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Discovering the Etruscans in Volterra and Certaldo
An itinerary to explore the history and landscape of the Val d’Elsa and Val di Cecina

This itinerary explores the area that was historically linked to the ancient via Cassia, the Roman road that likely followed the even older Etruscan way, touching some of the smaller towns in the area around Volterra. Once upon a time, the road was a communication route between these towns and another large city, Chiusi.

A road also deviated off to the north, towards Fiesole and Artimino. There haven’t been many discoveries related to these small towns, but what has been found is nonetheless important, especially in the Val d’Elsa (Monteriggioni, Castellina in Chianti, San Gimignano) and the Valdera (Villamagna, Lajatico).

The Etruscan city of Volterra, which “ruled” over all the smaller towns in the area, has its origins in the Villanovan era and is located atop a steep hill in a protected position, typical of settlements from that period. The city’s acropolis was the centre of Volterra’s political and (intense) religious life: richly decorated temples were built starting the 7th century BCE.

The city was at its heyday towards the and of the Hellenistic period, in the 2nd-1st century BCE, right before the Romans took over. The alabaster funerary urns from this period are famous, decorated with reliefs depicting myths and dramas.

directions_car 109 km
Duration: 1 day
Volterra
Volterra

The itinerary begins in Pisa. Crossing through the hills of the Valdera, we arrive in Volterra. The city (known as Velathri by the Etruscans) had ancient origins dating to the Copper Age: traces of the Villanovans were even discovered, but it was during the Etruscan era that small towns began to form in the area. Volterra has never been abandoned, continuing to be inhabited through the Roman era, Middle Ages and even today.

The itinerary winds through the Porta all’Arco, or Arco Etrusco, which was once part of the 4th-century BCE walls. The gate is decorated with protomes in the shape of heads that probably represent the goddesses who protected the entrance to the city.

We continue down via di Porto all’Arco in the direction of piazza dei Priori and the cathedral, on the left. This is where we find Palazzo dei Priori, the oldest town hall in Tuscany, the cathedral and the Guarnacci Museum, home to one of the most important Etruscan collections in Italy.

Le Balze near Volterra
Le Balze near Volterra

Let’s leave the museum behind us and head down via Don Minzoni (a road dating to the Etruscan era), coming to Porta a Selci. To reach the Etruscan-Roman Acropolis, we will walk down via di Castello, flanking the fortress; the archeological site is located inside the large “Enrico Fiumi” Park. In addition to the Etruscan walls that border it, we can also see some cisterns, two temples and the ruins of a flagstone street connected to the city’s sacred area.

Let’s leave the park and walk down via Matteotti – via Guarnacci, passing through Porta Fiorentina, near the Vallebuona Archeological Area. Here, we can see a theatre, with its cavea comprised of 19 rows of seats. Further on, there are ruins of baths dating to the 4th century CE.

Before leaving Volterra, we must visit the Balze (sand cliffs settled atop a clayey base that have undergone numerous collapses and erosions), located 1.5 km outside Porta S. Francesco.

San Gimignano, piazza della Cisterna
San Gimignano, piazza della Cisterna- Credit:  Michela Simoncini

Let’s leave Volterra and head to San Gimignano, the city overlooking the Val d’Elsa. The town has Etruscan origins, but its height of development came in the Middle Ages: it was crossed by an offshoot of the Francigena and dotted with more than 70 towers, 13 of which remain today – testaments to the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.

To enjoy a view of the countryside, we recommend climbing the Poggio della Torre or the Montestaffoli fortress: you can also go to the Porta delle Fonti (underneath Poggio della Torre) to see the fountains dating to the 12th-14th centuries, covered by Gothic arches.

Certaldo
Certaldo- Credit:  Sailko

From San Gimignano, let’s continue to Certaldo, also Etruscan in origin. The city’s name comes from the Latin “cerretum altus,” a reference to the forest of Turkey oaks that characterize the hill. Certaldo is also where Giovanni Boccaccio was born and died, his childhood home now a museum.

We suggest visiting the upper part of the city, where Palazzo Pretorio is located, whose fortified tower is the only part remaining of the Alberti castle (12th century); the other parts date to the 1400s.

Archeological Museum in Peccioli
Archeological Museum in Peccioli- Credit:  Fondazione Peccioliper

If you’re looking to modify our itinerary a bit, you can head to the archeological museum in Peccioli, the archeological exhibition and documentation centre in Capannoli, the Etruscan necropolis in Terricciola and the civic museum in Montaione.

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