From our home base in Tremoleto we took the long and winding road to Volterra. This hilltop town was once one of the most influential Etruscan towns in all of Italy. Today it is a well touristed stop more noted for its medieval fortress. We hit it on a rainy Monday hoping to avoid the crowds but to no avail. We must have circled the town three times before we found a parking place. Once inside we were well rewarded with picturesque narrow cobblestone streets, flower-boxed public squares, and several gelaterias. There was even an antique car show going on in the main square. We didn’t go into the old fortress there in town, but I was intrigued to find out that this 500 year-old castle is now a maximum-security prison for about 60 inmates. We were told that it is a dark, depressing place. That should give pause to one’s involvement in crime.
After a quick snack in a coffee bar we made a mad dash to the Etruscan museum. I rented the audio guide this time and learned a lot. There is very little left of Etruscan life but tons centered on Etruscan death. Meaning that most of what we know about the Etruscans comes from their graves. Their old cities were built over by the Romans and later by the medieval castle-estates. So what we have in this museum is a collection of items found in the necropolis of Volterra. The Etruscans of this area were cremators. After death bodies were burned and the ashes placed in small sarcophagi. These sarcophagi were then buried in a tomb along with whatever belongings the family deemed important for the afterlife. It’s a good museum, way better than the Etruscan Museum in Rome. As it should be, since this is the place where the artifacts are from. I like it when the smaller towns are able to hold onto their archaeological heritage.
There is one piece of the old Etruscan city still standing in Volterra, an arched entry that was incorporated into the Roman/Medieval city. The stones are pretty eroded, but that’s what happens when you’ve been left out in the elements for over two thousand years.
On another day we wandered similar carsickness inducing roads to the famous towered city of San Gimignano. Almost every hilltop fortress city had these funky towers in them. They weren’t really dwelling places, although some of them were used as homes and some were used as lookouts. But their main intended function was to be a giant clothesline. These towns made their fortunes and were known for their textile manufacturing and dyeing. Long pieces of freshly dyed fabric would be hung from a tower to dry. San Gimignano still has a dozen-plus of its original four-dozen-plus towers. Many were damaged by earthquakes and later disassembled with the cut stones reused to build other structures. When you walk the tiny streets of the town it’s difficult to imagine how they could fit more towers within the walls of the city, but somehow they did.
This town was supposed to be a major tourist trap and we came prepared for the worst. But on this Friday it was empty. Go figure! We climbed the Torre Grosso, wandered the streets, ate lunch in front of the Duomo, played in the park, and had gelato at a place claiming to have won the “World Cup of Gelato” (we’ve had better). The views from atop the tower were unbelievable! You could see forever. We’re talking the curvature of the earth kind of views. After photo opps we wandered back to our car and cruised home to Tremoleto. It was really great.