Thursday, October 27, 2011

A date with Volterra

Today was a long day, most of which was spent in the cool, remote Tuscan hill town Volterra. We left the hotel by 8:00 so that we could grab some pastries and cappuccino, and catch the 8:40 bus that started the trip.

I should mention that getting to Volterra from any major city in Tuscany is a bit tricky. There are no train stations within 15 km of Volterra, and there are no direct busses from any of the major Tuscan cities. Getting there from Siena looks a bit complicated on paper, but looking back on how it actually went, it was kind of a breeze. The crucial factor was timing, as there are a limited number of busses in each direction. We caught an 8:40 bus out of Siena to the quaint, medieval hill town Colle Val d'Elsa, which took about 35 mins. At Colle Val d'Elsa, we had to get off the bus, go to the newsstand across the street, and buy tickets for a 9:45 bus that goes from Colle Val d'Elsa to Volterra. Not terribly complicated, but that 9:45 bus was the last bus to Volterra for the morning, so again - timing was key!

The second bus ride of the trip was a bit longer, and involved some insanely winding roads with hairpin curves galore, all of which went through those stereotypically beautiful, rolling, hilly, vineyard covered Tuscan landscapes. But the winding roads made Terezia kind of car-sick, and it was all she could do to keep from losing her breakfast. By the time we got off the bus, Terezia stumbled and staggered for a few blocks, looking as if someone had put her into a can, shook it violently, then let her out and told her to go and walk.





At any rate, Volterra sits extremely high atop a hill, and when you're gazing at the sweeping vistas, you feel as if you must be on the highest peak in Tuscany. One thing Volterra definitely has going for it is that it's comparatively tourist-free (possibly because it's so difficult to get to?). Unlike San Gimignano, which has become Tuscany's version of Disney Land's Main St. USA (being the tourist dumping ground that it is), Volterra feels like a real town, with locals who are going about their business, and without the stampede of tourists and seemingly endless cavalcade of shops selling pricey tourist crap.

Over 2000 years ago, Volterra was one of the most important Etruscan cities in the region, and is therefore home to a slew of Etruscan artifacts, as well as sections of an Etruscan wall (which lie outside the medieval wall, demonstrating just how large the city once was). The Volterra you see today is extremely picturesque, and like many Tuscan hill towns, filled with gorgeous, medieval stone buildings, narrow, winding, steep cobble-stone streets, and majestic views of the surrounding countryside. It's also got the cool medieval Palazzo Priori (city hall) and adjacent piazza, a nice Pisan-Romanesque styled Duomo, and a relatively intact Roman-era amphitheater. And like I said above, the lack of tourist hordes made it a refreshingly peaceful place to visit.

One thing I'd wanted to do was to walk northwest, outside the wall, and see what's referred to as le Balze cliffs, a park which contains stretches of 2000+ year old Etruscan wall, parts of which are being swallowed by a colossal landslide. There is also an old 11th century monastery out there, which has apparently been abandoned because it'll probably be swallowed up by the massive erosion at some point. I was a bit disappointed, though, because the area was so well-fenced and blocked off, that it was difficult to get more than narrow, obscured glances of the crazy landforms sticking out amongst the dramatically eroding hillside, and it appeared that you couldn't get anywhere even remotely close to the monastery. Still, the road leading down to the park was a nice walk.




Volterra is definitely worth a day-trip, and is much more recommendable than nearby San Gimignano for its more reality-based vibe and non-touristy, off-the-beaten-path atmosphere. I'm not sure I'd want to stay there for more than a day (it is a small town), but I'm glad we went.





(Because I'm an idiot, I accidentally left the ISO on my camera bumped up to 800, so all the photos I took in Volterra have this kind of soft, slightly grainy quality, like pictures in a Frances Mayes book. Fortunately, it was kind of foggy and hazy most of the day, which allowed me to get away with that effect. But still, I was kicking myself at the end of the day when I realized what I'd done!)


We probably spent an hour or two there more than was necessary, because the only busses leaving Volterra for Colle Val d'Elsa were at 1:15 (too early, obviously) and 5:20. The bus ride from Colle Val d'Elsa back to Siena has to have been the most insane bus ride of my entire life. The bus was late, and as if to make up for lost time, the driver was seriously hauling ass. I never knew a bus could fly like that. The driver sped maniacally through the two lane freeway, honking at cars in the right lane to move over towards the shoulder so he could pass (because the freeway lanes are really narrow and curvy), then flying through incredibly narrow city streets, coming within inches of stone walls, parked cars, pedestrians, etc... without ever coming into contact with them. I was really impressed. (Also, amusingly, the driver of the bus from Volterra to Colle Val d'Elsa was smoking a cigar throughout the entire ride).

After the warp-speed bus ride, we headed straight to Gallo Nero (I had pappardelle ai funghi porcini again, Terezia had pumpkin ricotta gnocchi, and we shared crostini with chicken liver and goose), followed by Gelateria Kopa Kabana, and then, exhausted, we then called it a night.

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