Volterra and San Gimignano.

On a dark and misty morning I woke up with a strong desire to venture to Volterra.  The weather report was rain. I figured if there was one place on this earth that could be enhanced by some dismal weather it would be one with the Volturri.  Beau and I left at 5 am with a note saying goodbye, Vampire Weekend playing in the car, and me dressed in red.

Deeply shadowed clouds loomed overhead and the sun never rose. I saw a dead red fox on the side of the road.  An omen of what was to come?  When we reached Volterra it lived true to its name.  “City above the clouds.”  We drove up and up to its ramparts perched high on the cliffs above a sea of golden waves.

It was so early not a soul was awake at the hour we arrived, save for a multitude of roosting pigeons and eerily squeaking swallows.  Strip away any bit of almost nonexistent tourist attraction and what you have is a place suspicious and depressed.  As we walked the bleak, dirty streets a shudder would open and shut, an old woman would stare with a blank expression, a group of men would stop talking and wait for us to pass without a single word.  There was one sweet man who unlocked the bathroom door for me when I tried to open it and said, “Ciao ciao ciao ciao!!” to Harry.  But although he was at last a friendly person, he told us he was an actor in the town and that he played Hamlet.  What a perfectly melancholy role to play in Volterra.

We walked around and found some diamonds in the rough.  A roman theater tucked into the cliffside, the old city gate built by Zeus worshippers, a few perfectly prettied doorways and windows along cobble stone streets, and a city park that overlooked the sweeping view and rooftops of the town.  There was a little playground at one end of the park and a Medici fortress at the other.  We thought that perhaps the fort would be a fun thing to go into and look around.  It looked like a brooding medieval castle.  We strolled along and got closer and closer to it, then realized that it was fenced in and we would have to walk around to the front.  There were some signs written in Italian on the fence and….oh is that barbed wire?  And then finally…a sign written in english.

State Prison.

Volterra.  Where the forts still hold prisoners and Vampires rule the world.  Eep!

After we left we took the scenic route through vineyards and sunflower fields to San Gimignano.  This day was a lesson in complete opposites!  The sun came out in full beautiful Tuscan force and made the whole town glow a shiny golden stone hue.  Rick Steves says San Gimignano is a tourist trap and he is absolutely right.  If you want to find “American” pizza and post cards and kitchy art…this is where you’ll get it.  The city is almost perfectly preserved, filled with beautiful bright colored banners, a harpist in the court yard, and a bathroom that self cleans.

About that bathroom.  It had a big metal door that closes mechanically and abruptly behind you after you pay and enter.  Then there are a series of buttons that need to be pushed to have the bathroom do what you need it to.  One button flushes, one button washes your hands, one button opens the door, and one button can make water spray down to clean the entire thing…..And all the instructions are in Italian!  I was terrified.  And luckily chose…..wisely.  WHEW!

We walked around San Gimignano a little bit overwhelmed with its “fake” luster.  Give me the realness of a working town with the confusion of menus and odd eating hours and the hard earned favor of a waiter who speaks no english, over a streamlined catered to tourists yet tasteless destination.  The feel of San Gimignano was similar to its pizza crust…full of fluff.  Sad, because it really is a beautiful place to look at.

So we pushed the right button on that town’s door and got the heck out of there.  Back to sweet Barga and Santa Maria and to our friends. I am so SO glad that we chose the exact right place to be.

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