Volterra, Tuscany Tour Review – Medieval Patina on a History Richer Still

You certainly get the feel of approaching a Medieval castle as you approach the town


The first thing you notice about Volterra, and it is hard not to, is its imposing Medieval towers.  Though the towers do give the town a great excuse for a summer Medieval Festival where you pay for things in re-imagined medieval coins (the third and fourth Sunday of August each year, see the webpages describing the festival), its misleading to file Volterra away in your brain as merely a scenic medieval town. 



For starts, there are layers of history to discover in Volterra that long pre-date Medieval times.   Emerge from the town’s underground parking lot and you are nearby an acropolis and temple ruins that date back to 2,600 BC.    Pre-patriarchy Etruscans lived here, whom you can learn a lot about in Volterra’s excellent Museo Etrusco Guarnacci thanks to its namesake anthropology enthusiast, Abbot Guarnacci, who started the collection in the 1700’s. 


The Romans left quite a mark on Volterra too, which you can perhaps see best just outside the north wall looking down a hill at the remains of a Roman Theater.  



Our excellent tour guide, an actor himself, Alessandro Bargagna explained the theatrical traditions in some detail. 



By Roman law the theater, whose marble was later converted to thermal baths, had to be outside the city walls.  A troupe would come and perform for a week for women and their guards on the lower tiers and the men in the upper tiers.   It was only 1956 when this site was re-discovered underneath the mountain of garbage that was thrown on top of it during its many years as a garbage dump.



The fortress walls you are leaning past date back to the 1500’s, and suggest the many battles fought by the Florentines to gain the alabaster and other mineral riches of Volterra.  Volterra’s Etruscan walls encircled 7 km of city compared to the 5 km of Florence.



Then consider that those aren’t all just relics of the Middle Ages. 



Some of those towers you are looking at are still in use housing a prison that includes offenders with steep prison sentences for heavy crimes.  Coming from a country that has only 5% of the world’s population and yet 25% of the world’s prison population (a factoid much in the news of late) its very compelling to learn of how the locals are committed to help the prisoners find a better way in life, even murderers. 



Alessandro joked that if he really wanted to further his acting career he should perhaps do some criminal act so he could join the prison’s company of actors that are famous for their experimental works and mounts of plays by the likes of Shakespeare, Chekhov and similar.   Giovanni Cannas, an apparently thoughtful man, has given very deep consideration to the prisoners he has hired to work on his farm as part of their rehabilitation.


As an American reacting to daily headlines about the backwardness of our judicial system it’s difficult not to be impressed by these forward thinking attitudes in Volterra.  If you’re talking mindsets—whether its 0 KM activism and organic production, positive attitudes about rehabilitating prisoners, or that of a pro-feminist hotelier—there is nothing whatsoever “medieval” about what you find in Volterra.


For more information about visiting Volterra consult with:


For more information on Volterra: Consorzio Turistico di Volterra Valdicecina, Piazza dei Priori 19/20, 56048 Volterra, +39 0588 86099




To arrange a tour of Volterra with Alessandro, contact City Grand Tour, (+39) 320 9154975, [email protected]




Photos:  Peter Kachergis, unless otherwise indicated





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