My husband has a saying about gelato—the best gelato is the one you have in your hand. I could say something similar about Italian hill towns. The best town is the one you’re in.
In order to explore more in western Tuscany, we decided to stay in the hill town of Volterra for five days. It’s position high above three different valleys provides nice breezes on a hot day and exciting spring storms. And, in May, the weather can change quite rapidly. For instance, one day a rather hefty rainstorm lasted less than one hour. Then, it sprinkled a bit and soon, the cumulus clouds and sun returned for the rest of the day.
Although Volterra is up high on a hill with wonderful views, the old town levels out. It’s a great town for walking the mainly pedestrian streets, and it has several interesting sights and good museums. The Etruscan Museum has an abundant collection of beautifully carved urns and some nice examples of their jewelry and ceramics. The small patio garden has only a few pieces of art, but it’s a tranquil space to sit and relax a bit. For one ticket price, you get entrance to several spots—the Etruscan Museum, the Alabaster Museum, the Pinacoteca, the Bapistry, the Palazzo dei Priori and the Roman Theatre. Luckily, you have three days to use the ticket.
This year, there is a contemporary exhibit that was inspired by the 16th century painting called, The Deposition from the Cross, by Rosso Fiorentino, which is in the Pinacoteca, the main museum in Volterra. Although some of the modern pieces displayed in the various museums didn’t appeal to us, the exhibit in the Baptistry was very special. Sections of the Fiorentino painting were enlarged and displayed on the walls along with a very moving film/slide show presentation on the ceiling. If you visit Volterra before 2015, you can probably see it.
The masterpiece by Fiorentino is a permanent painting in the Pinacoteca, along with many other wonderful works from the past few centuries. There are quite a few beautiful examples of triptych (paintings on several wood panels).
The Etruscan people had quite a large settlement in Volterra, so the city is lucky to have some wonderful remains, such as one of the few, intact Etruscan arches. As you walk along the edge of town, you can see many remnants of the old Etruscan walls without mortar. Some of the old palazzos even have Etruscan artifacts, such as ancient urns decorating their walls.
The Etruscans settled in Umbria, Tuscany and Latium before they were completely assimilated by the Roman civilization. There is still a lot to learn about this early group of people. For instance, we are still not sure where they originated and why they disappeared so easily after the Romans arrived.
Like most Tuscan towns, Volterra has plenty of shops selling wine, olive oil, food products and fine leather goods. But, the town’s specialty is alabaster. There are many shops selling alabaster sculptures and hundreds of other items. If you need a new chess set, they make some lovely ones here, using several shades of alabaster. You can also visit the workshops and see the artists busily creating new pieces.
We found a pleasant place to walk just outside the old city walls on the west side of town. In fact, it’s always fun to walk into a neighborhood outside of the historical center to get a better feel for a town. A walk out Porta San Francesco takes you to the quiet borgo of San Giusto.
This lovely neighborhood has a colorful blend of architecture and quiet lanes. Like most everywhere in Volterra, everyone has nice views of the surrounding valleys. After wandering several blocks, we found the large church of San Giusto, one of four patron saints of the town.
Behind the church, there are paths that allow you to get a closer look at several more Etruscan walls, with more spectacular views. Finally, a few blocks past the church you will reach the Balze park with a short, but scenic and shady path on a wooded hillside. If you like to camp, they have a nice campsite next door.
Volterra is not far from Siena, San Gimignano and the popular Chianti wine region. It’s a nice base for visiting these towns and the western part of Tuscany known as the Maremma.
Because it’s a bit further west of the most popular Tuscan towns, Volterra seems to have fewer crowds. The tour busses do find it, but the big groups make a short trip to the Etruscan Museum, check out the Piazza Priori, shop a bit and leave by 3 pm.
I suggest staying several nights so you can relax a bit, enjoy the passeggiata, sample a few restaurants and get to know one of my favorite Tuscan hill towns.