The Tuscan hill town of Volterra was labeled a “city of wind and stone” by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His description could apply to any Italian hill town, perched as they are on rocky summits.
The attraction of hill towns is their isolated positions, built to defend their residents from attack. They are places of refuge, both long ago and now.
Access is intentionally difficult. As a result, hill towns remain somewhat frozen in time. Their vertical topography prevents them from sprawling, unlike the communities in the valleys below.
Transporting modern goods and conveniences uphill requires extra work and money. Comfort is harder to come by in hill towns and, therefore, more precious.
Siena and the ravenous rooster
I approached Siena through the valley by train, every view a landscape painting. Iconic cypress trees poke the skyline. Villas command hilltops, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
Siena, population sixty thousand, straddles three spurs of the same hill. The town square rests in a hollow between them. No cars are allowed inside the walls, except residential and commercial vehicles.
I hired a taxi to take me from the station up the long curving cobbled streets that wrap around the hill through a gate and into the heart of the Old Town. My hotel was once a palace, traced to the 1100s and home to the noble family Loli. (Hill-town palaces are typically tall, narrow stone towers.) It is called Hotel Duomo. Sure enough, my room had a view of the cathedral.
Immediately I walked to the middle of town to see Il Campo, the square. I once read a description of it in Herman Wouk’s The Winds Of War. Il Campo is the venue for Siena’s crazy horse race, the Palio.
The square is shaped like a theater, fanning out and up from Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall). In the 1200s, it was the meeting center of Siena’s various competing neighborhoods, as well as its marketplace. The sloping brick surface is divided into nine pie slices, representing the nine merchants who ruled medieval Siena.
Twice a year, during the Palio, the town’s neighborhoods race horses around the sharp edges of the square. Each of the seventeen contrade (neighborhoods) wears its colors and rallies around a mascot. Ten contrade are selected by lottery to compete in the race.
Dirt is packed down on the pavement around the square. The town grows feverish with anticipation. Bets are placed. And finally the race is on—three no-holds-barred laps around Il Campo, approximately a mile in total length. Sometimes riders fall off mid-race, but it doesn’t matter. The first horse with or without a rider to cross the finish line wins for its contrada, and the all-night celebration begins.
The next day I woke to pouring rain. I took refuge in a café on the square, drinking coffee as the wind whipped the canvas canopy overhead. I watched restaurant trash disappear and supplies arrive.
I toured the magnificent chambers of the city hall to see the huge frescoes. One depicted the difference between good government (the town’s citizens are happy and prosperous) and bad government (poverty and crime are rampant).
Siena’s cathedral, dating to 1215, is a visual cacophony. Outside, the facade bristles with statues. Inside, the columns are poker-chip stacks of green and white marble. The inlaid floors portray mythical scenes, such as the Massacre of the Innocents. Canvases and sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini line the walls. The vibrant Piccolomini Library features colorful frescoes and decorated, hand-copied musical scores.
The cathedral’s next-door museum displays religious art that once hung high in the cathedral’s rafters. (Inside the cathedral, this art has been replaced with copies.) One of the pieces is Donatello’s carved relief of madonna and child.
I toured the baptistery (down the hill in the back alley) and the crypt, the site of an excavated church, decorated with frescoes from the 1100s.
The rain continued. I took a class at the Tuscan Wine School, focusing on the region’s specialties—sangiovese grapes and chianti wine. Oddly enough, the instructor was Finnish. She pronounced “grapes” as “crapes,” “green” as “creen,” and so on. “Wine made from the young ‘crapes’ is called ‘creen’ wine.”
- What happens in the vineyard is more important than what happens in the cellar.
- It is not Chianti Classico unless there is the symbol of a black rooster on the label.
Here’s the story behind the black rooster: The city-states of Siena and Florence had long battled over control of the territory between them. Around 1200, they agreed to a competition to determine the boundary line once and for all. At the crow of a rooster, each city was to send a rider on horseback toward the other. The spot where the riders met would determine the boundary.
Siena chose a well-fed white rooster. The clever Florentines selected a starving black rooster. On the day of the race, the black rooster was up early crowing piteously for breakfast and Florence’s rider left first. When Siena’s happy white rooster finally woke and crowed, Siena’s rider found Florence’s rider just outside Siena’s gates. Florence claimed its reward and the hungry black rooster became the symbol for the region.
Local food specialties include pici (spaghetti with anchovies and pesto) and panforte (a peppery fruitcake).
Volterra and the vampires
On the way to Volterra, I stopped at Monteriggioni and was sorry I did. Although it was once an authentic walled hill village with fourteen bastions, a piazza, and a church, it is now a thoroughly restored, medieval-themed mall with restaurants and shops. No one lives there.
Volterra, though, is the real deal, a timeless hill town with sweeping views of the surrounding farmland. I checked into my hotel just outside the walls and walked uphill into town. It was a steep climb to the western gate. I was breathless at the top, but what a pleasure to enter the central square of the medieval city!
Centuries ago, Volterra was bigger. The Etruscans once numbered twenty-five thousand. Today the population is six thousand inside the wall, five thousand outside. The city is not especially touristy. The locals haven’t bothered to learn much English, so communication is more challenging. I saw no graffiti or litter.
In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Volterra is where the Volturi, a coven of rich, ancient vampires, hide from the world. (The movie, however, was shot in another hill town—Montepulciano.)
The real ancients of Volterra gather every evening and sit along the wall in the fading sunlight, watching the day-trippers leave bus by bus.
They appear somewhat befuddled by the crassness of the tourists and somewhat relieved to have their town back for the evening. Like the Volturi vampires, they are wary of outsiders.
On the tourist-filled piazzas of Venice and Milan, the vendors seem to outnumber the tourists. In contrast, Volterra has been allotted only three, one selling sunglasses, one selfie sticks and one cellphone cases. They look distressed at the lack of opportunity.
The pizza at Ombra Della Sera was the best I had in Italy. Or perhaps the most American. Italian pizza is usually sloppy in the middle, hard and crusty at the edges, and sparse in toppings. They are delivered unsliced. Italians eat pizza with knife and fork, never with their hands as Americans do.
Volterra’s Etruscan Museum houses a collection of some one-thousand funerary urns (for ashes), dating from as early as 600 BCE. Each is carved with a scene, usually a journey to the afterlife, with a generic sculpture of the deceased on top, lounging horizontally. Most are alabaster. One is unique—the Urn of the Spouses from 100 BCE. An elderly couple lounge intertwined on this one, celebrating their life together.
The Etruscan Arch is Voltera’s south gate, built with massive stones around 300 BCE. In 1944, occupying Nazi forces intended to blow up the arch to prevent the Allies from entering the city.
The Volterrans cut a deal with the Nazi commander. In twenty-four hours they completely blocked the arch bottom to top with stones, obstructing the use of the entry.
Men, women and children worked together, around the clock, ripping up their streets’ paving stones and passing them fire-brigade style to masons who stacked them tightly together.
They beat the Nazi-imposed deadline and saved their historical arch. A nearby shop window proudly lists the names of the hundreds of locals who helped.
An Etruscan acropolis and two temples were located on the city’s highest point around 1500 BCE. From there, the view is to the sea and the Apennines. In 1472, Florence destroyed the buildings and built a fortress, Medici Fortezza. The old fortress is now a maximum-security prison for inmates with “family” connections in Sicily.
Built around 40 BCE, Volterra’s Roman theater was rediscovered under a heap of medieval rubbish during preliminary fieldwork for a sports arena in the 1950s. It once seated two thousand. Sections of two levels of the stage wall stand, including marble columns with Corinthian capitals. Nineteen rows of seats are still visible.
The next day, May 1, was a national holiday in Italy, equivalent to our Labor Day. Non-touristic shops were closed. Instead of the usual muesli and yogurt at breakfast, the hotel served a traditional stew made with trippa (tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach), bacon, carrots, celery, onions, parsley, tomatoes, and olive oil. It was served along with unsalted bread, cheese, and a glass of red wine.
The manager and waitress stood at my table and poured each of the three of us a glass. We saluted. An interesting way to start the day.
In front of city hall, a crowd awaited the arrival of a politician from Siena. He was in town to join them in a protest against the closing of Smith Bits, a local chisel manufacturer (owned by Schlumberger, headquartered in Texas). The planned closure will hurt the area’s economy. Signs of support for the plant hang all over Volterra.
I toured Palazzo Viti, a palace enhanced in the 1800s with alabaster money. It is decorated with art, furniture, alabaster chandeliers, antiques, and many rare books, gathered from around the world. The family stills lives inside and sustains the building with tour money. In fact, the family’s elderly matriarch sold me my ticket! The palace has been used as a movie set many times.
This cathedral was built in the 1200s in Pisan Romanesque style with zebra stripes of green and white marble.
Pope Linus, a native of Volterra, is listed by the Roman Catholic Church as the second pope. Among those considered by the church to have held the position of pope, only Linus and two others are mentioned in the New Testament.
I visited an alabaster workshop. The artisan explained to me how he first makes models out of terra cotta. Everything in the shop, including him, was covered in white dust.
Each day, around 6 p.m., when I’m beginning to think about dinner, the Italians are drinking espresso and eating gelato. I had the Volterran version of ribollita (soup made with canellini beans and crusty bread) and pici cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper—the ultimate mac-and-cheese). The Volterrans, like the Volturi vampires, don’t eat until the sun goes down.
San Gimignano and the sundial that isn’t
The three-day weekend was over so I had the breakfast room at the hotel and the entire spread to myself. Drove to San Gimignano (sahn jee meen YAH noh), a nearby hill town with fourteen out of seventy-two medieval towers still standing.
Wealthy families in Tuscany’s medieval hill towns built tall stone towers to protect themselves from enemies both outside and inside the gates.
When attacked, a family would burn their tower’s external wooden staircase. Inside, they would pull up ladders floor by floor until they were safe within the stronghold at the top.
The current city is situated on the site of an Etruscan community from 200 BCE. The plague of 1348 wiped out most of its population.
The stone edge of the cistern in the town center is deeply grooved from generations of villagers drawing water-filled buckets with ropes.
I visited the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, consecrated in 1148. Enjoyed the frescoes in the courtyard of the city hall, built in the 1200s. I stepped through the doorway beneath a Maltese cross to enter the Church of San Bartolo, dating from 1173.
At the other end of town, I struggled with the other visitors to figure out the sundial on the side of Sant’Agostino Church, dating from 1280. Turns out, it’s not a clock, but a controversial work of art—a prank.
Assisi and men in tights
The road to Assisi, the “city of peace,” was bordered by bright red poppies. Assisi overlooks the biggest valley in Umbria. It has a population of twenty-five thousand, but only thirty-five hundred live in the Old Town on top of the mountain.
In describing Assisi’s layout to me, Enrico, a hotel owner, said the town appears to be sliding down the face of the mountain. It is surrounded by rings of walls and arched gates from different periods, including Roman.
Right away, I realized I had unintentionally walked into a historical reenactment. The streets were filled with people in medieval costumes. Blue and red banners hung from the buildings. Barriers blocked the streets. Drum parades marched day and evening. A group played traditional music in the piazza.
During medieval times, hostilities existed between Assisi’s different neighborhoods, occasionally resulting in violence. The friction was between the sotta (lower) and sopra (upper) sections of town.
Despite the rivalry, a spring festival was held each year, with singing, dancing, and feasting. Nowadays, Calendimaggio, the festival, is held the first weekend in May.
The locals spend a year preparing for the competitions. The back streets are full of activity—props being built, sets painted, performances practiced. All ages are involved.
The residents wear elaborate medieval costumes throughout and mix with non-costumed tourists. Robe-wearing friars abound in Assisi. During the festival, it’s unclear which ones are real and which are actors.
The upper part of town, from the main square to the Basilica of Saint Clare, is the blue team. The lower part, from the square to the Basilica of Saint Francis, is the red. The two teams compete in a variety of musical and athletic events—drumming, singing, tug-of-war, and log-sled race.
Historical reenactment is another competition. A jury views dramatic plays staged by each team in the back streets of each section. To enhance authenticity, the street lights are covered. Torches and candles light the productions.
The winning team selects the festival queen via an archery contest. Tickets are required for certain events, such as the back-street reenactments. Some are accessible to locals only.
Calendimaggio is like a Civil War reenactment, music festival, Fourth of July parade, high-school football game, and halloween party, all rolled into one.
Refreshingly, the festival is not produced for the sake of tourism. It is, at its core, a community event, celebrating the history and culture of the town.
The participants are so wrapped up in preparation and so focused on winning, they barely notice the tourists. In fact, the tourists are in the way. “What?! I have to practice singing, sew my costume, and work at the gelato shop?”
Assisi is known as the hometown of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare. The Basilica of Saint Francis was built in 1228 to house the remains of Francis after he was sainted (although his bones were lost for six hundred years). At its base are shelters where pilgrims were housed during the 1400s. Both upper and lower basilicas feature colorfully frescoed scenes from the life of Francis.
Francis created the first crèche (nativity scene) to help teach Christianity. He is known as the protector of animals. Franciscans settled in California and established missions, which became the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco (named after Francis), and Santa Clara (named after Clare).
The Basilica of Saint Clare was built in 1265. Inside, the Chapel of the Crucifix of San Damiano is a wooden crucifix. In 1206, Francis knelt before this very crucifix (located at the time in a different church) and asked for direction. The crucifix told him to rebuild the church.
Saint Clare was one of the first followers of Francis. She founded the Order of Poor Ladies, known today as the Poor Clares, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. Clare’s tomb is in the church’s crypt, along with robes, tunics, and relics of Francis.
Stopped into the Cathedral of San Rufino, built in the 1000s. Most interesting were the stone lions just outside the doorway. One is quite graphically eating a Christian martyr. Both Francis and Clare were baptised inside as children, Francis in 1181, Clare in 1194. They met in this same church.
Assisi was once a Roman town and has the remains of an amphitheater to prove it. Now, the theater foundations support a circle of stone houses, built in the 1200s.
The Romans also built a temple to Minerva around 100 BCE. It’s the showpiece of the piazza. I hiked to both Rocco Maggiore (big fortress) and Rocco Minore (small fortress) for views over the town and the valley.
In the afternoon I took my assigned seat in the grandstand. After a trumpet fanfare, the grand master presented one of the candidates for festival queen.
Then the flag team entered—men in tights. They took turns in various combinations, groups of four, six, and eight, throwing and twirling flags. The younger men threw higher. The geezer group was much appreciated. Some specialized in juggling two or three flags at once. The grand finale involved jumping over a row of throwers lying prone and packed while twirling a flag below the legs. Like Evil Knievel jumping a row of school buses.
Orvieto and its wonders
A Saturday-morning market was setting up in front of the hotel when I left Assisi. At Orvieto I parked behind the train station at the bottom of the hill and rode the funicular to the top.
I continued walking uphill to the cathedral and found Villa Mercede behind it. A monastery. The padre checked me in. A spartan room. No conveniences. The Wi-Fi was so slow it was pointless. I suppose the monks would prefer I meditate.
Orvieto sits on the flat summit of a large butte in Umbria, protected by sheer cliffs on all sides. Strategically located on the road between Rome and Florence, the city was a favorite of several popes. Its population is twenty-five thousand.
The outside of the Cathedral of Orvieto, dating from the 1300s, is a gaudy mish-mash of mosaics, stained glass, and marble and bronze sculpture.
It was built under the orders of Pope Urban IV to provide a home for the Corporal of Bolsena. Supposedly a skeptical priest was performing Mass in 1263 when the bread began to bleed, dripping onto a corporal (a linen altar cloth).
This occurrence is considered a miracle. The blood-stained cloth is kept in a frame over the altar in the Chapel of the Corporal.
Also inside is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life After Death (painted 1499-1504). It’s a fantasy vision of the end of the world with superhero angels shooting lasers and horrible devils tormenting naked sinners. A medieval graphic novel.
The military commandos guarding the front of the cathedral wear sporty little Robin-Hood-style caps with brown feathers fluttering in the breeze.
Next morning, painted cherubs smiled down from the ceiling in the breakfast room at the monastery. As in Assisi, it is bread and coffee only. Too pious for big spreads.
Whenever a crowd gathers at Il Mago di Oz (Wizard of Oz), a shop filled with collectibles, the owner-wizard fires up his collection of antique miniature Ferris wheels, blinking lights, and tinny music.
I toured Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (MoDo City Museum) housing remnant art from the cathedral, pieces that once decorated its facade, side chapels, and choir. Included are a marble madonna-and-child statue, Baroque paintings from the late 1500s, and detailed inlaid woodwork. The Etruscan Museum, a palace from the 1800s, displays fragments of sculpture, pottery, and jewelry, and a huge collection of Roman coins.
Beneath Orvieto is a labyrinth of secret caves, tunnels, rooms, wells, stairs, and cellars dug into the soft volcanic rock. Some were excavated to provide a means of escape for the noble families when the city was under attack. A few are available to tour.
While renovating a restaurant, a family discovered a maze of Etruscan-era caves and tunnels underneath, along with pottery shards and other remnants. The Well of the Cave attraction is now a bigger draw than the restaurant itself.
SERVER. Would you like the house wine?
HUSBAND. (With a haughty air of sophistication) No, no, I believe I’ll have the vino rosso.
WIFE. You just ordered the house wine.
Civita di Bagnoregio and survival
Civita (CHEE vee tah) is the definitive Italian hill town, about a quarter-mile square clinging for its life to the top of a butte in a broad canyon. On the way there, I stopped in Lubriano for the view of it across the canyon and again at the overlook in Bagnoregio. Wow! It’s a fairy-tale village in a make-believe location.
Civita’s dozen or so residents are connected to the outside world only by a footbridge. (No cars, but it is Vespa-accessible.) The new bridge, erected in 1966, replaced a donkey path on a ridge that collapsed during an earthquake.
The butte is slowly eroding and taking the medieval stone buildings into the chasm with it.
In the last decade, most of its lifelong residents have died or moved. Now it serves mostly tourists. The New York Times called it, “the town that’s forever on the brink of death.”
The wind howls. The stone crumbles. The hill towns continue to fight time and gravity in their bid to protect their walls, their traditions, and their ways of life.