The Trip to Italy Episode 2: Under the Tuscan Sun (and Rain)

Faithful blog readers, if you know anything about me (and let’s face it, if you’re a faithful reader, you know A LOT about me; I earned the nickname “Ol’ Too Much Information” Dudley for a reason), you’re aware that I like to run. And then brag about it. So why, you’re wondering, haven’t I bragged about all the running that I did in Italy? Here’s the shameful truth: I did not run a single mile in Italy. Not even a kilometer. (Heyo, metric-system humor!) Here’s why: our tour company preferred putting us up in historic hotels in downtown areas. The cities we visited are about 2500 years old with narrow, winding roads. Plus, many of the streets were cobblestoned. Have you ever tried running on cobblestones? I wouldn’t suggest it, unless you want to break both your ankles. (Or if you are fleeing from Visigoths sacking Rome, however unlikely that may be, seeing as the last time they sacked Rome was the year 410; then by all means run!)

Anyway, I didn’t run. We walked down many, many uneven cobblestoned streets. Which was why cruising up the Autostrada A1 from Rome to the heart of Tuscany was so thrilling. Honestly, being on a highway felt like home. The 4-hour drive to the mountaintop walled city of Volterra was done on a luxury tour bus. Volterra is known for a few things: (1) its intact city wall containing the historic cobblestoned (of course) old city section within; (2) being the center of Etruscan culture, a pre-Roman civilization from whence the name “Tuscan” came; (3) a Roman theater built in the 1st century BC; and (4) being the center of alabaster artisans, owing to close proximity to alabaster mines.

Now, some of you are saying, “Where have I heard the name ‘Volterra’ before?” You’re probably thinking of the “Twilight” series of books by Stephenie Meyer, in which Volterra is the home of the Volturi, a coven of powerful ancient vampires. And you’d be revealing yourselves to be fans of teenage vampire romance novels; you weirdos.

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In Volterra, you can always tell what neighborhood you are in by the flags flying on the houses. For example, in this photo we were in the “neighborhood with the red and yellow flags.” (I’m sure it sounds more romantic in the original Italian.)

After winding its way through the hills of Tuscany, our bus went up the steep road to Volterra. There’s a turnabout just outside the city walls for tour buses to deposit passengers. We all unloaded our luggage from the storage area, and then the townspeople got a taste of what I liked to call “Rolling Thunder 2018″: other than my lovely wife Jen and me, everyone in the group had rolling suitcases. (As mentioned in the previous blog post, Jen and I like to travel really light, so we had only backpacks. Maybe that’s why we were mistaken for Spaniards?) Anyway, we rolled down the main (cobblestoned) street, Via Giacomo Matteotti, and had to walk about 400 meters to the hotel. The noise from the suitcase wheels was deafening; the locals were like, “Oh no! Is it the Visigoths? Close the city wall gates! Wait, it’s just American tourists. Raise the prices at the restaurants!”

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Our hotel is on the right. If you go straight through the gate at the end of the street, you would fall over the city wall and into the Roman theater. I don’t recommend it.

Our hotel was this charming old place with narrow hallways but updated features called “Hotel La Locanda.” “Locanda” is Italian for “inn.” So we were staying at the “Hotel Inn,” or, as I liked to call it, “Hotel Hotel.” (In Rome, we stayed in the Hotel Museum. It was going to be either a hotel near a museum or the lamest museum ever.) Our room was luxurious, and I couldn’t wait to shower and get ready for our evening dinner. Unfortunately, as is the case in quirky old hotels, some rooms have showers, and some have slanted walls that preclude shower fittings. Ours had two separate bath areas: one had double sinks, and the other was a step up and had a massive whirlpool tub with jets and also a massaging spray nozzle but no shower. I went to take a quick bath then. Except I couldn’t figure out how to close the drain. It didn’t screw in, it didn’t pop down and plug, there were no visible switches or lifts. So instead of asking for help at the front desk like a normal person (“Mi scusi, dove il…drain plug?”), I took the shower head and…slipped all over this enormous tub because there weren’t any nonskid slip guards in the tub! Plus, the water from the shower head was bouncing off of me and spraying all over the bathroom. Jen took a peek in there to check on all the commotion, and she was like, “Are you washing up for dinner or cleaning the walls?”

Did I mention that there was a step between the tub room and the sink room? I missed it that first time and went flying through the sink room and out the doorway to the bedroom. That’s the type of thing you only do once before learning your lesson. (Or twice if you’re me.)

The town of Volterra is gorgeous. The city walls date from the 1300s (incorporating portions from the original built in the 3rd century), and many of the buildings, including the stunning Palazzo dei Priori, date to the 1200s. Every sector or neighborhood of the city has its own flag, so you’d see different flags and banners and could tell which neighborhood you were in. And the great thing about it for Jen and me was that it’s so small that it was almost impossible to get lost. Every town should have city walls; we’d come upon the wall on one side of the town, then turn around looking for our destination, only to come upon the opposite wall. I wouldn’t call that “lost” exactly, just “not sure where we were going most of the time.”

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The Tuscan countryside as seen from atop the Volterra city wall.

On our first evening there, we ate at a restaurant where we were served a many-coursed Tuscan feast. Our guide suggested that we mix up our seating arrangements for each meal, so we sat at a table with three siblings from Kansas in their 20s (by far the youngest people on the tour) and a couple from Georgia in their 60s. The older couple offered us a lesson on not judging a book by its cover. The husband, we’ll call him “David” (because that was his name), was an ardent Georgia Bulldogs football fan and seemed at any minute to be on the verge of barking, “Go Dawgs! Sic ‘em! Woof woof woof!” He was large, gregarious, and always laughing. An hour into the meal, however, he was in tears. (It might have been the Chianti.) He was explaining that he was thinking about our day at the Vatican, and specifically St. Peter’s Basilica. It turns out that he was an art major in college and visited Italy for the first time in 1970. At the time, you could walk right up to and behind Michelangelo’s sculpture “La Pieta,” of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion, and reach out and touch it. However, now it is behind protective glass and not approachable because, in 1972, a crazed man attacked it with a hammer, leading to extensive damage and a long renovation. David was crying thinking of what we have lost by not being able to see it up close the way he did when he was younger.

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Narrow streets, outdoor cafes, and centuries of history. Perfect. Except for the hordes of tourists.

The next day, we had a tour of the city with a local guide. We saw the Etruscan arch, built over 2000 years ago; the Roman theater that served for hundreds of years as a garbage dump (it lies just outside and below the city walls, so townspeople would fling their trash into it); an alabaster artist at work in his studio; and the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, celebrating a culture that predated and was eventually absorbed by the Romans (the Romans developed their arches based on the Etruscan design). In our free time, Jen and I went to an archeological park highlighting an Etruscan acropolis. Right next to it is a Roman cistern that you can climb down into; to be honest we weren’t sure if we were allowed to because the guard spoke only Italian. There was a lot of pointing and shrugging; we started to walk down the circular metal staircase to get into the cistern, and he didn’t seem to mind (or point a weapon at us), so we assumed it was okay.

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In the 1400s, an ambassador from Florence was flung to his death from the window of this town council chamber. The Florentines, ruled by the Medicis, quickly dispatched their army to overtake Volterra and place it under Florentine rule. Jeez, you throw one guy out a window and a whole city freaks out.

Then it started to rain. At first, we were all, “How nice, a refreshing sprinkle to cool us off on a hot Tuscan day.” Then, after about 2 minutes, we were screaming, “Let’s get out of this gullywasher!” Of course, because the town was cobblestoned, we couldn’t run, so we slowly plodded in the rain to another museum, the Pinacoteca. This museum was housed in a 14th-century villa and contained works of art from the 14th to 17th centuries, mostly by Volterran or Tuscan artists; the standout was the “Deposition from the Cross” by Rosso Fiorintino. We then headed over to the Palazzo dei Priori, the city hall (the oldest municipal building in Tuscany). When we got to the second floor, we paid our fee and were allowed into the town council’s chambers. All the guidebooks mention that going to the bell tower is a must, so we went to the stairwell that led to it, but it was roped off. We asked the man who took our entry fee about it in our broken Italian (“Dove il...bell tower?”), and we were back in our shrugging-and-pointing routine as at the cistern. The man spoke rapidly in Italian to us, presumably about not wanting to bring us up to the bell tower in a lightning storm, but we really had no clue. So we hung around for a while, and when a few other people inquired about it (in Italian), he went over and undid the rope for them. So we tucked in behind them and went to the top. Unfortunately, because of the storm, we weren’t able to get to the very top of the bell tower, so that was a bummer.

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The “mezza luna,” a half pizza/half calzone concoction at the best pizza place we encountered in Italy: Risto-Pizza Margherita. Jen had a traditional pizza but wouldn’t share any with me. What a jerk!

The storm passed quickly after that. We were able to enjoy the best pizza we had in all of Italy at this tiny place down the street from the Etruscan museum. I had the “mezza luna,” which was a half pizza and half calzone. Hard to explain but delicious. The place was minuscule and packed with people from our tour. One problem: the servers are not in any hurry to get you out of there. Seriously, most of the restaurants in Italy were like this: you’d be done, you’d obviously have nothing else to do, and still they wouldn’t bring you your bill. It’s just not in the culture to rush people out of their restaurants. I learned early on to say “il conto, per favore” (check please) to anyone passing me at a restaurant: waiters, front-of-the-house staff, fellow patrons. If all else failed, I’d say, “Hurry up, please, we’re Spaniards!” or “Please, before the Visigoths sack the city!”

You might be thinking that the main focus of this trip was to find the best pizza and gelato places in Italy. You would be correct.

That evening, Jen and I watched the sun set over the Tuscan countryside from atop the city wall. The tour group then headed into a creepy, dusty basement for a wine tasting. As we were descending the stairs, I told my fellow travelers, “This has ‘horror movie’ written all over it.” It turned out fine, except for those of us who don’t drink: an hour of discussion about Tuscan wines and tastings of four different types from cheapest to most expensive. There was a meat and cheese platter and some bread, so Jen and I, always looking to save a euro, called it a dinner.

While our tour mates all wandered off to actual meals, Jen and I took a stroll over to the Roman theater. One of the mysteries of Volterra was the fact that they had a theater but not an amphitheater. (A Roman theater was for plays and was semicircular in shape, very Greek. A Roman amphitheater was oval; imagine the Colosseum in Rome.) As the Roman Empire expanded, there were certain requirements for a city to survive, one of them being the addition of an amphitheater for gladiator fights and wild animal shows. (One of the others, seriously, was regular bathing; the Romans wanted their subjects to think of themselves as more civilized than the Barbarians, who could be smelled coming from a mile away.) A city of a certain size or political might, such as Volterra was when it was taken over by the Romans, simply had to build an amphitheater, or power would be taken away from them and given to a nearby city. And yet Volterra survived without one. No one knew why. Until 2015, when, during a construction project on the outskirts of town, the foundations of an amphitheater were actually discovered. The excavation is ongoing and so new in fact that we didn’t get to see it (and it’s not even shown on Wikipedia’s list of all 230 of the Roman amphitheaters in the world.)

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Ah, there’s that Tuscan sun everyone’s been talking about!

One last thing I wanted to do in Volterra was shop for souvenirs. In Volterra, every other shop was selling alabaster figurines and items carved from cedar wood. I drooled over the cedar stuff. Our guide said, “If you think the shopping is good here, wait until we get to Florence! This place has nothing on Florence!” So we passed up buying many things in Volterra and got just a few nicknacks for our kids. Lo and behold, we got to Florence, and there were absolutely zero shops selling alabaster or cedar carvings. Grr…

On our last morning in Volterra, we barely had time for breakfast before “Rolling Thunder 2018″ cruised up the cobblestone streets to our tour bus. I’m telling you, those cobblestones were brutal: a wheel on one person’s rolling suitcase exploded off of the bottom and sent its pieces flying. “Don’t worry,” our guide said, “There will be plenty of suitcase shopping in Florence!”

Next blog post: Rolling Thunder (and actual thunder) hits the Cinque Terre.