Since our arrival in Tuscany, we’ve been hoping to find Etruscan shards underfoot, but the place has been picked clean. No shards to speak of, especially of the highly valued Etruscan variety. But we’re here for another couple of weeks and will continue to look.
Meanwhile, we’re in the shadow of Volterra, an ancient walled city perched on a hill high above the old renovated farmhouse where we’re staying. At night, Volterra is lit up like an ocean liner sailing across the starry sky. Champagne flutes, men in black tie, ladies in gowns, and a small orchestra playing These Foolish Things.
That’s not my description but our second host’s, whose home is nestled in the hills below Volterra. On our first evening, he taught us to make Persian rice, accompanied by Persian salad and Persian tzatziki. I prepared the latter two dishes, under his direction, and although I was too polite to say so, I felt that Persian tzatziki and salad are suspiciously similar to Greek tzatziki and salad, except for a handful of chopped mint leaves.
Imprisoned in Volterra
We spent all of yesterday wandering through Volterra and got a good view of the Roman amphitheatre, the high walls and narrow alleys, the squares decked with colourful flags. One end of the city — the ocean liner’s prow, to borrow again from our host’s simile — is actually a federal prison, and when you wander in that general direction, signs remind you that it’s forbidden to take pictures.
I can’t imagine what goes on behind the high, windowless walls.
For miles around, and for days, we’ve been seeing billboards beckoning us to Volterra, or more specifically to its Museo della Tortura. There is absolutely no mention of the Etruscan museum, right next door, which is crammed with certified Etruscan shards and dozens of fascinating stone sarcophagi, which are about the size and shape of a steamer trunk and, I must confess, all look the same to my untrained eye. Strong historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans were originally Greek settlers, but they may also have been Persians — why not? — which could explain the confusion about tzatziki.
Just beside the Museo della Tortura, we ran into a gentleman from New Mexico, with whom we chatted for a while on a bench, overlooking the Tuscan hills. He was waiting for his wife, a palliative care nurse, who was in the museum. She eventually appeared and said that her chief impression is that so much of humanity’s creative energy has been devoted to finding ever more ingenious ways to inflict pain and death. We told her of a friend who had visited Volterra a couple of years ago with her kids. Her twelve-year-old — a boy, of course — insisted on visiting the museum. When he re-emerged, he threw up in the street.
Sounds just like Michael Caine
Last night, ten of us drove to the tiny village of Mazzolla, a fifteen-minute further ascent from Volterra. We dined at Trattoria Albana, where some of us enjoyed a pasta smothered in pistachio pesto, salty pecorino and boar sausage. Albana is featured in the movie Trip to Italy, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and there are framed stills from the movie in the lobby. The best part of the movie is Coogan’s and Brydon’s dueling imitations of Michael Caine. They repeat this schtick in all their movies, and Rob Brydon always wins. I never get tired of watching them. None of this has anything to do with Tuscany.
This morning we awoke to distant pops echoing through the surrounding hills. It’s hunting season, and the local chefs, Elmer Fudds in striped trousers and snowy toques, are chasing the wascally boars — the cinghiale — that appear on every Tuscan menu.