Guidebooks often note that Volterra can be bleak and frequently quote D.H. Lawrence in Etruscan Places (1932). Lawrence describes a town that is "sombre and chilly alone on her rock" - "a great bluff of rock that gets all the winds and sees all the world. Volterra is a sort of inland island, still curiously isolated, and grim." But Lawrence was there on a cold April afternoon in 1927. We go in early September and Volterra has almost always been sunny, pleasant, and lively - and without the hordes of tourists in some other hill towns.
The countryside around Volterra is hilly and wooded, quite different than the classic Tuscany landscape of Chianti and even the area around San Gimignano just 30 kilometers to the east. Of all the towns we visit, Volterra best reveals the Etruscan and Roman history of Tuscany. The town was a thriving Etruscan metropolis in the 5th century BC and was, in that era, a walled city several times its current size. The Museo Etrusco Guarnacci holds an extensive collection of Etruscan alabaster funeral urns. Porta all'Arco is of Etruscan origin with three well-worn and now featureless stone heads. Lions' heads? The head's of slain enemies? Lawrence prefer another interpretation: "They were city deities of some sort." The Romans dominated starting from 90 BC and built a spectacular theater and and bath complex whose ruins are preserved today.
Volterra also thrived as a medieval city. Palazzo dei Priori (1208) is one of the oldest civic palaces in Tuscany and said to be a model for Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. The facade of the Palazzo has an impressive display of the coats-of-arms of the many podestà, a type of early city manager, that was once common in Tuscany. The palace is also adorned with Florentine lions, showing the regional dominance of that city from the Medici period.
The surrounding countryside supplies alabaster, a soft, easily carved translucent stone. Volterra is full of shops making and selling alabaster objects. Reflecting the local product focus of our PSU in Tuscany program, Volterra has adopted an "Alabaster in Volterra" EU Community Trade Mark.
And while it is not distinctive enough to trademark as local, Volterra, set in its remote feeling countyside, seems to be the right hill town to enjoy a meal featuring cinghiale (wild boar).
The etching, Panorama of Volterra, by Maria Assunta Cannistraro, is used with permission. Her Laboratorio L’Istrice, located at Via Porta all'Arco, 23, is part of an artists' association in Volterra, Arte in Bottega Volterra.