We first fell in love, me and Italy, back in the late 1960s, when, with all the fearlessness of extreme youth, I zipped around the Amalfi coast in a navy blue fiat 500, taking on smart Alfa Romeos and Lamborginis at traffic lights and causing havoc from one end of the bay of Salerno to the other.
Time has moved on, as have I, and Italy, while she has landed on tough times and could be accused of letting herself go, is still as tantalizing and seductive as ever.
So, here I am, my daughter with the map at my side, driving further afield to an area comparatively unexplored for us both; the countryside beyond Pisa, in between Florence and Siena.
We’ve been told we mustn’t miss San Gimignano, dating back to the 10th century, but we are looking for the unexpected, secret places under the Tuscan sun, and San Gimignano, wonderful as it might be in the first light of dawn and the last light of the moon is known to swarm with other tourists for all hours in between.
Instead, in my pocket is a crumpled card from two friends. ‘If you’re coming to Tuscany come to see us, Nick and Piero’. They’ve bought an old farmhouse outside a town called Volterra.
So here we are in the Tuscan foothills, ignoring the signs for San Gimignano and going ‘off piste’ towards Volterra. There are hairpin bends to be negotiated and then a small sign, eminently missable ‘Montebradoni’, pointing straight down. Thankful I am no longer in the cake tin called car, which was my little fiat 500, we rattle our way along a dirt track and suddenly, there it is Casa Costello, bathed in the last rays of the setting sun.
Our friends have done what Proust described as ‘turning my dream into my address’. Casa Costello was a bit of a wreck when they found it. In need of much care and attention and almost entirely surrounded by scraggy, unkempt trees and undergrowth, but once they cleared all that away, a bit of magic was revealed. Nick and Piero found they had one of those views that Hollywood makes movies about.
As we get to know our way around a bit more, visiting locals and other friends who are ‘simpatici’ with this hidden corner of Tuscany, we find that vistas like this that change daily- misty and mysterious one day, as clearly defined as a renaissance painting the next – are not so unusual. Just driving around, leaving the motorway behind and letting the side roads beguile you opens up vistas you might ordinarily miss.
Then there is Volterra itself. Almost completely walled, stuffed with Etruscan artifacts and Roman ruins, yet cosy and welcoming to us newcomers who feel we have stumbled upon a jewel. The 12th century Duomo is magnificent; there is a Roman ampitheatre, filled with ancient ghosts and memories. On the highest point of Volterra, within a finger tip of the sky, is an Estruscan Acropolis, with that view you’ve been looking for, from the sea to the Appenines. Volterra also boasts one of the nicest, friendliest cafes in italy, L’incontro.
Kami and I have thrown out our map. Each morning we go off exploring, finding valleys and nooks and crannies where only Italian is spoken and where tourists are looked upon as interesting curiosities, not annoying intruders. We sip coffee in our favourite Volterra Café, we buy jars of local honey wherever we see a sign saying ‘mielle’, we dowse our salads in dark green olive oil that comes from big terracotta jars in local cellars and hurry back to Casa Costello to see the flowers that were only buds that morning, wonder at the colours of the butterflies and sip local wine on the terrace as the sun sets over our view.
There are scenic splendours to be discovered all over the world. For me, the ones that touch my heart and send my head in a spin are in Italy.
TURN YOUR DREAM INTO YOUR ADDRESS
There are many Tuscan possibilities on the Home Exchange website. Here is just a small selection:
HomeExchange.com Listing 386967 – Large Luxury Apt in Center of Famous Tuscan Medieval Hilltop Town of Cetona.
Take me there
EATING AND DRINKING
Tuscany is the region of wild boar and it features prominently on all menus. Give it a try. It’s delicious. Coffee and cakes or pastries are also beautifully made and presented here. You can go in for a coffee, come back and you’re a friend.
Best Bar & Café
Via Giacomo Matteotti 18, Volterra, Italy
La Vecchia Lira
Via Matteotti 19, 56048 Volterra, Italy
Italians love children so most restaurants are child-friendly. Also reasonable prices, with good food and friendly service
Osteria La Pace
Via Don Minzoni, 55, 56048 Volterra, Italy
Another good choice for families, very good on local cucina.
Piazza XX Settembre 4/5, 56048 Volterra, Italy
Very simple with a limited menu, two or three dishes, but each quite delicious. A decidedly Italian way of eating and well worth trying here in Volterra.
Alla Vecchia Maniera
Via Ricciarelli 38, Volterra, Italy