Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hidden Italy

Hidden Italy is the name of the Australian-based company that organised the five day walk through the Italian countryside that we have just completed, and the name is a good one since we visited places well off the tourist routes; in fact in five days walking we met just two other people on the tracks, and they were just before an archaeological site.

This is our first visit to Italy and it got off to a wonderful start. We were met at Rome airport by Luigi, the driver who was to move our bags from hotel to hotel as we walked. Although he had almost no English (neatly matching our level of Italian), we discovered that he was 72, used to run a garage, has travelled all over Italy by motorbike, details of his family etc etc. While this was going on Luigi was hurling a rather nice Mercedes down motorways, main roads and very narrow country roads at speeds that made me just want to look away.

But needless to say we arrived unharmed at the little hilltop town of Pitigliano. And what an arrival! Without warning we came round a sharp bend and there was the town perched on cliffs just across a deep valley. Definitely an "Oh wow!" moment. It is a classic little medieval Italian town with a castle, narrow little lanes, a Jewish ghetto and everywhere fantastic views as you came to the edge of the cliffs. Our hotel was right on the edge, and from our room window there was a drop of 100m or more. We strolled the town with mouths agape, and met no one but locals, sitting around in the sun talking at the volume level that most Italians seems to use.

Pitigliano, growing out of the rock.
View from our bedroom window (if you leaned out a bit).

The area we were in ("La Tuscia") is in the far south of Tuscany, and we finished our walk in Umbria, having passed briefly into Lazio on the way. La Tuscia refers to the Etruscans who, 2500 or so years ago, were well established here, taking advantage of the landscape and geology to establish their towns and cities. The whole area is made of volcanic ash (tufa) which forms a soft rock that rivers cut through easily, leaving the steep-sided hilltops that lend themselves so well to fortified towns. And the rock is easy to excavate too, to extract building stone but also to dig caves and tunnels. The whole place is riddled with caves and tunnels, many of which have been co-opted by the locals for wine cellars, wood sheds, stables and general storage.

The Etruscans also created extensive burial sites: underground tombs with surface temple-like decorations. Sadly, many of the tombs were ransacked in the 19th century (often by English "antiquarians") and the tufa has weathered so the decorations are hard to see, but you can still get an idea of what it was like. Most spectacular today are the "vie cave"; roads that the Etruscans cut deep into the tufa, sometimes 10 or 20m deep, and in places so narrow that two people can hardly pass. Their function is a little unclear, perhaps defensive, or ceremonial, but from our point of view delightfully cool tracks through the landscape, because our walk took us down several of them.

Etruscan via cava.
Note the drainage channel at the side.

Etruscan cave dwelling.
Or tomb (hard to know at 2500 years range).

Etruscan tomb.
Two millenia are tough on soft rock, but you get the idea.

And we were here to walk. Each days we had a map and a set of directions to take from one place to the next, and we started from Pitigliano down a via cava on our way to the first stop in Sovano. I have to say that my impression of Tuscany had been of rolling hills covered with vineyards, golden corn, statuesque cedars and the occasional terra cotta covered farmhouse. Well that might be true elsewhere, but La Tuscia is quite a heavily wooded landscape, and much of our walk was in beautiful woodland: oak, hornbeam and hazel, with plants such as cyclamen, hellebore and solomon's seal on the ground. Not what we had expected, but very pleasant to walk through.

On the La Tuscia track.
Much of the walk was in woodland like this.

And some was on real Roman road!

But there was always time for lunch.
The pecorino sheep's cheese was lovely.

First stop was in Sovano, a tiny village on another hilltop, with a fine Etruscan necropolis just down the hill. Then to Sorano, on its hilltop. We got a bit bushed as we arrived there, thanks to some recent earthworks on the track. After a few iterations we found ourselves back on track, but with a steep climb up to our hotel, which was in the fortress at the very top! But after a shower and a rest, what a wonderful place! We had one of our best meals here, but only after we had found the ristorante. "It's easy to find" said the hotel man, so my attention wandered...... After many little alleys and stairs we gave up and asked a local lady, who kindly took us and pointed us in the right direction. We were the only people in the place, and beside our table a tunnel led away into the rock; their wine cellar, but connected to tunnels that went right back up to the castle. We had a tasting menu of local dishes; this isn't a food blog, but they were very good.

Tiny Sovano.
Note the crush of tourists.

The Merli Gate into Sorano.
Just a little forbidding.

Now where's that trattoria?
We missed this sign.

Down there? Really?
But the food was great.

And so to San Quirico, then to Bolsena (a long walk, that one: 21km) on Lake Bolsena, which lies in one of the huge volcanic craters that produced all that tufa. Our last day was to take us from Bolsena to Orvieto, and it was another long walk. We realised that since we were leaving Orvieto at 10.00 the following day we would have very little time to see the city, so we cheated a little and got Luigi to drive us a bit over halfway there, giving us the afternoon to explore the city. In the event, we got a bit lost and didn't arrive quite as promptly as we should have, but we still saw some of the town.

Orvieto was the biggest town we visited, and it's dominated by the huge duomo, the cathedral built to house an altar cloth supposed to have been stained by blood that miraculously fell from the communion bread a long time ago. The cathedral front is an astounding mix of statuary and mosaic, and inside, one side chapel is entirely decorated by frescoes by Fra Angelico and Signorelli that pre-date and influenced the Sistine Chapel.

Lake Bolsena.
It was a long way down into this ancient crater.

Our last Etruscan hilltop town: Orvieto.
We had to go down and up to get there!

We ate well in Orvieto too; think ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a black truffle sauce, and a wonderful escallope of veal with an artichoke sauce. I was trying to find out how to ask for a receipt in my iPhone phrase book when I pressed the wrong button and it spoke the phrase. The waiter was delighted ("Mr Computer") and gave us a tour of their wine cellars deep into the rock.

The duomo in Orvieto.
The front was amazingly decorated.

We could have stayed longer is almost all the places we visited, especially Orvieto, but we had an itinerary to keep to, and here we are in Florence. What a contrast to the La Tuscia countryside! But more of that later.


  1. Ahhh Papa, what a great time. Marty loved the photos of you walking along (he keeps begging to go back and look at the one of Granma with the lambs!)
    Enjoy Florence, so much busier than you've been used too. I've got this hunch that wherever you went in Italy would be fantastic. But Rome is going to see VERY busy after all this.
    Keep enjoying it and thanks for sharing it with us,
    us three

  2. What an adventure! Sounds like you got a good rundown on the history of all the sights you saw. Would love to flick over to your food blog to hear more about all the delicious food you ate too, ha! xo