The hills – so big! The roads were winding. We zigged, we zagged, we oooh’d and we aaaah’d at the gorgeous scenery. That’s what I recall about our bus ride through the Apennine mountains to get to Volterra.
We arrive at Albergo Villa Nencini, which is an easy walk to the center of Volterra. Our bus drops us off near our hotel and we take our bags over. The villa dates back to the 17th century just outside the Etruscan walls of the town. My bedroom had windows with wooden shutters that opened up onto an amazing view. In the foreground was the hotel pool area. In the background were the Apennine mountains. It is owned and run by a family so service is a priority. My only complaint was the bed. While comfortable, it was assembled in such a way as if in a sling. If I moved, the mattress moved within the bed frame. Not a big deal, just a bit odd. The furnishings were a bit dated.
The breakfast room was cheery even though the walls were stone. The breakfast buffet had great variety as in Rome. The sliced meats were even more delicious here. There were better quality ingredients. Something that I had started in Rome was having espresso to start my day. Of course, I needed plenty of sugar, but I just really enjoyed having a couple of tiny cups to put me in the Italian holiday spirit. The breakfast room had a wonderful café bar.
After getting all settled in my hotel room, I join my fellow travelers for a little cocktail gathering. We all have a beverage and are arranged in a circle, roughly. Elena leads us in a game in which we each have to tell how we got our name. After saying your name and story, everyone repeats your name and the names of everyone who spoke before you. I always find ice breaker games like this so cringe worthy. I hate going through it. But the prosecco I was drinking certainly helped. We had a variety of wines to choose from. While I really don’t like this exercise, it truly was helpful for me. I don’t think I would have remembered everyone’s names, at least not so quickly, without doing the game. Twenty-five names are a lot! Plus, members had some really funny stories. We all had some great belly laughs by the time we were done.
On our way to Tuscany we stopped at a rest stop. Besides the need to stretch our legs, there was a very necessary need. Our bus did not have a rest room. Bio breaks were essential. An Italian rest stop is unlike anything I have experienced here in the states. First and foremost, it is clean! It feels like it is new construction. Second, there is a full coffee shop with a barista on hand. Third, the amount of food choices is enormous. Tasty, affordable food that is ready to be eaten on the go.
If you get something at the snack bar, you pay the cashier first and then show the receipt to the attendant at the service counter. Just like the rest of the rest stop, the rest rooms are super clean and taken care of by an attendant.
Today, we stopped at a Chef Express. Elena seemed to indicate that whether it is Chef Express or Autogrill it is the same company.
I was still experiencing issues with my innards so I played it safe and just had peach ice tea and a bottle of water. No solid foods for me.
The gate to Albergo Villa Nencini
The view from my room
Playing the name game
Dinner in Volterra
Andiamo! We climbed uphill on a path into the center of Volterra for dinner as a group. Up, up, up we go to the restaurant, La Carabaccia. Before leaving home, I tried to make a reservation here and wasn’t able. Hmmm, I wonder why. I had taken Imodium and it was doing its job superbly. I was no longer having any issues. Our dinner started with the Italian flag which consisted of sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and lettuce. This was followed by prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe melon. Next was a vegetable dish with breading. We had 2 pasta dishes, not just one. First, a spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce followed by a ravioli. A tasty pork dish was next and we finished with a refreshing dessert of custard topped with fresh fruit. At this point it is a given that the wine flowed and flowed. Grazie mille to the three sisters who are behind this restaurant. After dinner it was getting late and I basically crashed back at the hotel.
La Carabaccia Photo Gallery
Our local Volterra guide - Annie
Wednesday, 5 September 2018
Annie and the Etruscans
At 8:45 am we met in front of the hotel to walk to Piazza dei Priori. Up, up, up the hill we go. In the shadow of Palazzo dei Priori we met our local guide for the day, Annie. After some stories about the palazzo, Annie led us in a walking tour of Volterra. Being led by Annie Adair is like taking a class with your favorite history professor. She is an ex-pat from DC who fell in love with an Italian and has lived in Volterra for 20 years.
As Annie told stories of Volterra’s past, she definitely took on the perspective of a local at the time of her story. Like a good actor, she made you understand what they felt. Her stories were very detailed with incredible background to provide context to events that took place. Often as she would speak I would have a question but soon she would spin her tale further and managed to answer my question before she had the chance to take a breath. Annie made Volterra’s past come to life with stories about its life as an Etruscan, Roman, and medieval hill town.
We walked out to the wall of the city, the 13th century wall. The Etruscan wall went much further out, today there are only remnants. Stories of the Etruscan arch, the Palazzo dei Priori, the duomo, the Tuscan tower filled our morning.
Annie took us to the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. It seems so much of what we know about Etruscan life is surmised from what they buried. This museum is filled to the brim with funerary urns which date from the 7th to the 1st century BC. I love museums and when left to my own devices I really enjoy reading every plaque and getting into the nitty gritty. But I’ve got to say this was over kill when it came to funerary urns. Thank goodness Annie was there to provide just the highlights and insights into what we were seeing. Once our tour of the museum ended it was time to say good-bye to Annie.
Photo Gallery of Albergo Villa Nencini
Elena brought us to an alabaster workshop, Alab’Arte. Here we got an incredible demonstration of how craftsmen work with alabaster. Within eight minutes we got to see a block of alabaster stone transformed into a bowl that was so thin that light could partially come through creating a translucent quality. It definitely was a treat to see a master craftsman at work. Personally, I would not want to disturb craftsmen, so I was glad that this demonstration was scheduled and didn’t take away from his work for the day. It was rather ridiculous the amount of alabaster powder that was everywhere. I was glad to hear that they have examined the artists and have not discovered any poor health effects. Their lungs are operating just as well as anyone else’s. The workshop was littered with finished alabaster sculptures from floor to ceiling. It was a challenge for our group to find room to watch the master at work.
The Joy of Eating
Video of a master alabaster craftsman at work. Apologies for the orientation issue
At noon we are set free to explore Volterra on our own. We were given the Volterra Card which covers admission for most of the main sights in town. Bud, Linda, and I were hungry and head a few doors down from the alabaster workshop to a new pizza place that Annie had recommended. We decided we would have one red pizza and one white pizza. We all agreed that the white was the superior pizza. It was four cheeses. I was in heaven. The red was good, but we loved the white. As I recall the pizza was about €13 each. The ambiance was a stone walled casual eatery. The staff was pleasant and easily worked with our limited Italian.
I was committed to my ‘a gelato a day’ plan. I forced Bud to join me for a cone at L’Isola del Gusto. Today’s flavors were chocolate mascarpone and Nutella. Excellent gelato! I’m ready to take a flight back for another chance at some other flavors. I am so grateful for Bud and Linda inviting me to lunch. It’s nice to feel included. On top of that I just have so much fun with them. All we do is laugh. We were probably too loud for a stone walled restaurant where sound can reverberate
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Linda was adamant that she wanted to go jewelry shopping. She had spotted a particular jewelry shop on our walking tour with Annie. So long Linda and Bud!
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App of the Day
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
I wanted to visit Palazzo Viti. However, as is the case for much of Italy it was closed for a couple of hours for lunch. I wandered around Volterra and reached the city wall for some incredible photo opportunities. Before you knew it, Palazzo Viti was open again. I must have been the first to arrive. I had the place to myself! This place is so incredibly beautiful. In 1850 Giuseppe Viti, an alabaster trader, purchased the palace and carried out extensive restoration work. In the numerous rooms open to the public it's as if you stepped out of a time machine and get to experience the magic atmosphere of centuries past. It is “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” Tuscano style. Chandeliers, ornately painted ceilings, grand oil portraits, lots of gilded frames filled the palazzo. Why am I not living like this?! Each room of the palazzo has its own theme! Salon of Battles, Red Room, Yellow Room, King’s room. Why don’t my rooms have names? I’ll have to remedy that. Even though this wasn’t covered by the Volterra Card it was totally worth the €5. As I’m leaving there is a little gem of a surprise. Thank you Rick Steves guidebook for alerting me to what seemed like a secret hideaway. As I exited there were stairs leading to the cellar that I’m sure most people just miss. In this old stone cellar is a wine bar. My natural inclination is to be like the energizer bunny and go, go, go. Sitting down and enjoying a glass of wine, a little cheese, and samples of salami forced me to just breathe. A few teenagers were there but were exiting when I arrived. It is kind of cool both literally and figuratively to relax in an old Roman cistern. Best of all it was all totally free when I showed my Palazzo Viti ticket. Granted, the salumi and cheese were small portions. But I didn’t need much more than that since I was just taking a breather. It was one of those moments that just say “Aaaaaah, Italia!”.
Palazzo Viti Photo Gallery
Photos from wandering around Volterra while I waited for the Palazzo to open
What was covered by the Volterra Card was my next destination, the Pinacoteca. Sadly, no pino coladas here. It’s a 15th century palace turned museum of paintings. The highlight was The Deposition from the Cross by Giovan Battista di Jacopo better known as Rosso Fiorentino. Significant was the contrast of static figures below against the figures tending to Christ who indicated movement. The choice of skin color for Jesus is interesting. Not too often have I seen a sickly, green Jesus. I wonder how much blood was lost during the crucifixion? It is a small museum and I didn’t take much time to explore.
Next on the hit parade was Parco Archeologico. It is a grassy park in which children play, flowers bloom and I slowed down. As I went back and forth trying to find the Archeological dig, I saw what looked to be a flimsy temporary fence. Fences mean ‘keep out’. So, I kept away. When I got closer, I discovered this is what I wanted to see. No sign. Here was the ancient Volterra acropolis. Kind of crazy to discover the remains from the 7th century BC.
Photo Gallery: Parco Archeologico
One Ring To Rule Them All
I still had free time left before I meet up with my group again. As I wandered I visited a table that had an assortment of jewelry just opposite the gelato shop I patronized. I explained to the Asian woman at the table that my Italian was horrible. Did she speak English? She said no. She let me look at her merchandise. I tried on a ring. It wasn’t quite right. She then started interacting with me. She thought I was shopping for someone else, like a wife or a girlfriend. I kept on pointing to myself. “No! Mio! Me!” Then she picked out a ring for me and I told her, “Grande!” The more we worked together, the more English she used. I think once she realized that I was serious it was worth giving some effort. I found this great simple, modern, silver colored ring. It’s a table out in the street. I figure buyer beware. Who knows what it is made of. She said it was hand made. She said it won’t turn my skin another color. I decided I would take my chances. I love the ring and here it is months later, and I frequently get compliments when I wear it. It was €10 well spent. At the end, the merchant said, “You are so happy and friendly. Why?” I really couldn’t give her a good explanation in Italian, so I just said today is a good day, “Oggi e una buona giornata” while pointing to the sunny sky.
I Cook With Wine, Sometimes I Even Add It to the Food
Off I went to join my group for a wine tasting at La Vena di Vino. Our group filled the stone cellar. Francesco, a sommelier, teacher of sommerliers, and wine critic, was leading us through a wine tasting of classic Tuscan wines. We each had a placemat with four different wines and in the center a plate of meat and cheeses. Today we were exploring the following wines:
1. Vernaccia di S. Gimignano DOCG r LLI Vagnoni 2016
2. Chianti Classico DOCG Bendonde Castellina in Chianti 2014
3. Super Tuscan Varvara Castello di Bolgheri Bolgheri DOC 2014
4. Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Pian Delle Querci Riserva 2011
I learned several things. First, my palate is shit. I could not discern half the flavors others were picking up. I get the same overall experience as others for the wines as I already knew food interacts with the wine to provide a different experience; but I totally miss all the little details. Cost of wine doesn’t necessarily equate with a better experience for me. Was the Brunello at €55 my favorite? No. Hold all wine glasses by the stem regardless whether they house white or red wines. My final discovery: my Californian tour mates are really into wines.
Here are some cool facts about Francesco. Francesco is Annie’s husband. He just found out he had been accepted to be a Rick Steves tour guide. His groups are in for a real treat as he passes on his knowledge on their adventures. We all cheered and celebrated on this new chapter in his life.
Francesco - sommelier and tour guide
It Pays to Smile and be Friendly
Our tasting went right up to 7:45pm. I ran out of there like a bat out of hell to make my 8:00 pm dinner reservation. Literally, I ran. So silly. There was no need. When I arrived, there was only one other patron in the whole establishment. Gradually others arrived after me.
Dinner was at Osteria Fornelli. I chose to order from the traditional menu. I wanted classic Tuscana cuisine. They pride themselves on using seasonal high quality ingredients. I wanted a typical Volterra dinner. My dinner started with a selection of four pecorino cheeses aged two to eight months from Fattoria Lischeto (farm). These were accompanied by three jams (apple, peach, and fig). I loved the jams! This was followed by crispy lasagnetta with Rhinth of Cinta Senese to the Knife. Think of a lasagna in which the pasta layer has been made crispy by frying it. The sauce was a pomodoro. This was my favorite course. I liked the twist on a traditional favorite. I wanted more, but probably it’s better that I didn’t considering the amount of courses. Third, was Tripe alla Volteranna. It was a wonderful stew with tripe. Tripe was tasty and different. I had the house white wine and a bottle of still water. The whole time I did my best to converse with my limited Italian. The server was so friendly, helpful and nice. He made my meal for me. There is nothing like excellent service to make a meal better. I was seated outside. The hills of Tuscany and the sunset were my dining companions. Almost all of the diners around me were North American. None of them attempted to speak a word of Italian. Not even a “please” or a “thank you”. I, on the other hand, tried to converse entirely in Italian. The setting of a restaurant is pretty predictable, and you can use the same phrases time and again. Plus, Italian is very predictable with pronunciation. If I used Google translate I was all set up with what I needed to say. Once done with the tripe I asked for the check. My server was shocked. No dolci!? No caffe!? Oh! Si! Un espresso per favore! He smiled and left. When he came back, he had brought an espresso, my check (unheard of in Europe), and a complimentary assortment of cookies, more like English biscuits which went great with the espresso. See…make an effort, be friendly and it pays off. Osteria Fornelli had a great view, service is the best, and the food is good and tasty.
In chatting with my tour mates before the wine tasting I realized I could have gone back to the hotel and taken advantage of the pool. I never did dip my tootsies in. Oh well! I still had a super, duper time exploring Volterra.
Turn to my left and I see the picture above; turn to my right and I see the picture below
Pecorino cheese board
Tripe alla Volteranna
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Tomorrow after breakfast the gang departs for another hill town of Tuscany, Lucca.