This is our fifth spring in Tuscany and I am still enthralled by the magic of the transformation from cold and grey to light, sun and flowering everywhere. It occurs practically overnight and the evolution from frigid February to March with usual rain showers and April’s showy plethora of blossoms and birds warbling is wondrous.
This February was the coldest in Italy in 60 years with two substantial snowstorms in Rome, impossibly snarling traffic and preventing much business as usual, and extremely cold temperatures here in the Florence area. Our hillside villa in Fiesole was assaulted by bitter winds for weeks and frozen pipes combined with acquaduct problems left us without
running water in our house for 15 days. But now in early April the wisteria, glicine, is in full bloom and truly lush and beautiful. The bush at our house, draped gracefully over the front door with lemon trees below is especially appealing.
Good Friday I persuaded my professor husband Sven to abandon his laptop and writing projects for a drive into Chianti to see how spring was progressing. We originally started out for Siena, but serendipitously changed our minds and went instead to Volterra, a hilltown southwest of Florence known for its Etruscan tombs and alabaster carvings.
The drive there goes through one of the most beautiful landscapes in Italy, following an old Roman road, S 68, from Colle di Val d’Elsa to Volterra. As the Romans liked to build roads along the ridges instead of in the valleys, the views in all directions are fabulous. The first thing noticed is the lack of vineyards and olive groves that are omnipresent in other parts of Tuscany. A local man explained the topsoil is thin and roots can’t go down deeply, so the area is more suitable for grains and grasses, providing vast vistas of rolling green hills.
In the distance, one can see San Gimignano with its dramatic medieval towers looming over the village and fields. These days with its scores of tourist buses and streets packed with the visitors that far outnumber the residents and numerous souvenir shops, San Gimignano is probably best viewed from afar as it still looks much as it did in the Middle Ages.
Volterra, on the other hand, has interesting offers for the visitor, but is not yet besieged by tourism. The Etruscans developed the town in the 6th Century BC due to its proximity to rich deposits of copper, iron, silver and the alabaster mines. Today there is an excellent museum, Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, displaying finds from Etruscan funerary urns to complex artistic statuary showing how well developed this pre-Roman culture was. Via Don Minzoni 15. Open daily from 9-7 with earlier closing in winter.
Walk down the hill on Via Porta all’Arco to view the major gateway entering Etruscan Volterra, or Velathri, an impressive arch dating from the 4th Century BC. In 1944 as the Germans approached to lay siege to the city, residents filled the arch with stones to prevent it becoming a focus of attack. Just outside the walls near the Porta Fiorentina are ruins of a 1st Century BC Roman amphitheater that is quite well preserved with remnants of Roman terme or baths. View from the ramparts above is spectacular.
ALABASTER There are numerous shops in Volterra selling gift items made from this translucent calcium sulfate stone, some simple cups and candle holders, others intricately carved lamps and bowls. Some of the shops are also workshops and one can see artisans working the stone. For a good choice or quality objects visit the Cooperativa Artieri Alabastro, Piazza dei Priori 5. Sven
was fascinated with the incredibly realistic fruits made of stone (perhaps alabaster?) and bought a basket full to bring home.
CUISINE Ristorante Il Sacco Fiorentino, Piazza XX September 18, closed Wednesday, is a good spot for lunch in a 17th C. palazzo. The name refers to Lorenzo di Medici’s 1472 massacre of the citizens of Volterra in response to their attempted rebellion. Blood and gore aside, the Gnocci with Baby Vegetables in springtime is scrumptious. The unusual Tagliatelle del Sacco Fiorentino is a pasta with a saffron-chicken sauce, studded with vegetables. Also looking and smelling delicious was the Coniglio con Aglio e Vin Santo, an intriguing rabbit stewed with garlic and the sweet ‘holy’ wine.
For dessert, we surveyed the several gelato shops, making sure we chose one that made
their own on the premises—produzione propria. We were not disappointed. Sven is a world expert on gelato in the flavor of fior di latte, which translated means ‘flower of milk’ and is basically a simple, creamy milky flavor. He has sampled fior di latte gelato in
hundreds of places in Italy, the US, rest of Europe and even Vietnam! So when he pronounced this version of his favorite flavor “Absolutely the best!” I knew we had hit the right spot. I stuck with fruity frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest) blueberries, raspberries and blackberries—yum-liscious!
On the drive back we followed signs leading to a dairy specializing in sheep’s cheese made from raw milk–the famous pecorino and by far my favorite Italian cheese. The Caseificio Pinzani is a large, modern operation with a tasting room and shop. After trying 5-6 different varieties, we bought some of the soft, fresh cheese called marzolino and a piece of the semi-aged classico. We served them with pears and apples, accompanied by a glass of dessert wine, moscato passito from Piedmont, at our Easter lunch. www.caseificiopinzani.com
We didn’t spend the night in Volterra, but the Villa Porta all’Arco, Via Mazzini 2, on the edge of town, looked very nice. For further info, the tourism office: http://www.volterratur.it/lang/eng/index_eng.asp