Walks around Volterra – the “Salt Road”

Yesterday I took the coolest walk from the center of Volterra with my husband. This past year we’ve been taking a lot of walks together. We have a lot more time on our hands (be careful what you wish for!), Francesco has recently become a certified Nature Guide and I have so much to learn from him, and it simply feels so good to be active – and outside.

The walk we took was suggested to us by our neighbor, Enrico, who talks country walks nearly every day and is an intrepid explorer, and this is an itinerary that begins in the walled city-center of Volterra and leads down to an area of the countryside where Enrico is renovating what will be his new home. We’ll be sad when he moves and is no longer our neighbor, but at least now we know how to get to his house by foot!

This is where our walk started in Volterra, at the1st c. B.C. Roman Theater of Vallebuona

The itinerary is just over 4 km (about 2.5 miles) and leads from the Roman Theater down into a valley called Valle (literally “valley” in Italian), and then back up to the Etruscan tombs in the Marmini necropolis; from there we took a short tract of the Via del Sale (“Salt Road”), and then headed back to the center of Volterra, passing through the Etruscan gate Porta Diana, by the cemetery, and had an awesome view of the recently-discovered Roman Amphitheater as we did the final climb up the hill to Volterra.

As we headed downhill towards the valley, we kept passing streams and water basins. The name Vallebuona that we use for this area (and the higher plateau where the Roman Theater is located) literally means “good valley”. In the Midele Ages places rich in water were frequently given a name that included the word buona or “good”, because, well, water IS good! No water, no life.

But maybe we’ve gotten it all wrong. There is another explanation as to why the name “buona” could have been given to places with an abundance of spring water in Tuscany, or rather in places that were once the homeland to the Etruscans.

The Etruscans venerated a water goddess named Bona (add a “u” and you’ve got Buona) and built temples in her honor near natural springs, where they also left numerous votive offerings usually in the form of bronze and ceramic statuettes. Bona was also considered a “creator” divinity, a sort of Mother Earth, a giver of life; and of course spring water is the epitome of the Earth giving life.

For souls it is death to become water, for water death to become earth, but from earth water is born, and from water soul

-Heraclitus, 6th c. B.C. philosopher, born in Ephesus

As we descended we passed by an abandoned property with buildings on either side of the stream – most likely on one side there was originally the residence, and on the other side a water-powered mill.

As we continued downhill we passed several other mills flanking the stream. Some of the homes are lived in, but none of the mills are functioning anymore.

As we headed back uphill from Valle towards the Santa Margherita road we passed by an abandoned ice-house, called a ghiacciaia, where they used to keep snow and ice in the pre-refrigerator age. Ice-houses would always be built in the coolest and shadiest areas available. On the same road there are incredible rock formations – and perhaps even more incredible are the trees whose roots have crept into the fissures in the rocks over the centuries.

This is one of the few Etruscan tombs accessible to the public, found in the Marmini necropolis along the Santa Margherita road. There is a dromos, or covered entrance with stairs, that leads down into this single, circular chamber-tomb. All along the perimeter is a knee-high bench where the Etruscans would have placed the intricately-carved alabaster urns that would contain the ashes of the deceased. At each family funeral the ritual would be repeated and they would descend into the tomb to hold a funeral banquet to honor all of the family’s dead. For the sake of stability they left a central pillar to support the ceiling of this large room which was carved out of the local stone called panchina, a calcareous sandstone. As this pillar widens at the top as it joins the ceiling, whenever I am in the tomb I feel like I am under a giant mushroom cap and the Cheshire cat or some mythical Etruscan being might appear at any moment!

Over the course of Volterra’s 3,000-year history, the salt found in the valley beneath Volterra was always one of its most valuable and sought-after resources. Salt-curing was the primary means of making food last and not spoil over time. Salt, like water, meant survival. After Volterra was conquered by Florence in 1472, the Florentines paved and officially created their Via del Sale, or “Salt Road” that led from Volterra to Florence so this precious resource could be transported, usually in bails loaded on the backs of donkeys, to their city. We only walked on a short tract of the road, but it can be hiked from Volterra all the way to Gambassi Terme.

As we headed uphill towards Volterra on this dirt and stone-paved path we found this Mediterranean oak tree which had “become one” with the wall clearly centuries ago.

After reaching the main road we soon came upon the remains of Porta Diana, which was one of the dozen or so entry gates to the walled Etruscan city of Volterra. Today it appears out of nowhere, well outside of the city center, but it gives you an idea of how much larger the Etruscan city was, with its 5-mile perimeter of walls protecting it. Today the Medieval walls that surround Volterra have only a 2.5-mile perimeter.

The arched covering of the gate collapsed in the 1950s, making this gate pale in comparison to its more famous counterpart, the intact Porta all’Arco, the only Etruscan gate that is imbedded in the later Medieval city walls.

I can’t think of a better way to end a walk than to have a commanding view of the excavation site of Volterra’s recently discovered Roman Amphitheater, and contemplate all that may still be waiting to be discovered!

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