From a high, dark, rocky hill, Volterra dominates the green valleys of the rivers Era and Cecina that flow through a land full of art and natural beauty. The Etruscans founded the city more than 2800 years ago among the “Metal Hills”, rich in iron, copper and pyrite, exactly on those desolate rocky heights that became known as the “Devil’s Valley” for all the puffing smoke and unnerving smell of sulfur. Today, no matter what ominous names it may have enjoyed in the past, Volterra is an ideal getaway for anyone seeking peace and tranquility.
1. Planning your travel in Volterra
“City of wind and stone”: that’s how the great poet Gabriele D’Annunzio described Volterra, it’s climate and environs. In fact, due to its height and distance from mountains, the city is very exposed to the winds. The intermediate seasons are rainy, more than in the nearby areas; but in autumn, it’s slightly warmer than in spring; winter is mild with the temperatures rarely dropping below zero, and summer is dry and breezy. If you decide to visit during summer, remember that August, besides being one of the hottest months, is also the busiest.
2. Arriving in Volterra
You’ll find Volterra in the heart of Tuscany, about 29 km from San Gimignano and stone’s throw from the regions’ celebrated artistic treasures. You’ll get there fastest by car, keeping in mind that the last several kilometers are inevitably along a tortuously windy road. Public parking structures are outside the city: permission to park inside the city walls is given only to residents and clients of certain hotels.
ARRIVING BY TRAIN
If you choose to come by train, the closest station is Saline di Volterra, at around 10 km from the center of town, but it’s connected only with the station of Cecina, with infrequent runs and almost exclusively during the school year. (www.trenitalia.com)
It’s better to go to Cecina or Pontedera and then proceed by bus.
ARRIVING BY BUS
If you’re getting around by bus, there’s a public transportation service that connects Volterra with the surrounding towns. From Florence or Siena, you’ll need to take the Sita or Sena buslines, get off at Colle Val D’Elsa or at Poggibonsi and then use the local buses (CPT).
ARRIVING BY AIR
The nearest airports are those of Pisa and Florence. From there, you can rent a car or pick up a bus.
3. Sleeping in Volterra
A visit to Volterra requires a full day at least, and if you decide to stay for a few days, you have numerous possibilities and prices to choose from. One of the more original solutions, if you’re thinking low budget, are willing to give up much of the creature comforts and to experiment an unusual stay at the same time, is the Bishop’s Seminary of Sant’Andrea. The advantage is being able to stay in a decidedly decadent, fascinating ancient building, not to mention absolutely cheap, and close to the center of town.
4. Dining in Volterra
In places like Volterra, any excuse is good to stop anywhere to taste, drink and eat with enormous satisfaction for eyes and palate, naturally avoiding the more obvious tourist traps! Not only restaurants and “osterie”, but the small botteghe and “pizzicherie” also offer the possibility of an excellent snack based on typical, local delicacies. How can one resist trying truffles, pecorino and ricotta cheeses, rolled pancetta, Tuscan salame, not to mention finishing off with chestnuts and aromatic honeys, accompanied by superb wines?
5. Exploring Volterra
From the curvy main road up to the historic center, Volterra requires a bit of sacrifice, efforts that will be well-paid by breathtaking views. It’s not by chance that the city has been often chosen both as a literary location as well as a cinematographic one thanks to its dark beauty.
Volterra’s heart, the main piazza closed in by austere palaces, offers a surprise for those who know what to look for. Raising your eyes to the façade of the massive tower on the side of the Palazzo dei Priori, you’ll see what everyone calls the “porcellino” (the piglet), a rather unusual sculpture that gives its name to the tower and which is actually a wild boar. The medieval Duomo and Baptistry in Piazza San Giovanni are also worth a visit, as are the alabaster Ecomuseum, the Diocesan Musem of Sacred Art, the Pinacoteca or Picture Gallery and above all, the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum that tells the history of Etruscan civilization in Italy through its famous collection of artifacts. The Guarnacci Museum and the pinacoteca can be visited together with a single ticket.
Just a few steps away from the Museum, there’s a belvedere that looks onto the Roman Theater; from this vantage point you can make out a portion of the seats for the audience and the stage. The solemn Gate of the Arch is what remains of the imposing Etruscan city walls. To appreciate Volterra, just lose yourself in its hilly, tiny streets and among the lopped-off towers that tell the story of a defeat as well as those still proudly standing tall among the palaces and walls of a city ruled by stone. And it’s stone—alabaster-- that the local artisans use: a grey-yellow mineral that often contains fossil shells. The name itself suggests its faraway origins: Alàbastron, in Egypt, where vases and perfume containers were produced. The Etruscans considered alabaster the stone of the gods.
In the city nowadays, alabaster objects (both real and…less than real) can be found more or less everywhere, but the “true” artisans are now very few: to find them, though, all you have to do is consult the website www.arteinbottegavolterra.it.
If the Guarnacci Museum has whet your appetite, you can acquire original creations as well as reproductions of Etruscan objects in a historic shop on via del Mandorlo, which also maintains a small museum. If you have more than a day at your disposal and you’d like to take a look at the surrounding areas outside the city walls, a relaxing stroll along Viale dei Ponti will bring you to the Medici Fortress, an example of military architecture that is now a prison. From here you’ll have great views of the Metal Hills, which, with their intense red hues at sunset, will give you some fascinating photo ops.
If you love adventure, less than one kilometer from the city, you can make your way through the strange “balze”: enormous chasms created by erosion of the surrounding land; they are living witnesses to the “wind and stone” that still coexist and obstinately fight one another.