Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Day Trip to Volterra and Siena

Volterra Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
After a morning of twists and turns, hair pin curves in which speeding motorcyclists taking terrifying chances would dangerously zigzag with death-defying speed between the lanes of traffic, we got closer to Volterra. As the road got narrower and narrower, Volterra rose from the hills like a medieval clay-tiled gem surrounded by intensely green trees, yellow tiled roofs, and dizzying drops. With much fewer visitors than San Gimignano, Volterra was a tranquil place with a well-preserved Roman theater dating back to the first century B.C., excavated in 1950, columns, and Etruscan ruins.

Considered one of the “twelve cities” of the Etruscan League, Volterra was known as Velathri. It is believed that the surrounding area has been inhabited since the end of the 8th century B.C.  There are excavations of Etruscan tombs in Valle Bona. The Etruscan City Walls have two well preserved gates, Porta all’Arco (3rd-2nd centuries B.C.) and Porta Diana.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum displayed thousands of funeral urns dating back to Archaic periods, a bronze statue, “Ombra della sera,” (Shadow of the Evening), and “Urna degli Sposi” (Urn of the spouses), an Etruscan couple’s effigy sculpted in terra cota.

Photo: Wikipedia
Piazza dei Priori is a well-preserved medieval Tuscan town square; the Palazzo dei Priori is the town hall built in 1208-1257.

The Volterra Cathedral, enlarged in the 13th century, had a ciborium, a free-standing baldachin in the sanctuary. It was used at times to emphasize the altar and other times to hide it.

Volterra Roman Theater
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Walking through the narrow cobbled stoned alleys, with the sun barely peeking through buildings erected too close to each other, casting shadows and cool air on a sunny early May day, I compared the surroundings with the images of Volterra cast in Luchino Visconti’s 1965 movie Sandra.

Medici Fortress Prison with famous restaurant
Photo credit: Wikipedia
The Fortezza Medicea (Medici Fortress), built in 1474, is a prison and houses the famous restaurant by the same name where the meals are prepared by inmates. I was not sold on the idea of eating a meal prepared by people who did not just broke the law but committed murder by various means, poison coming to mind. I did not say a word about its existence to my husband who would never miss an opportunity to eat an Italian meal, even one prepared by inmates.

The Renaissance era fortress is a high-security prison for criminals who serve at least seven year sentences. Even though customers must pass a background check, several checkpoints, and eat with plastic forks and knives, since the prison administrators started operating the restaurant in 2006-2007 as a rehabilitation effort, the tables in the Medici fortress are booked weeks in advance. I find it peculiar that people are willingly subjecting themselves to such scrutiny just to eat a meal prepared and served by criminals.

Not far from Volterra is Lajatico, home town of the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. He gives annual concerts in Teatro del Silenzio, concerts that are attended by people from all over the world.

Peering from the upper road down to the Roman theater, I imagined the majestic Greek tragedies played on stage for the entertainment of the Romans long ago. Behind me I found Fabula Etrusca, a tiny gold showroom with unique Etruscan pieces, one of a kind. The tiny display windows were stylishly decorated but contrasting oddly with the rock walls and stony building carved into the rock with a heavy iron gate, steps going down into a dungeon with an electronically locked metal door with grates that slid like a prison cell door. The limited lighting focused mostly on the pieces displayed on dark blue velvet. It was somewhat spooky funereal and the prices were steep. A lady appeared out of nowhere and seemed very unfriendly and stiff, almost like a jailer. I could not find the exit fast enough and some fresh air.

On the way back to the underground parking garage, we found a store famous for its alabaster works of art. Preoccupied with the beauty of mushrooms, I bought one carved in clear alabaster and three inexpensive elastic bracelets faceted from real stones and polished into geometrical shapes.

I was ready to move on to the next stop, Siena. I really wanted to see the fan-shaped piazza called Campo where the famous Palio is held each year.

Tuscany Hills
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We backtracked most of the slopes and dangerous curves of Tuscany on the way to Siena. The GPS kept taking us on one-way streets which were impossible to escape. Italians were honking at us, shaking their fists, and some even stopped their cars in the middle of the one-way road, got out, and started yelling obscenities and making not so nice hand gestures in our direction.  We laughed at them and continued on our way. Somehow I think there is a picture of us somewhere in the traffic department in Siena, the poster of stupid American drivers who do not know what a one-way street is.

Streets of old Siena
Photo credit: Wikipedia
We finally found a parking spot about .7 km from the Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped square. We walked very slowly as my knees have had enough and I was in excruciating pain. The streets were narrow and dark with a distinct medieval look.

Siena Cathedral
Photo credit: Wikipedia
On the Siena Cathedral (Duomo), a Capitoline Wolf reminds the visitors of the legend that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, sons of Remus who was murdered by his brother Romulus. Fleeing Rome, the two sons took with them to Siena the statue of the famous she-wolf who nursed the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus. Senius and Aschius rode white and black horses on their journey from Rome, a source of inspiration for the coat of arms of Siena with a white band on top of a dark band.

Capitoline Wolf statue
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Etymological scholars argue about the origin of the name Siena. Some say that it comes from Senius, others from the Etruscan family name Saina, the Roman family Saenii, or even the Latin word senex (old), or from the Latin verb, seneo (I am old).

Sarcophagus of St. Catherine
Photo: Wikipedia
Siena was first inhabited by Etruscans (900-400 B.C.) and then by a tribe called Saina. Etruscans were good planners; their settlements were built in forts on top of hills that could be easily defended against invaders.  Etruscans were outstanding farmers who used irrigation to grow food on terrain sometimes less suitable for agriculture. During Emperor Augustus’s reign a town called Saena Julia was founded on the same location as documented in 70 A.D.

An Italian Romanesque-Gothic masterpiece, the Duomo, built on top of an existing church which in turn was built on top of a pagan temple dedicated to Minerva, was meant to be massive when the construction began in the 12th century, but lack of funds because of wars and the plague forced the Sienese to reduce its size by the time the fa├žade was completed in 1380. The inlaid marble floors are among the most intricate in Italy, the artistic work of many master craftsmen. The pulpit was sculpted by Nicola Pisano. Frescoes were painted by Ghirlandaio and Pinturicchio. Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and other famous sculptors left their imprint on the cathedral.  

The famous Campo in Siena
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Suddenly, the narrow streets ended in a gate with downwards stairs which opened into Piazza del Campo, the famous shell-shaped town square in front of the Palazzo Pubblico with the tall tower, Torre del Mangia. The sloping square was a disappointment for me because I imagined it so much larger. The photos I had seen are always taken from the air, making the square look deceptively much larger.

A view from above of the Campo square
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
We found a comfortable outdoor restaurant of the many encircling the square and had an early dinner while watching young people have a celebratory fight with pillows in the middle of the square, egged on by a female DJ from the local radio station.

The Palio (horse race) is held in this cobbled square twice a year, on July 2 and August 16, a competition reflecting the medieval rivalry of wards (Contrada), and a significant part of the culture of the town.

Each of the seventeen wards has a mascot representing a city neighborhood that was formed originally as battalions for defending the city. The trophy is a painted banner or Palio with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each race commissions a new Palio by famous artists and then is retired in the Contrade museum. During the Palio, the entire town is festively decorated with lamps and flags with the colors of the teams. I had to purchase such a Contrade scarf which locals wear during the festivities.

A Sienese takes Palio very seriously; they are baptized twice, once in the Catholic Church and a second time in the fountain of their own Contrade. A dangerous competition, the Palio is surrounded by celebrations and banquets before the event. The city pretty much closes many roads in order to accommodate banquets in excess of 1,000 people.

With pomp and circumstance, drummers and flag twirlers dressed in traditional medieval costumes accompany the horses and the riders on the day of the event, first to the Contrade parish church for prayers and dedications and then in a procession along the route, in the streets, and ending in the Piazza del Campo, a traditional parade called Corteo Storico.

Each Palio can only accommodate ten of the seventeen Contrades. Seven teams run who had not run in the previous year’s Palio, and three are drawn from the remaining ten. The bare back riding race that lasts three minutes is dangerous for both the horse and the rider. Practice races take place three days before the actual race. Horses on their way to practice are cheered by crowds as the stars of the show. Emotional Italians take the race and winning very seriously. Vets are available during the race and cushions have been placed at the most dangerous corners of the course to protect both horses and riders in case of falls.

I counted at least six beautiful churches and a historic Siena synagogue. Most notable was the sanctuary of Santa Caterina, with the old house of St. Catherine of Siena. The miraculous Crucifix of the late 12th century from which the saint received her stigmata is housed here, including a 15th century statue of St. Catherine.

Palazzo Salimbeni was the original headquarters of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, one of the oldest banks in continuous existence in Europe. The Palazzo remains in their possession to this day.

The city’s beautiful botanical gardens are cared for by the University of Siena. The Siena Jazz School, Enoteca Italiana in the Medici Fortress, and patrician villas that display the artistry of Baldassarre Peruzzi contribute to the unusual charm of Sienna.

We limped back to our car which, surprisingly, was still there and had not been issued a ticket even though we far exceeded the posted 60 minutes. At that moment in time, Siena looked to us much more beautiful in our rear view mirror and we were elated to get back to Florence.




  1. Watching and reading Ileana's description of the heart of Toscana, I feel blessed that I was born in a country that once was part of the Roman Empire civilization. Will all the negative revisions written by the leftist historians in the contemporary school books, "the Victors do make the Vanquished more civilized!"

  2. Amen, Dr. Aurel Mircea. I am also proud that I am part of the civilization that the Roman Empire spread around the world.