VOLTERRA–Nearly four centuries before the Salem Witch trials saw more than 200 women accused of sorcery in America, the witch, as described in Greek and Roman mythology, Aradia, was born a mortal on August 13, 1313, in the cliff-top town of Volterra in the heart of what is now Tuscany. She was sent to Earth by her mother Diana, the goddess of wild animals and wilderness, and was fathered by Lucifer, and her spirit is very much alive today.
Around the time she reached adolescence, strange things started to happen in the village. The constant smell of sulfur permeated the air, and steam would rise from fissures in the alabaster cliffs on which the town was built. Rock formations and caves that had been previously unknown revealed themselves, and in one, called the Rock of Mandringa, a fresh water spring suddenly gurgled to life. By day, this spring provided water for the villagers to wash their clothes and carry up to the town. But every Saturday at midnight, as the Christians were readying to celebrate the sabbath, the rock was where Aradia taught the witches her craft.
In these ancient times, seismic activity was common, but accurate record keeping was not, and if logic were to prevail over legend, all that was happening could easily be attributed to tectonic plate activity below the surface. But it was much easier to blame Aradia for practicing sorcery and witchcraft, and for creating the fissures from which the thermal gases and sulfur-laced waters emerged.
The Catholic church soon intervened and sent the witch Aradia into exile in one of the caves below the village, where her calls and cries can apparently still be heard today when the wind is just right. As legend has it, Aradia’s witches spread across Europe.
One such witch was Elena of the nearby village of Travale, where the hillsides belched thick plumes of sulfur gases caused, most likely, by seismic activity, but blamed almost entirely on Elena’s witchy powers. So strong was her eerie essence—and so afraid were the villagers—that she was eventually tried for heresy and practicing witchcraft, along with hundreds of other women thought to be operating in her evil orbit.
The devices used for their torture, which include spike-lined closable sarcophagus cages and stretching frames, are located in the nearby medieval torture museum of San Gimignano.
Witches, of course, are the stuff of legend, and visiting Volterra is not complete without a hike near the witches’ caves below the city. There are hundreds of miles of trails that pass by the very steaming fissures that were attributed to witchcraft half a millennium ago. Take the one past the Rock of Mandringa and see if you can still hear the witches’ screams.
Not surprisingly, the geothermal activity has led to the creation of a number of posh resort spas. But take the lead from the Italians, who often indulge in roadside wonders. Maps that show the most active—and seasonally safe—springs are available in the central tourist office in Volterra’s main square. Sure, it means you may have to change in the car, but there is nothing more amazing than having a thermal spring all to yourself.
Of course, witches and thermal springs aren’t all that this iconic hill town has to offer. The city is known for the alabaster cliffs on which it is built and it is no surprise that the town is teeming with alabaster workshops and little shops selling handicrafts that range from cheap trinkets to exquisite designs that can cost hundreds—or more. The town’s two main museums are also filled with ancient sculptures carved from the stones.
Volterra was built on the foundations of an Etruscan village that was destroyed in a massive earthquake in the 12th century. Remnants of the fortification walls that date back to the 5th century B.C. are still visible, as are the ancient gates of the city. The Porta dell’Arco was the main gate to the city and the Porta Diana is named after the goddess who sent the first witch to the mortal world. The eerie legend of the witches of Volterra is one that most visitors take with a grain of salt—which, incidentally, is what locals toss over their shoulder whenever they feel they may have been inadvertently cursed. But, believer or not, there is no way to escape the myth and the folklore that envelopes this unique Tuscan village, especially when you feel a gust of wind, or catch a whiff of sulfur.