It was raining a steady but soft sprinkle when we got to the foot of a never-ending brick staircase.
We were in tiny but mighty Volterra, a city carved by erosion among the Balze hills, between Florence, Siena and the sea. A part of a perfect trio of hill cities located close together – Volterra, Colle Val d’Elsa and San Gimignano – but with a totally different look and feel than the latter two.
Volterra was an important Etruscan town nearly 25 centuries ago and is filled with relics from its Etruscan heyday – most of which can be found in the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci. After, it was mostly built up in the 12 and 13 century, and the Medieval architecture and ramparts are still visible today. In the heart of the town is Palazzo dei Priori, the civic building with medieval frescos and a bell tower with even better views of the valleys below. Volterra fought fiercely against Florentine rule during the Renaissance, but was overtaken two separate times (they didn’t give up the first time!) and then remained under Florentine rule until Italy’s unification in 1860.
The location, the surroundings, the atmosphere and even its history all combine to give Volterra a bit of a wild feel.
The view from the town was framed by storm clouds hanging low over the valleys and hills.
Strolling without any clear goal, we stopped in the least touristy restaurant we could find and enjoyed the classic, simple Tuscan fare found anywhere worth its weight in the region. Lunch was pappardelle with some kind of game ragù, fresh tartar with just a spritz of lemon, tiramisù and sorbetto. It was coffee and enjoying the soft French of the diners at the next table, their small English dogs laying calmly under their chairs.
Marco found the town breathtaking. I remember the city as an entire world of soft-beige brick. The streets, the buildings, the fountains and walls all the color of earth. As if the entire city had been molded from the ground like a clay pot, a pinched tower erected here, a church with sparkling sand added there, the surrounding walls smoothed by age like invisible hands. It felt weighty, like it had been preserved in amber.
About two hours southeast of Florence, the town is a bit isolated and a bit difficult to reach, leaving it much more trampled than other Tuscan hill towns. You almost expect to find an Etruscan or two.
Actually, Volterra has been built entirely out of the yellow-grey stone panchino stone. The town was strong under Etruscan rule, with alabaster mines and near complete isolation, but that isolation almost led to its downfall, causing the town to be basically forgotten, walls and houses crumbling over the cliff edge.
Today it’s on the tourist trail, though less than other Tuscan towns, and enjoying a bit of a boom after being featured in the Twilight novels as the home of a 3000-year-old vampire coven. Still, Volterra isn’t flashy. It isn’t glamorous. It’s old and sure of itself and content just to be.
Maybe that’s its draw – helping visitors to also be content just to be.
Imagine the strength in having thousands of years of baggage and still knowing how to be in the moment, knowing the next one will come anyway.