Travel: My favourite town in Tuscany
JUST when I think I have a favourite Tuscan hilltop town, up comes another to enchant me. I could go on like this for years, driving across the region comparing one delightful town after another and I'm sure there is many a traveller in Italy before me who has done exactly that.
San Gimignano is probably the most popular of all the Tuscan towns, it certainly draws the masses, but it is Volterra that has crept into my psyche.
While San Gimignano could be said to be brash with its 14 towers and its Palazzo Comunale, Volterra, at 550m above sea level, is its more restrained cousin.
With an Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance history it has more than its share of ancient towers and civic palaces.
The palaces are now used as municipal buildings, and in the early evenings when the locals come out for passeggiata, that lovely ritual of strolling slowly around the town, they sit outside these handsome buildings, adding to the melodramatic tableau of the Tuscan hilltop town dream.
Volterra has a history stretching back to the seventh century BC. The Etruscans were there first but they kept no written records (according to my genius travel mate who studies these things and knows something about everything), so much about them is a mystery.
However, the Etruscan museum gives a glimpse into their culture and lifestyle with its host of precious artefacts including a magnificent display of urns.
The Roman theatre and baths, commissioned in the first century BC, and built in the Greek fashion, is one of the grandest and most preserved in Italy, and a major tourist drawcard today.
In its heyday, the theatre could hold 2000 spectators.
Some of the original tiered seating follows the natural contour of the slope and leads to the graceful columns of the ancient baths.
The theatre ruins are mesmerising and easily viewed from atop the Via Lungo le Mura del Mandorlo.
During our visit, a stage was being prepared to host a jazz concert in the ruins that evening and we watched the workers as they busied themselves with equipment, and wondered how the spectators those thousands of years ago were entertained (probably with Greek tragedies, my learned friend thought.)
Alabaster has long been big in Volterra. The pale and gorgeous translucent mineral was used to make window frames for many of Italy's medieval churches. Today there are a few outlets in Volterra displaying alabaster objets d'art and sculptures.
Now Volterra has drawn international fame for its association with the Twilight book and movie series. Its Piazza dei Priori, clock tower, turrets and medieval ramparts all make a fitting and forbidding backdrop for the vampire tale.
At night, when the tourists have left and the cobbled streets are empty, the town takes on a romantic gloom.
Walking quietly on the cobblestones in the shadowy dark, surrounded by ancient buildings that hold so much history and exude a stately dignity, is spine tingling. An overnight stay is especially recommended.
- Volterra is south-west of Florence, and a car is needed to get easily to the town and to enjoy the Tuscan surrounds if you like to explore on your own.
- Many tour operators in Florence and Siena run half and full day tours. The Twilight tours are especially popular with fans of the series.