To a younger generation, Volterra may be best known as the setting for the Twilight Saga movie New Moon. However, there are countless other reasons why people down the ages have been drawn to Volterra; real estate just being one of them.
This fortress-like medieval hilltown in Tuscany, to quote D H Lawrence, sits on a towering great bluff that sees all the world. Volterra, one of Tuscanys most alluring locations, sits 1,770ft above the Cecina Valley and 18 miles from San Gimignano to the north-east. And although Volterra may lack its neighbours hordes of summer tourists, it is all the more quietly appealing for it.
The town is known for its Etruscan walls, dating from the fourth century BC, and parts of which still remain. Back then it was called Velathri and was one of the Etruscan civilisations most important commercial hubs and a major exporter of iron goods, minerals and alabaster in plentiful supply in the surrounding land . Alabaster craftwork still thrives here and the city is one of the best places in Italy in which to buy alabaster goods.
At Homes and Villas Abroad we have a wide range of Volterra real estate. Property in Volterra – in keeping large swathes of southern Tuscany – tends to be somewhat more affordable than in Tuscany’s northern reaches.
Leaving aside its present-day real estate, Volterra has rich, centuries-old architectural history. Its walls, which completely surround it, date from the 13th century and come complete with watchtowers and moats. Their southern perimeter features the famous Porta allArco gate, part of which dates back to the original 2,400-year-old Etruscan structure, with the upper section having been rebuilt under the Romans in the first century BC. The arch bears three basalt heads believed to represent the Etruscan deities Menvra (Minerva), Uni (Juno) and Tinia (Jupiter). That any of the gate still stands at all is in large part down to the bravery of its wartime residents, who filled it overnight with stones in 1944 to stop the Nazis blowing it up and halting the Allied advance.
A short walk leads you to Piazza dei Priori, the heart of Volterra and one of Italys most delightful medieval squares. It is dominated by the 13th century Gothic Palazzo dei Priori, the oldest town hall in Tuscany and which was used as a model for the later Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Opposite stands the Palazzo Pretorio and its Torre del Porcellino tower, which takes its name from the boar statue near its top window.
The other sides of the square are taken up by the 14th-century Palazzo Vescovile, the Cassa di Risparmio and the rear of the cathedral. The cathedral dates from the 12th and 13th centuries with a simply decorated facade by Nicola Pisano and a marble portico. The huge interior housese several impressive works, chiefly Mino da Fiesoles marble ciborium (1471) and Benozzo Gozzolis fresco of the Magis arrival (1479). But one of the first things to strike the visitor is the majestic ceiling, featuring paintings of local saints and embossed with gold and azure.
Behind the cathedral, Piazza San Giovanni is home to Volterras octagonal baptistery, constructed in the 13th century and featuring a green and white marbled façade. the baptistery altar is overlooked by a 1591 Nicolo Cercignani painting, recently restored after being badly damaged in World War II.
Volterra is also home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains in Italy, its Roman theatre and baths, built in the first century BC. There are 19 rows of seats left and also a section of the stage structure and columns. These can be observed from above, from a walkway atop the medieval ramparts. It is also possible to wander among the ruins for a close-up view.
Worth seeing too are the Etruscan Museum, whose exhibits include The Shadow of the Night bronze, now a symbol of Volterra; the Alabaster History Museum; and the Palazzo Incontri Viti, one of Italys most stunning private residences.
Finally, there are fewer more relaxing ways to spend a sunny evening in Volterra than to stroll or picnic in the Parco Archeologico public park, overlooked by the imposing 14th and 15th century Fortezza prison, which still houses inmates. At the other end of the park lies Piazza Martiri della Liberta, the best spot from which to gaze over the splendour of the Cecina Valley below.