Apples and Oranges: San Gimignano and Volterra

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Two hill towns, both alike in dignity, in fair Tuscany where we lay our scene.  I hoped to have “hard hitting” analysis on the “better” hill town from our recent trip to Tuscany, but our experiences were really apples and oranges.  I liked both San Gimignano and Volterra.  If I could only recommend one, it might be San Gimignano.  No, Volterra.  But probably San Gimignano?  See, what I mean?  I just don’t know.  I want to say Volterra, but I feel like it didn’t get a fair shake.  Lemme ‘splain.

If you look at the guidebook (Rick Steves’ is our go to), it talks about both towns being nice but Volterra being more untouched by time and San Gimignano being super touristy.  San Gimignano is easier to get to from the highway, which likely factors in.

We did San Gimignano in a morning, the morning of the day with the gorgeous weather.  We had a nice walk through town.  In a way the hill towns are great for kids.  Because only local residents can drive, traffic is limited.  Definite elevation changes, but almost everything was stroller friendly.

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Henry became obsessed with this olive tree

Henry became obsessed with this olive tree

San Gimignano is famous for its surviving towers.  There used to be more (70something?).  These were a defense mechanism.  If you were getting sacked, you climbed up your tower and burnt the stairs.

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Tower selfie

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The town absolutely was touristy.  The tiny town has not one, but two torture museums.  Buses of tourists pulled up.  We passed through many groups visiting from all over the world.  I’m not sure we actually saw any locals.  It was not uncomfortably crowded, but we weren’t there during peak season.  In a way, the touristyness helped us out because things were actually open on a Sunday morning.

Streets off the beaten path were much quieter

Streets off the main drag were much quieter

After our stroll around town, we had a lovely al fresco lunch at Locanda di Sant’Agostino.  It was adjacent to a square and Henry ran around with Alessio, a similarly aged boy who happened to be eating with his parents one table over.  Even though we didn’t get to see inside the church or museums, we had a really nice time just experiencing the city.  One of those dolce vita moments.




Drinking local wine Vernaccia

Drinking local wine Vernaccia

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Henry’s new thing is climbing ALL THE THINGS

Contrast this to Volterra.  We went inside the city three times, but never in the daylight.  All three times were chilly.  Once it was raining.  I hoped to spend a morning in Volterra, but that was the day of ALL THE RAIN so we just kept going post afternoon nap.

Ancient Etruscan arch.  In WWII, the town convinced the Nazis not to destroy it by literally digging up the streets to plug the gate.

Ancient Etruscan arch. In WWII, the town convinced the Nazis not to destroy it by literally digging up the streets to plug the gate.

Volterra definitely felt less touristy.  You didn’t see as many tchotchke shops although there were some.  You did feel like you were surrounded by Italians.  Real live Italians that actually lived here.  But I can’t definitively say that Volterra is less touristy; only that the town is less touristy in the evening, which is what you’d probably expect many places.

Well preserved ancient theater

Well preserved ancient Roman theater

Palazzo dei Priori

Palazzo dei Priori

We did enjoy some nice food, like our magical night at Enoteca Del DucaTrattoria da Bado outside of town was amazing.  We also had a tasty meal at Don Beta, which was conveniently open closer to when we like to eat.  We had a miss on Sunday night where we scrounged for takeout pizza after nothing was open, even things that said they’d be open.  *Cough* La Vena di Vino *Cough*

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Volterra had sort of a creepy vibe.  This could have been heightened by the dark.  It felt stark.  Craggy.  A little desolate.  This is where Twilight’s Volturi live.  Meyer picked it based on the name, but you could totally see a vampire strolling around the corner at night.

Local cookie, Ossi di Morta, "bones of the dead"  (It tastes almondy and crunches.  You know, like bones.)

Local cookie, Ossi di Morta, “bones of the dead” (It tastes almondy and crunches. You know, like bones.)

I’m glad we saw both.  Volterra was a very intriguing city, but our overall experience in San Gimignano was probably more pleasant for factors outside of Volterra’s control.

So after that imperfect and highly unscientific comparison, if you could visit only one, which one are you leaning toward?

Remind me not to live in the mountains

I was excited about our vacation.  I was excited to explore some new towns.  I was excited to taste some new foods.  But I was particularly excited about the drive.  Picture it: a scenic drive through rolling hills flanked by olive trees and vineyards.  It would be so picturesque, I just knew it.

Fast forward to actual drive.  We left post-lunch to try to align afternoon nap with the three hour drive.  (This was largely successful until we stopped for gas.)  The drive along the autostrade was uneventful.  Same for the smaller highway.  And then we turned off onto the local roads.

I had just been telling James that I hoped our kids wouldn’t be the carsick kind, thinking about those poor unfortunate types with delicate constitutions who had to stop frequently and clean their cars more often.  I didn’t think that *I* would be the weak link on the team.  But, alas, although I wasn’t sick, I was the one white-knuckling it around the curves and with an uncomfortable pit in my stomach.

First, these are not hills.  I suppose they aren’t mountains, but they have to be close.  Mini-mountains if you will.  Very tall.

Second, for the most part, the speed limit is 60 mph!  And people are doing it!

Third, people did not seem to be behaving as if they were dealing with very narrow, mountainous roads with high speed limits.  We’d come around a blind curve and a car would be parked in the middle of the road, the inhabitants off looking at some flora or fauna.  People would be walking beside the shoulder-less road.  Bikes would be cruising along, seemingly oblivious to the traffic bearing down on them.

It was gorgeous.  I will give it that.  Grape vines turning a golden yellow.  Clouds over the top of a mountain.  But the drive was intense.  And I wasn’t even the one driving.

We reached Volterra in the late afternoon.  Because there was no recognized address, James had punched the GPS coordinates into the navigator.  Unfortunately, the GPS tried to take us on there on a route without roads.  This resulted in some turns down very narrow roads with my saying things like “this can’t possibly be two-way!!!”  But we made it back on track and found our agriturismo down a long and bumpy dirt road.

The sun was setting and we watched it slip over the horizon.  It was, admittedly, gorgeous.  I could almost see putting up with the hassle of these roads for it, I thought.


Then I realized we’d have to go navigate these roads AT NIGHT if we wanted dinner.  We survived.  My hand cramped a little from gripping the door handle all the way.

And then when we emerged the next morning, it was a truly breathtaking scene.  A perfect Tuscan day.  The sun shone brightly.  Clouds looked like they had been placed in the sky as props.  You could see the sheep grazing on the next mountain–even hear them baaing along through some trick of sound.  It was green and beautiful and wonderful.

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So I definitely do see the appeal.  I get it.  Just not for me.  A nice place to visit, but not to live.  I mean, it snows here, people!  I don’t even want to think about the roads then.