Saturday, August 21, 2010

Digging Deeper in Volterra

Owners and guests at Castello di Casole often ask me which towns in Tuscany they should visit, and whenever they do, I recommend Volterra. One of my favorite places in all of Italy, Volterra has a good thousand years on the other Medieval towns in the area and there is so much to see that very time I visit I discover something new. The approach to this magnificent monolith, rising starkly from a high hilltop at the summit of a sharply winding road, is stunning. The city centre is easy to navigate, parking is a breeze, and it is mercifully free of the throngs of tourists crowding the streets of neighboring San Gimignano.

After several visits, I had wanted to dig deeper into the soul of Volterra, and I needed to write an article about the town for The Florentine, a newspaper for English speakers in Tuscany. So I was thrilled when my colleague Raffaella introduced me to Lisa Halderman, a fascinating American woman who lives in San Gimignano and leads walking and hiking tours with Wilderness Travel.  I recently had the pleasure of spending a day in Volterra with Lisa who generously shared her knowledge of the history and local lore.

Before we began our tour Lisa gave me a little background on the Etruscans - those ingenious, indulgent, superstitious metalworking masters who chose Volterra as the site for their biggest outpost back in 800BC. No one knows where the Etruscans came from and their language as not yet been cracked by scholars. All we know about these people is what has been found in their tombs, which are located in pockets all over Tuscany, many still undiscovered.

We started our adventure from the parking area at Porta Docciola, which is free and always has plenty of spaces (see below for directions). From the medieval gate there are two sets of stone stairs that ascend to the city centre- we took the steps to the right into Piazza San Michele. (Directly across from the San Michele church, Enoteca Scali has an impressive selection of wines from the region). Then we headed up Via Matteotti, the main shopping street of Volterra and a popular spot for the evening “passeggiata” (stroll), for a cappuccino at L’Incontro. A favorite bar among the locals, elegant L‘Incontro serves homemade gelato in the summertime and in winter handmade chocolates formed into little sarcophagi.

 We bypassed the Duomo and all of the main sights I had already seen several times and stopped at the Tourist Office in the Piazza de Priori to pick up a map of the town. On the way Lisa pointed out the local sandstone called “panchina” used in the buildings and pavement around town. When I looked down at the gritty grey stones under my feet, right there staring up at me was the perfectly preserved fossil of an ancient seashell.

Since I was interested in learning more about the history and art of alabaster sculpting, our first stop was the Alabaster Cooperative in the piazza, which showcases the talent and range of local sculptors and is definitely worth a visit. I learned from Lisa that alabaster is so soft it can be carved with woodworking tools, and since it is water-permeable, it is used purely for decorative purposes.

Lisa then took me to two shops that represent the two extremes of modern-day alabaster sculpting. The first, Opus Arts, in Piazza Minucci across from the alabaster museum, features the work of Giorgio Pecchioni, a next-generation sculptor who is not only keeping the ancient art form alive but pushing it to new extremes with his life-sized electric guitar and a complete drum set. (Later that day Lisa brought me to Giorgio’s studio, where the artist was at work, sporting his signature newsprint cap, his tools, the floor and his body blanketed in inches of white powder).

Through the arch to the left and in sharp contrast to Opus Arts, the Rossi family has been sculpting classical alabaster works at Rossi Alabastri since 1912. Walking into this gallery is like entering a museum, its shelves lined with exquisitely carved urns, vases, bowls and other decorative pieces. We peeked into the studio to the right of the shop and there was a member of the Rossi family sawing into a piece of stone before a captivated crowd.

Lisa wanted me to see the reproductions of Etruscan gold jewelry at Fabula Etrusca on the way to the Roman amphitheatre so we stopped in for a look. During my first visit to Etruscan museum in Volterra several years ago, I remember being awestruck by intricacy and minutia of these exquisite gold artifacts. To think that the Etruscans were capable of crafting such exquisite, finely detailed necklaces, bracelets, earrings and cloak pins over two thousand years ago without the aid of magnifying glasses is truly astonishing.

I was immediately captivated by the reproductions at Fabula Etrsca and was thrilled to be invited into the studio next to the ship to see first-hand how the intricate gold pieces are created using modern-day tools and techniques. I inquired about a particular pendant that caught my eye and learned that it is a reproduction of an Etruscan flask found in a tomb discovered just three years ago on the outskirts of town.

Lisa guided a reluctant me out of the shop and we continued further down the street to the Roman amphitheater and baths that date back to the first century. We were able to view the partially recreated site perfectly from this vista. Lisa told me that the amphitheater functioned as the town dump for centuries until an archeologist discovered ruins underneath and patients from the insane asylum in town were enlisted to dig out the trash.

The panoramic views stretch to the Tyrrhenian Sea and on a clear day you can see all the way to the Cinque Terre. The San Giusto Clemente church off to the left was built in the 1600s in honor of two brothers- Saint Giusto and Saint Clement. Legend has it that during a particularly savage barbarian raid, the brothers persuaded the Volterrans to throw bread over the walls to their enemies, fooling them into believing they had enough food to last for months. The disheartened barbarians retreated and the town was spared.

At the end of the street we headed right and circled back through Piazza San Michele and on to Via Gramsci. As we strolled down this pleasantly wide shopping street leading to the Guarnacci Museum, which houses the largest private collection of Etruscan artifacts in Italy, we stopped to chat with a colorful coat-of-arms artist who looked like he stepped right out of a Renaissance painting. 

We stopped by a delightfully aromatic coffee roastery and visited the shop of weaver who was sitting at her loom forming fine strands of wool, mohair and cashmere into a brightly colored scarf when we arrived. We couldn’t help but admire Anna Maria’s wonderful selection of one-of-a-kind sweaters, scarves, blankets and hats all lovingly handmade.

I didn’t have time to visit the Guarnacci Museum, where I seem to always end up on the top floor admiring the gold collection, so during lunch I asked Lisa for an update. She said that the most exciting new addition is a helmet found alongside that flask found in the tomb I mentioned earlier. She also told me about the “lacromato”, tiny vases in the vase collection which were used to collect tears at funerals. Perhaps the most famous Etruscan artifact is the tall, dark and skinny Ombra della Sera, “the Shadow of the Evening” which you will see reproductions of in shops all over town.

Speaking of lunch, we were both quite hungry after a morning of intense sight-seeing so I asked Lisa to take me to a place that locals love and tourists would be hard-pressed to know about. She certainly delivered with Trattoria da Badò. Located on Borgo San Lazzero, the main road into town across from the COOP, da Badò is know for its simple, extremely fresh, seasonal Tuscan menu. 

Lisa, whose visits are an obvious pleasure for the attractive male wait staff, started us off with a wonderful surprise that was not on the menu- “cipolle frite,” sweet red onions deep-fried in tempura batter. I had not had onions rings in over a year and a half and I went to town on those sweet, crispy morsels, calories be damned. 

Next up for me was the fried baccalà, a surprisingly tender white fish served piping hot under a hearty tomato sauce with a side of chick peas. Lisa opted for the tortelloni with ricotta and spinach in a veined pecorino sauce and we were both sad when the last bite was gone. We didn’t have time or room for the second course but judging from the smiles on the faces of our neighboring diners, the grilled meats are cooked to perfection.

Had I not had to rush back to Florence, I would have taken a walk through the lovely gardens in the Parco Arceologico situated below the massive Fortezza Medicea, an operating prison since the 1400s where many a Mafioso has done time behind bars. But being the working girls we are, Lisa and I had other responsibilities to tend to so we said our goodbyes and agreed to make plans for a future adventure together. 

Before heading back to Florence, I had to make one final stop. There was simply no way I was leaving Volterra without it....

Getting there: Take the Firenze-Siena highway towards to the Colle Val d’Elsa Nord exit and follow signs west to Volterra another 20 kilometers. The best place to park is the lot at Porta Dioccola. As you approach the town, pass under an arch and look for a COOP grocery market on your right. Take the next right and follow the tree-lined street along a stone wall, bearing left at the first intersection. A large dirt parking lot will be on your right.