Saturday 27 February 2016

Volterra, the Inland Island

In an effort to catch up with myself, I’m going to do this backwards. Today has been a slice of perfection in many ways simply because I awoke to an eyrie of convent quiet, high above the streets of stunning Volterra. The over-quiet and stern atmosphere of the breakfast room was broken by our giggles, and many of the middle aged couples looked on disapproving.

Most of the laughter was brought on by sheer frustration of the lack of hotel wifi. This was seriously cramping the blogging style but also hindering the contrary need to plan a destination and mid-point. You see, there is a route of sorts, and now we have been finding interesting places to stay, the early morning research has become rather important. It was even worse for the hotel manager as she had no internet to sort out all the reservations coming in! Such a lovely lady.

So undeterred and unresearched, we packed up the car, added money to the parking meter, and set off for a morning look round Volterra. Just off the car park, there was a Roman theatre, complete with seating, staging and a staggering backdrop of the Tuscan landscape. The Romans clearly appreciated the life as theatre, whereas us moderns just see life as carpark. I had the urge to contact various theatrical types of my acquaintance and ask them to put on a show because I suspect that Volterra is missing a trick by not putting this incredible space to good use…

Volterra was a bit of an accidental visit, and just to prove that I’m actually a teenager at heart, rather than an adult art historian, the last book I read to mention the town was the Stephanie Meyer series featuring the ancient vampire family Volturi. Of course this is all nonsense. but when you see the town in the murkiness of February, and the streets are shiny dull from the rain, there is a certain shudder of remembrances of a vicious past. Before it became part of the Grand Duchy of Florence, there seemed to be a continuous struggle of economic diddling and backstabbing locals. The torture museum just adds to the ambience.

The narrow streets weave up and down, and the tiny dark alleys invite exploration. Sky high corridors cross the street and you wonder what you could find behind some of the ancient stones. To put some of the age into perspective, there was a small piece of information about the Porta all’Arco. To me the larger stones of this gate looked like chunks of golden honeycomb, known as Volterran ‘panchino’, with other sections, also entirely local. Parts of it date back to 5th and 4th century BC, and ‘while the vault seems to belong to more recent times, the arch and heads to the helenistic period (3rd and 2nd century BC)’. More recent times! It’s all relative, I guess.

 Some of the inhabitants of the Internet Café near the bus station recall some of this ancient history. Whilst the barista performed artistic miracles with our caffe lattes, the friendly locals seemed unable to decide whether to continue their gambling or ogle our laptops. One of them was perfectly positioned on the café stairs to admire my new Italian leather high heeled boots. Frankly I can’t stop gazing at them either, so I didn’t mind him smiling, he clearly had good taste in footwear.

In this convivial atmosphere, we decided on a destination. The previous day or so has seen sea and mountains so perhaps a lake would offer an alternative landscape? I looked on the map and over in Umbria there is Lago Tresimeno, one of the largest inland stretches of water in Italy. Now part of the initial plan was to head up to Lago di Garda so this seemed a good alternative. We looked for the best ‘more interesting’ places to stay in the main town of Castiglione del Lago, and a Palazzo Barbini caught our eye. It seemed to have a suite available, so snapping it up, we left confident that we had something comfortable to look forward to.

With leather still in our minds, her of the bag-obsessed pootled off to the nearest cow skin emporium, to sniff the wares. As responsible skipper I checked the weather and hauled her out, as we really needed to be on our way as the rain was set to get going just as we were. It wasn’t wrong; by the time we were on the dirt track, I mean main autostrada, it was raining gatti and cani.

Being of a northern optimistic disposition, I decided that it was brightening and we should head into Siena for a look-see. We re-programmed the sat-nav. Siena was a familiar spot from a holiday a long time ago, and I really wanted to revisit the main square. In the raining gloom, the overwhelming sense was of earth colours; even the black, white and pink marble almost failed to pull the city from the just ploughed field feel. For once in this impossibly busy city, you could wander around and lose others. Hints of atmospheric spectacle to come later in the year was subtly hinted at, with the sound of melodious male voices singing as a bar door was opened…

We ignored the pull of the museums and galleries, as we have done in every other place so far. This trip is not about seeing art but more getting a snapshot of a place; we have coined it as ‘tapas tourism’. I have spent so much time going to cities to look specifically at a piece of architecture, garden, art or sculpture, so to lose that pressure to see has been a liberating experience. I can now just feel a place and know that I will be back to see more.

A few hours later we were back on the road and enjoying a near miss at a tricky junction. Happily we were at our destination within an hour or so, through countryside which was decidedly uninspiring. How spoiled are we? As we came around the corner we caught sight of the lake and the battlements of the ruined castle; like the rain which had stopped, our doubts evaporated. We knew we were going to be impressed here. As we entered through another city gate, and up the road, the Palazzo entrance wowed us. And more of that anon.

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