Our favorite Tuscan hill town is a well-kept secret for experienced travelers

Our Favorite Tuscan Hill Town

[Regions of Italy]

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If you have time to see only one hill town while you're in Tuscany, Volterra gets our vote. What? Not San Gimignano?! Well, San Gimignano is nice for those who love huge milling crowds of foreign tourists surging through cramped streets.... You'll understand what we mean about a mile before you arrive in town, when you start seeing an unbroken line of parked tour buses. These days, until the furor dies down, the most beautiful thing about San Gimignano is the view from a distance (pictured at right), when you drive around a bend in the road and see those famous towers looming incongruously over the rolling hills.

The best place to see that view is on the road from Volterra (pictured at left), which lies across the hills about twelve miles away from San Gimignano. People have lived on Volterra's steep hill since Neolithic times, but the city as we know it has Etruscan origins. It offers a rich - and blessedly small - array of ruins, art works and architecture from different historical periods, its pristine streets and spacious squares are relatively deserted, and it has a good choice of nice hotels and restaurants to boot. All these features make it our (current!) favorite Tuscan hill town.

Probably the oldest sites to see in Volterra are the remaining stretches of its Etruscan walls, built in the 4th century B.C., when the town's population was twice what it is today and when it was a very affluent exporter of minerals, alabaster and iron objects to countries all around the Mediterranean basin. Still today you'll find this is one of the best places in Italy to purchase alabaster: the streets are lined with showrooms and shops.

The Etruscan walls mark the perimeter of the "Parco Archeologico Enrico Fiumi," a lovely garden that now occupies the highest spot in town. You can also see the remains of two Etruscan temples, as well as a fascinating 1st-century basin that the Romans built to collect rain water and distribute it to citizens who lived in lower-lying areas. There's also an excellent Etruscan Museum (Via Don Minzoni 15), whose masterpiece is an extraordinary wedding urn from the 1st century BC.

On one end of the Parco Archeologico is the old Etruscan gate to the city, next to a fortress built by Lorenzo the Magnificent when Florence occupied Volterra between 1472 and 1475. You can see the outside, but since it is now a maximum security prison, we hope you'll never see the inside. At the other end of the park is Piazza Martiri della Libertà, probably the best place to view the Cecina Valley. Unlike the rolling green hills that surround Siena, here you will find an undulating plain blanketed in gold in summer and dark brown the rest of the year. On clear days you can glimpse the Tyrhennian Sea.

Just below the piazza is the picturesque Porta all'Arco. Walk through it to look at the far side of the arch: the upper section dates from Roman times, but the large blocks on either flank were part of the original Etruscan city gate, erected in the 7th or 8th century B.C. If we can see it today, it is thanks to the local citizens who buried it in stones in 1944, to keep the Nazi Army from blowing it up as a means to stop the advancing Allies.

From here, walk up Via Matteotti to Piazza dei Priori, one of the most perfect medieval town squares in Italy. It is dominated by Palazzo dei Priori, the oldest town hall in Tuscany (1208-1254) and by Palazzo Pretorio, whose central tower was built in 1224. Much history has tramped through this now serene spot, some of it unspeakably cruel. Machiavelli described the bloody invasion of the Florentines, whose presence is felt everywhere, from the many marble, enameled and stone plaques on the walls to the two lions perched atop the columns flanking the Palazzo. The other sides of the square are occupied by the heavily remodeled Cassa di Risparmio building, the 14th-century Palazzo Vescovile, and the rear of the cathedral. Walk around the side to see the front façade, designed in the 13th century by Nicola Pisano. The vast interior contains several impressive works, the most renowned being Benozzo Gozzoli's fresco of the Magis' arrival (1479) and Mino da Fiesole's marble ciborium (1471). The two we find most interesting, however, are the exquisitely carved 12th-century marble pulpit, and local artist Zaccaria Zacchi's poignant painted terra cotta nativity scene (first chapel on the left).

Outside, pause to enjoy tiny Piazza San Giovanni, which is just big enough to hold the cathedral and its green-and-white marble baptistery. We dare you to find a more pristine, peaceful and spiritually moving town square anywhere in Italy. Inside, the octagonal baptistery is lined with warm cream-colored sandstone; some think Brunelleschi designed its cupola. The almost bare space contrasts sharply with the large crowd of worshippers observing Christ's ascension in the altar painting by Nicolò Cercignani (1591). This painting was heavily damaged in World War Two and recently restored.

From Piazza San Giovanni, Via Roma leads back down the hill into the medieval heart of the town. As you approach Via Ricciarelli you'll see several 13th-century "tower homes." If you walk back up Via Ricciarelli to Via dei Sarti, you'll soon come to the municipal museum, which houses a wonderful collection of paintings including pieces by Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, il Volterrano and Rosso Fiorentino. More medieval homes are to found as you continue along Via dei Sarti on your way to the Roman Theatre. Built in the 1st century B.C., it was first brought to light in 1950 and the excavations are still under way. You can see the proscenium and a small part of the risers, where a thermal bath building was added in the later years of the Empire.

By now you'll be ready to sit down and relax over a nice Tuscan meal. Walk back up the hill and you'll have your choice of several places, ranging from the very simple to the elegant. One delicious local specialty you might like to try is salami or pasta made with wild boar (cinghiale), an animal portrayed in marble on the upper façade of Palazzo dei Priori. You can see it from either of the two nice restaurants in Piazza dei Priori. Be sure to save some time to sit and relax in Volterra because, like all great hill towns, the most memorable treasure it has to offer is the feeling of history that lingers all around you.

by Kristin Jarratt

The Volterra Tourist Office is in Palazzo dei Priori. Tel. 0588/86150.

The "Guarnacci" Etruscan Museum is open every day 9-1 and 3-6:30. Click here for their web site.

You can visit the excavations in the Parco Archeologico from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Municipal Museum is open 9-1 in winter and 9-6:30 in summer.

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[Regions of Italy]