back to the mid-afternoon rendezvous in the Piazza XX Settembre. Despite the kudos and profile of (the undoubtedly magnificent cities of) Siena and San Gimignano, the general feeling was that this trip to Volterra proved the most enjoyable.
However our day was not yet done, as we had another wine tasting to look forward to at the Palagetto winery. After a quick look at the vines and an explanation on how growing conditions affected the grapes (and hence the wine) we went inside to be shown the production plant – a curious mix of old and new technologies. This winery produces some 300,000 bottles of wine per year – a lot, perhaps, but nowhere near enough to be supplying any of the main UK supermarkets or off-licence chains.
Then on to the tasting: we tried several wines, both red and white, and got a good feel again for how aging affects the quality of the wine. We also got a chance to try three different sorts of Pecorino cheese (almost as worthwhile as the wine itself!) again demonstrating how the aging process affects the product.
Finally, we got a chance to try the famous Brunello di Montalcino wine, considered to be one of the finest wines in the world. I can’t vouch for the vintage, and I am obviously no expert in these matters, but whilst it was undoubtedly a fine example of the art and craft of Tuscan winemaking, our preferred tipple on the day was the far more modestly priced 2007 Sottobosco Rosso – so we bought a bottle!
We were slightly too late back for a swim, so it was more-or-less straight down to dinner – once more on the terrace at Voltona – after which a quantity of Chianti was consumed.