Under the Tuscan Sun

Rolling green hills, sun-kissed villas, a splash of red wine, extra virgin olive oil mopped up with crusty bread, hearty game dishes – so much has been said and written about Tuscany, that gorgeous region in central Italy. Dotted with vineyards and olive groves, the Tuscan countryside is decked up in all possible shades of green. 

Art-rich Florence is the capital of this region and Siena, Pisa, Lucca & Arezzo are some of the major cities here. We stayed in Florence for three days and made a day trip to Siena. We’re also probably the only people who have come back from Italy without seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa ;)

Ancient Volterra
While the cities are beautiful (and more about Florence in a later post), it’s rustic Tuscany that really stole our hearts. The region has several small towns and picturesque villages and we chose to visit Volterra

The town is not as touristy as San Gimignano nearby (the walled, hilltop town famous for its tall towers) and you’ll still find locals living here, giving the place a friendly, lived-in vibe. The town itself is quite small and best explored on foot. The cobbled streets are lined with pretty houses, with flower boxes and laundry hanging from the balconies. The town is known for its alabaster handicrafts – ranging from small knick-knacks such as boxes, chess pieces and animal figurines to large busts, chandeliers and decorative columns.

Volterra has a long history going all the way back to the Etruscans, circa 800 BC. Ruins of Etruscan temples and burial sites are found in the town and a museum is dedicated to that era. The Romans have also left their mark on the town and the remains of a Roman Theatre from 1 BC still stand tall below the old walls of Volterra. 

The historical centre of the town has a distinctly medieval feel – the cathedral dates back to early 1100s and the Palazzo dei Priori to mid-1200s; the latter is a must-visit especially for a chance to climb up to the bell tower and get a bird’s eye view of Volterra. The Twilight series of books is apparently set in Volterra; I haven’t read the books, lest you judge me!

Where to eat
Despite its size, Volterra has a surprisingly large number of restaurants and cafes – some good, some pretty ordinary. We were recommended this gem of a place – La Carabaccia in Piazza XX Settembre. There is an al fresco area of course, but we chose to sit inside the restaurant – pastel colours, several tables scattered around, photo-frames on the walls, pots and pans, a profusion of lamps – you feel as if you’ve walked into a friend’s home. 

The menu is limited and changes every day, depending upon what’s in season. The day we visited, the chalkboard menu announced a choice between Spaghetti al Sugo Aromatico and Pasta con Zucchine e Pancetta for the primo piatto; we chose the pasta with zucchini and pancetta, along with a glass of house wine for me and some limoncello for the husband. The drinks arrived and so did a bread basket. 

Here they make their pasta fresh every day and when the dish arrived, it was simply dressed yet so flavourful that I really wonder why we drown the pasta in sauce at most Italian restaurants in India! 

For the second course, the choice was between Stracottate alla Fiorentina (a steak dish) and Coniglio alla Mediterranea, which was wild rabbit and that’s what we ordered. The rabbit was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, dressed with capers, olives and herbs. Of course coffee and dessert is available as well, but we were too stuffed!

Where to stay
While planning the trip, I came across this concept of agriturismo, much like the home-stay option. A farmhouse that is usually attached to a private vineyard or olive grove, an agriturismo will give you the perfect taste of Tuscany. There are several of them all over Tuscany, and I chose to book at Agriturismo Podere San Lorenzo, 3 km from Volterra, on the recommendation of Lonely Planet writer (and the person responsible for this blog’s name) Leif Pettersen. And I have no regrets!

Image courtesy San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo is run by Marinella & her husband – along with a small support staff, not to mention Molly their super-friendly dog. The family lives on the lower floor and rents out rooms and apartments. Our room was at the very top, on the second floor, with a great view of a little hill and the verdant surrounding areas. 

A large olive grove surrounds the villa and olive oil is available for sale as well. The entire villa has been built around a 12th century chapel, which is now the dining room where they also offer cooking classes. I took one class the day we arrived and, along with a Canadian couple, made a delicious meal under the guidance of Mariana the chef – but that’s the subject for another post :)

It was a wrench to leave the place (that’s true for all places that we stayed at in Italy!) but it’s definitely a place that we would like to return to – Volterra needs more exploration and San Lorenzo seems like a home away from home! A presto, Toscana...

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