Thursday, June 2, 2016

Volterra: Tuscany's Medieval City of Wind and Stone

Volterra's well-preserved medieval ramparts give the windswept town a proud, forbidding air that author Stephanie Meyer deemed ideal for the vampire coven in her wildly popular Twilight book series. On a rainy blustery day, the historic centre was damp and dreary as we wandered through the winding cobbled streets, but as the skies cleared, the dark beauty of Volterra shined through. The Etruscans founded the city more than 2800 years ago, when it's believed that as many as 25,000 people lived within the city's fortified walls. Partly due to the surrounding inhospitable terrain, the city was among the last to succumb to Rome, until it was finally absorbed into the Roman confederation around 260 BC and renamed Volaterrae. Perched high on a hill and defended by mighty walls, Volterra was once famous for its alabaster mined from nearby quarries, but nowadays it's home to the Museo Etruscan Guarnacci, one of Italy's most impressive collections of Etruscan artifacts. Found locally, they include more than 600 funerary urns carved mainly from alabaster and tufa, with highlights of the collection including the Urn of the Sposi, a strikingly realistic terracotta rendering of an elderly couple and the L'Ombra della Sera — Shadow of the Evening — an elongated bronze nude figurine that bears a striking resemblance to the work of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

The streets of Volterra on a rainy weekday 

The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Voletrra

Famous for the thousands of funeral urns dating back to the Hellenistic and Archaic periods, the museum is treasure trove of 'l'urna cineraria'

Detail on one of the funeral urns

The museum's sculpted effigy 'Urna degli Sposi' of an Etruscan couple made in terra cotta

A Roman floor mosaic from a site in Volterra

A collection of Hellenistic coins and kitchenware

Ombra della Sera, or 'The Evening Shadow' from the 2nd century BC, bears an uncanny likeness to the later 20th-century sculptures by Giacometti

A leafy garden at the back of the museum held a few treasures

A modern sculpture by a local artist

Old stone graves

A moss covered cineraria

Roman archway from garden 

View to the valley below Volterra

Nestled within the medieval walls of Volterra across from the Medicean Fortress near Porta a Selci, Osteria La Pace is a lovely little restaurant with a menu featuring traditional Tuscan and Volterran dishes. Originally an ancient tavern dating back to 1600, Osteria la Pace has been run by the same family since 1939, first by Mrs. Gina and now by her son "Geppo" Giampaolo and his wife Monica who runs the kitchen. Recommended by an Italian author who we met for lunch with our friend Paul, one of whose paintings was featured on the cover of her first novel, the afternoon was languorous and loquacious. Starting with a lovely Tuscan Sangiovese we sampled a generous Tagliere della Casa of local cured salumi, formaggi, paté di fegato, frittata, olives, marmaletta di zucca and array of other delectable spreads. All of the pasta and soups are handmade by Monica from the Pici al Cinghiale, Ravioli Rustica and Stracci di Cinta Senese e Funghi to the Antici Minestra di Farro and her signature Ribollita Tosana. Entrées include Cinghiale in Umido e Polenta, Bistecca alla Fiorentina to the rustic  and delicious Salsicce e fagioli all'Uccelletto. At the end of the meal, a bottle of Limoncello labelled 'Vitamine C' and bottle of Grappa were left on the able for us to enjoy. With a three hour return trip to Umbria ahead of us, we bid adieu to Sylvie and made our way to the car under menacing dark and foreboding skies. Without a word of exaggeration, hail the size of ice cubes came pummelling down, thunder rolled overhead and bolt lightning crackled all around us. Then the rain came, in blinding sheets so ferocious it was almost impossible to navigate the winding roads down from dark and rocky Volterra, through Tuscany and back to Umbria. Given that Stephanie Meyer chose Volterra as the setting for her Twilight Series full of vampires, medieval magic and mayhem, the symbolism of our scary drive home was ominous to say the least.

Osteria La Pace

The old stone exterior of Osteria La Pace

The colourful barrel-vaulted interior

The Tuscan menu

Terre de'Pepi vino rosso

Slicing the Tuscan prosciutto for the Tagliere della Casa

Tagliere della Casa

Ribollita Toscana

Antica Minestra di Farro - Ancient Etruscan Soup

Stracci di Cinta Senese e Funghi

Tagliata di Chianina Mille Sapori

Salsicce e Fagioli all'Uccelletto

A bottle of house made Limoncello labelled 'Vitamin C' 

A bottle of house made Grappa was also brought to the table for guests to pour as they wish

Stephanie Meyer chose Volterra as the setting for her Twilight Series, 
the perfect setting for medieval magic, mystery and mayhem 

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