Built high on a plateau, surrounded by volcanic hills, sits the town of Volterra. It was first an ancient Etruscan settlement, then a Roman Municipality, an Episcopal seat and Medieval Duchy. Indeed, the Piazza dei Priori is a fine example of a medieval square, while in the north of the town, on a steep slope, lay the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre. Two huge conjoined 14th and 15th century fortresses dominate the eastern part of the plateau, their former dungeons still being put to good use as a state prison. Alabaster mines have been exploited by the town for centuries and shops selling all manner of products can be seen throughout the town. The souvenir shops sell the usual Tuscan postcards and calendars but I also see mementos depicting Robert Patterson and Taylor Lautner, for it seems that Volterra’s new angle on tourism is related to the Stephanie Meyer vampire novels, and the subsequent films, which are set in the region.
It’s Sunday and there is a relaxed feel around town. The locals are catching up after the church service, while the tourists are wandering the streets with their cameras and their ipads. I spend a few hours over coffee and cheesecake in a lovely café on the main street, taking advantage of their free wifi. Then I stop by the Palazzo dei Priori, which is the oldest town hall in Tuscany. The interior of the council chambers boasts beautiful frescos but it is the bell tower which I want to visit. Signs at the entrance to the stairway warn that no more than 5 people can visit at once and no one should visit on the hour or half hour. As I squeeze up the narrow metal stairs, through the trap door into the tiny space above, I wonder whether it’s even possible to fit 5 people up here. And, as I almost bang my head on the huge cast-iron bell, I conclude that I do not want to be standing here when it rings, for fear of being deafened or possibly knocked out by the giant clapper. However, despite the brisk and chilly wind that is blowing through the gaps, the 360 degree views across the rooftops of the town to the green hills beyond are worth every step.
DH Lawrence described Volterra as “a sort of inland island” that “gets all the wind and sees all the world”. I guess that kind of sums up Volterra and thanks to the latest vampire-related popularity, all the world wants to see this town.