The Mystery of Volterra

By Ilona Kauremszky

VOLTERRA, Italy -- Nestled on a mountain top, the medieval city of Volterrra sits like a crown on an outstretched plateau overlooking the Tuscan countryside. "Volterra is a sort of inland island, still curiously isolated, and grim," wrote D. H. Lawrence when he travelled to northern Italy in the twenties. Not much has changed.

After driving on meandering roads through the tuscan hills, I stand off a main road. Above me strong white flashes of light burst past. "Are these signs from the Roman Gods?" I selfishly hope to myself. No. Tourists, crammed on a tour bus are taking souvenir snapshots of this wondrous sight.

Ruins of a Roman forum, a bath complex and a theatre from 6 B.C. emerge outside the city walls. But no one can enter this abandoned town since a barbed wire fence holds you back.

Volterra does however have a free archeological park for the curious. I enter by the famous Porta all'Arco, the oldest Etruscan city gate in the world. Vestiges of three carved heads protrude atop the arch. Legend says the heads were of slain enemies.

As I walk past the high stone walls, a sound of a hammer beats through the wind. Misty clouds of white dust blankets the doors of tiny family-run alabaster workshops. I push my nose towards the window. Alabaster jewellery boxes and ashtrays fill the display cases.

Finally I pass Via di Castello to the archeological park near the Fortessa Medicia. Rocks of an acropolis are stacked neatly with mortar packed between them. An ancient floor is now laden with grass growing between the miniature stone squares smaller than your fingernail.

Ancient Volterra was three times the size of the medieval town now occupying the site. And if you drive on the outskirts, pockets of the Etruscan wall dating from the 4th century, cling to the eroding mountain side.

About a half hour walk from Volterra I met up with Le Balze, a huge precipice of carved cliffs towering over the valley floor. On top of these hills rises a fortess of rock. This monastery Badia is like a harbinger to the locals, forever reminding them of the previous church that originally stood on the site.

"Badia scompare," says an old villager, pressing his hands together. That church is long gone now. Le Balze swallowed it up years ago.

Although the medieval town has a dreary atmosphere with its walls blocking the sun, it does radiate an aura of the mystery for all the undiscovered secrets that lie beneath the ruins.


If You Go:

Volterra Tourist Office: Via Turazza, 2 (behind the duomo); tel: 861 50
Provides bus and train information and sells tickets.
Hours: daily 9-12:30 pm and 3:30-7:00pm

Museo Etrusco Guamacci: Via don Minzoni 15; tel: 863-47
Hours: 9:30am-1:00pm, 3-6:30pm; Nov. to mid March 9am-2pm
Admission: L8000

Palazzo dei Prior
Hours M-Sat. 9am-1pm

Italian Government Travel Office
1 Place Ville Marie Suite 1914
Montreal, Quebec H3B 3M9 Tel: 514 866 7667

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All text & photos 2005.