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Perched high atop a Tuscan hill, 1770ft above sea level to be precise, sits the charming little town of Volterra, an ancient Etruscan settlement. It owes its existence to the fact that the area is awash with mineral water springs, but more importantly, it's rich in alabaster deposits and this has led to it's present day prosperity.
When bumming around Italy, it's hard not to be confronted with ancient monuments - those Romans certainly had the building game well sussed. However, the architectural interest in Volterra comes from the period when Volterra, or as it was known then Felathri, was one of the most important cities of the Etruscan Federation. Of course, the Romans being the Romans, it wasn't long before they appeared on the scene and 'civilised' seven shades of SSSSSSSSS out of the locals.
They didn't completely destroy the town though, or rebuild it either, and today there are some fine surviving examples of Etruscan architecture.
We stumbled across Volterra quite by accident. We had left the ridiculously congested San Gimignano and had travelled less than a dozen miles when we were struck by the brooding presence of a castellated, fortress-like edifice crowning a fast approaching hill (although I'm sure it was we who were approaching the hill, not the other way round). A somehow dark and menacing building, I was reminded of a a high security prison. Not surprising really, because it is, in fact, just that.
Although Volterra is a hill-top town, thankfully you can drive all the way up to the walls where a tunnel takes you into a multi-storey car-park carved into the rock. It's but a short, easy stroll from here to the town gates.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to much here to interest the visitor - perhaps, after leaving the chaotic crush of San Gimignano, the lack of crowds lulls you into the sense that, because it's relatively quiet and peaceful, that it's not worth visiting. There doesn't seem to be much more than a few shops and bars dotted along a small street leading to the Piazza del Duomo. However, a quick glance around a few corners soon reveals much more.
Probably the oldest sites in Volterra are the remnants of the Etruscan walls which date from the 4th century BC. The wall actually marks the perimeter of the Parco Archeologico Enrico Fiumi - a pleasant garden which forms the highest point in the town. Here you'll find the remains of two Etruscan temples as well as a reservoir built by the Romans.
At one end of the 'Parco', lies the ancient Etruscan gate into the city which, in turn, lies adjacent to the medieval fortress built in the 1470's by Lorenzo the Magnificent (a rather unassuming and modest little man, I imagine). Unfortunately, the only way to visit is when a judge sends you. This is the aforementioned maximum security prison. I suppose if you have to do porridge, you might as well do it in a 15th century castle - and the views must be pretty amazing...if it weren't for those pesky bars (not like me to denigrate bars, I know!).
Speaking of views, the panorama that opens up before you here is quite spectacular. Not a dramatic sweep of rolling hills, but a patchwork of different coloured fields and small farms with the Tyrhennian Sea swimming hazily in the distance. It's straight off a brochure.
The Piazza dei Priori is said to be one of the best medieval town squares in Italy. It's dominated by Palazzo dei Priori, which dates from the early 13th century and is apparently the oldest town hall in Tuscany. In fact most of the sides of the square are lined with ancient Palazzos, each seemingly more impressive than the last. One side is home to the rear of the Cathedral - it seemed a shame that the front elevation wasn't present in this magnificent piazza. Having said that, the adjoining Piazza San Giovanni is a treat on its own. It's a tiny little square which is home to the Cathedral and its green and white marble Baptistery. With the lack of crowds, you could hardly find a more serene and reflective little corner anywhere.
A short walk along the medieval Via dei Sarti leads you to the Roman Theatre which dates from the 1st century BC. It still being excavated and there's not really an awful lot to see - a few columns, some stairways and part of the terrace.
Probably the biggest cultural attraction in Volterra is the Etruscan Museum. I'd like to tell you a little bit about it, but as I didn't visit, I can't! Supposedly, it's very impressive.
We really didn't have time to investigate the town much further. In fact, hard as it is to believe, we didn't even tarry a while at any of the bars or cafes. Thinking about it though, It's not a place that seemed overly well-endowed in that department. Obviously, there are plenty of opportunities to eat and drink, but I can't remember noticing any areas crammed with tables and parasols as is the usual sight. We had to make do with sharing an ice cream cone - that's right, just one cornetto...
Shopping was another matter. Although, as was previously stated, the town hasn't got one of those tourist-tat strips, there are enough shopping opportunities to please most visitors. Well, if you're looking for something made from alabaster that is - I've never seen so much alabaster in my life, nor so many different things constructed from it. I'm not a great fan of this material - it looks too much like translucent chalk for me. However, there were one or two items I was impressed with, most especially a life-size replica of a Les Paul guitar.
The stuff is everywhere - I even came across a shop whose window display consisted of clothing made from it. Talk about overkill.
Another ubiquitous souvenir in the town shops were replicas of Etruscan bronze figures. I liked these. A word of warning though - most of the figures on sale in Volterra can be had elsewhere in the region, at a fraction of the price - nothing like being ripped off to put you off a place!
Volterra was not somewhere we had planned on visiting. Mostly, it has to be said, because we'd never heard of it. But isn't that just the way sometimes when you literally stumble across somewhere. You have no preconceptions and no great expectations. It doesn't always pan out that you enjoy it, but it's never going to be a disappointment, is it?
We spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours here and could easily have spent longer if we hadn't had somewhere else to be.