First night in Italy, stumbling exhausted into a restaurant. My friend ordered up a meal and a carafe of wine, which mercifully arrived before anything else so that I could begin to ease my weariness and slide gradually towards rest. Immediately after the wine came, our waiter brought a basket of bread and a cruet of herb-infused oil. I've loved Italian bread (as it is served in the United States) for many years, and I gratefully took up a slice...and immediately decided that my exhaustion had somehow affected my taste buds, because the bread was HORRIBLE.
It took another couple of days and several abortive attempts with other purveyors' bread before I asked my friend what was wrong. Oh, she told me, the Tuscans objected to a tax the Romans placed on salt, so they decided to stop using salt in their bread.
And there you have it, friends. If you're sodium-addicted, as I apparently am, order foccacia, which even in Tuscany has sufficient salinity to appease that compulsion. Otherwise, cultivate the notion that saltless bread is just as good as saltless butter -- another commodity which I banish from my household on principle.
I must have led a charmed life up to this particular venture to Italy, because in all the other countries I visited, English was either one of the standard languages or, in the case of France, I spoke the ambient tongue. I suppose I expected that many, if not most, of the hoteliers and shop keepers and transport personnel in Italy would speak at least a modicum of English. I didn't invest in a phrase-book (although it turned out my companion had brought one along). What arrogance! I have only myself to blame for the multiple times when language barriers led to absurd or disappointing results. (It is hard to ask for directions when you can't articulate where you want to go -- and can't understand when someone tries to help out.)
Probably no one reading this tip would make such a foolish mistake, but just in case...either learn enough Italian to get by, or keep a phrase-book or English-Italian dictionary close at hand. I promise you'll have a more enjoyable visit.
(And as one VT'er says in a very funny motto which I will badly paraphrase, speaking English slowly and very loudly does NOT make it more comprehensible!)
Volterra is famous for its alabaster. The white chalky alabaster mined around here is classed as some of the best in the world.
In Volterra you can still see the alabaster artisans carving this white stone as they have for more than two thousand years. They make all sorts of things out of it, ranging from animals to picture frames to sculptured busts to candle stick holders.
If you are a fan of alabaster then you are in luck - Volterra has plenty of shops selling it carved into almost anything your heart desires.
You can also visit the Ecomuseo Dell'Alabastro (the Alabaster Museum), where you can check out a re-creation of an ancient artisan's workshop, and see some unusual alabaster creations such as musical instruments and a fried egg.
Maffei family has important role in the history of Volterra, especially in the medieval times during constant wars between Ghibellines and Guelphs. Niccolo Maffei was 19th century politician, a patriot who took significant part in the process of Risorgimento, unifications of Italy. He was also several times city major of Volterra meritorious for transfering the Guarnacci Museum ot the new location, where it is today.
When you are seated at an Italian restaurant, you should anticipate paying "coperto" or a cover charge, assessed on a per person basis. This ranges from something minimal to several euros, presumably depending upon the restaurant although I never analyzed this during our trip. Since the cover charge is intended to compensate the restaurant for the cost of doing business, including the employment of the wait staff, I was told not to apply the American standard of tipping 15% or more of the bill. Rather, the tradition seemed to be to put one's excess change on top of the credit card slip or cash to cover the meal. That sometimes resulted in several euros' "tip" but it would still be a fraction of what I'd pay at home, even if one included the coperto.
Not limited to Volterra...it seems that Italians take seriously the admonition that one is to keep the sabbath day holy, at least the Italians who are involved in the restaurant trade. We had a very difficult time finding anything other than coffee shop or pizza meals (admittedly, Italian pizza is fabulous). So think ahead, and get the supplies for a wonderful picnic en plein air, or call ahead before you drive out for that four-star recommendation in Frommer's, and avoid an unpleasant shock.
Not just in Volterra...many (perhaps most) Italian museums are closed on Mondays. This can be a spirit-killer if you're only in a city or town for a single day and the museums are unavailable, which is why the Spirit moves me to suggest that much of Italy's great art is found in its churches, virtually all of which are open every day of the week (and are generally free, to boot). So find your Caravaggios and della Robbias in the local duomo, and soak in the notion that people have been hallowing with their prayers the place where they are situated for many hundreds of years.
The town of Volterra is divided in eight "contrade", city districts, and each one has its coat of arm and the flag. It is the first week of June, each year, when contrade could show their uniforms, flags and skills with the crossbow. The beginning of June is time for "Tiro del cero", a kind of local palio which taking place at Piazza dei Priori. Each contrada is selecting the best shooters with the crossbow who is competiting for the honour of the district.
It was nice to see so many babies around, Volterra has the future guaranteed and it's undoubtelly. Although so ancient town with long tradition Volterra has pretty young population and very cute babies.
It was nice to see that some ancient skills still lives in the ancient Volterra. Once upon the time, not so long ago, shoemakers and shorepaierers had shops in every city district, all over the Europe.
I came to Italy thinking that Montalcino was the center of the wine world of Tuscany, but I have since found that there are other super wines made in Tuscany. Volterra was a real surprise, and more than a few bottles of local wine was brought back to the U.S. in my luggage.
Along the road from San Gimignano you can stop and take photos of the grapes growing. You can see that it was close to picking time and they were beautiful to see, and the smell.....was grand.