BY BRENDAN BOYLE
Volterra, visible on a distant hilltop from Montecatini Val di Cecina and an hour’s Vespa ride away, is both much more and much less.
It is a more spectacular walled city with more quaint lanes, but it has had the full Disney treatment and seems to exist almost entirely for the tourists who throng its streets.
But all these fortress towns – even the famous San Gimignano where I am writing this note – steer visitors towards the piazza and its nearest church.
You never have to stray very far from the beaten track to find people living more ordinary lives, doing the washing, enjoying little gardens, working on ancient vehicles in cramped garages or just sitting on the doorstep waiting for a neighbor to emerge for a chat.
Volterra is no different. It just feels less naturally Italian.
Lunch in a small restaurant down a side street on Saturday served up an unexpected delight, though. Sharing the first floor with us was a small wedding party. A bride still in white, a few guests of parent vintage and friends speaking across the table in Italian, English, Dutch and German.
We skipped a second visit to Volterra as we rode for San Gimignano on Sunday, but had to ride below the ramparts to get to the east.
Sticking to secondary roads made for a spectacular ride ranging from bleached fields with their rolls of hay to lush green vineyards and, towards the end of the day, spectacular fields of sunflowers.
Wyndham has been having an awful time with a cold that became flu and then bronchitis and Sunday’s heat – locals said it was the hottest day of the year so far and it was brutal – made the ride a trial for him. He and Lizet broke away to head directly for San Gimignano while Jed and I headed towards Casole d’Elsa in the direction of Siena.
We heard later that they found a doctor in an ambulance standing by to help tourists in trouble and loaded up with antibiotics to start tackling Wyndham’s chest infection.
Jed and I pressed on down the winding P52, which made for a joyous ride between walls of bush mostly too high to see over.
A sign marked the boundary between the districts of Pisa and Siena and right at that point the lumpy, unmarked Pisa surface changed to a freshly made and marked Siena road.
We visited the walled town of Cosole d’Elsa around lunchtime, finding it strangely deserted despite flags and banners suggesting a festival was imminent or recent.
Perhaps the almost stunning heat had kept everyone indoors.
We took refuge on a terrace built over the wall with a huge view across a mainly dry landscape until we had cooled enough to contemplate the next stretch to San Gimignano, which Jed had visited on a walking tour with his mother, Loesje, four years earlier.
The memories stormed in as we got closer to San Gimignano, which he remembers “like yesterday”, but more about that next time.
Follow Brendan Boyle’s journey by Vespa across Italy on Twitter at Twitter at @VespaVenture.
All pictures: Brendan Boyle