Volterra: Italian hilltop town made famous by ‘Twilight’ still offers mystical atmosphere
October 7, 2011
While Volterra might be known to fans of the “Twilight” films as the operational hub of the vampires who inhabit the fictional world of author Stephenie Meyer, this romantic hilltop town will charm you with its eclectic heritage and must-see landmarks, including the oldest palace in Tuscany and a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
For those with holiday shopping in mind, the region is known for its production of alabaster, which is fashioned into everything you could dream of.
Volterra has been shaped by Etruscan, Roman and medieval roots — a history so rich it gives the town more charm than it does an identity crisis.
According to one guidebook, the town came to life around the seventh century B.C. and was called Velathri. In 260 B.C., some two decades after a military defeat of the reigning Etruscans, Volterra sided with Rome and took on the Latin name of Volaterrae.
The town is steeped in the Catholic religion and is the birthplace of St. Linus, the second pope after the Apostle Peter, and today the town’s patron saint.
After parking outside the historic town limits and taking a brisk walk up the steep incline past the old city walls, visitors saunter into Piazza San Giovanni, flanked on one side by the baptistery, which once served as St. Mary Magdalene Hospital, and the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunata on the other.
The cathedral was built around 1120, and the façade was completed in 1254. The bell tower to the left, the second one for the cathedral, was completed in 1493 and measures more than 144 feet.
The Renaissance-style interior, constructed over four years starting in 1580, is divided into three naves, with the long central corridor dominated by the intricate and impressive gilded ceiling, the work of Francesco Capriani, according to a parish information sheet. Worshippers gather on wooden pews flanked by majestic rose-colored marble columns.
Opposite the cathedral is the eight-sided baptistery, built in the 13th century. Inside is a baptismal font created in 1760 by Giovanni Vacca, but photography inside the baptistery is not permitted.
Volterra also is renowned for its production of alabaster – and there is no missing it. From cheese platters to mortar and pestle, wine stoppers, lamps, knickknacks, jewelry, ashtrays, busts — if you can name it, they can probably make it out of alabaster. Souvenirs made from aromatic olive wood are also popular.
The town boasts a beautiful crafted replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that will be on exhibit until Dec. 31 at the Salone Espositivo dell’ex Ospedale civile in Piazza San Giovanni.
Also famous is the Palazzo dei Priori, built between 1208 and 1257, and said to be the oldest palace in Tuscany. The façade is decorated with coats of arms dating to the Florentine magistrates who governed between the 15th and 16th centuries.
The town is rich with museums and boasts a Roman theater.
While there are many Italian towns similar to Volterra in look and feel and history, there is a special, mystic atmosphere about the town that makes one wonder about the darker side of fantasy; a magic that just might have you wearing a scarf around your neck when you go out at night and seeking out the nearest garlic vendor. But of note, Volterra is not the quaint town depicted in the vampire series; much to the disappointment of some visitors, a few shop owners bemused. In fact, film producers opted to shoot in neighboring Montepulciano, an equally charming Tuscan town perched atop a hill.
DIRECTIONSFrom Naples, head north on the A1 autostrada (portions are toll). Take the Valdichiana exit and head toward Bettolle-Sinalunga. Keep right and follow signs for Siena/Perugia/Grosseto. At the roundabout, head toward Raccordo Autostradale Bettolle-Perugia. Take the exit for Firenze toward Grosseto. Take the superstrada Firenze-Siena. Exit at Colle di Val d’Elsa sud. Take Strada Comunale San Marziale, follow signs for Volterra and/or Via Volterrana SS68.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa exhibition at the Salone Espositivo dell’ex Ospedale civile in Piazza San Giovanni is open weekends 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3:30-7:30 p.m. The Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunata asks visitors not to enter during Mass. There are eight museums, all having different operating hours, depending on the weekday and time of year.
There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs and ice cream shops throughout the town.
The commune has a pretty detailed website, though there is no English option. Ticket prices and museum hours are listed under musei at: www.comune.volterra.pi.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/1