Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Etruscans, Tuscans and Americans



                                                                                Pitigliano - for more photos, click here.


As our early-morning flight back to the United States banked over the Monte Pisano, I caught sight of Pisa's Cathedral with its Leaning Tower - a fitting goodbye from a town we have come to love. Our last week in Pisa for this year spanned two holidays - April 25, which celebrates the liberation of Italy from the Fascists at the end of World War II and May Day, the international labor day. 

The week began with an evening in Buti at the Trattoria Paccì, one of our favorite restaurants that specializes in Tuscan and Pisan dishes. Dinner was at 7:30 p.m. - very early by Italian standards - but we had tickets for a play at Buti's beautiful Teatro Francesco di Bartolo. Although it is a small town, Buti was very prosperous in 1842 when the theater was built by 12 local wealthy families. It's typical of Italian theaters of that time with an elegant entrance and a horseshoe-shaped interior surrounded by two rows of individual boxes. Regional theaters abound in Tuscany and Buti's company is particularly well-known.  

The next day, we left Pisa with three friends for a walking tour of the Vie Cave, the ancient Etruscan roads found primarily in the area surrounding the towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano in the Maremma area of southern Tuscany. 




The Etruscans, from whom Tuscany takes its name were a rich and powerful pre-Roman civilization. Based on the varying features of the Vie Cave, it is estimated that 40 generations of Etruscans worked on the roads, many of which are lined with burial niches. The roads were connectors for the three towns, but some historians think the Vie Cave also were sacred routes within a religious area.

Dug deep into the local rock, known as tufo, the Vie Cave wind for miles through the hilly Tuscan countryside. The oldest road connecting Sovana and Sorano dates to 700-500 B.C. The towns themselves, set on high tufo promontories, are breathtakingly beautiful. All three towns have been inhabited for thousands of years and each is rich in history and culture.

Inside the Vie Cave, it's cool and shady. High above your head, you can see the roots of trees and the clear blue of the sky. At one point, we walked out of a Via Cava and into fields thick with wild orchids and delicate, fuschia-colored cyclamens.

Our trip began in Pitigliano, where we left our car. After a visit to the town, which is a warren of narrow, winding streets atop several subterranean layers, we set out in the beautiful sunshine for Sovana.  By car, it's only about seven miles from Pitigliano to Sovana, but we took a circuitous 16-mile route that passed through several, narrow Vie Cave. For the next three days, we walked in the footsteps of the Etruscans and almost everywhere we looked, we saw caves, burial niches, walkways and ancient rural habitations dug into the rock. 

One day's walk took us across vast vineyards and olive groves. It was hot going and we came to our own, albeit unsubstantiated, conclusion that the Etruscans built the Vie Cave as a way to get out of the blazing, hot Tuscan sun.

We stayed in Sovana and in Sorano, where our hotel was in the old castle of the town. At night, we sampled local specialities, including wild boar, rabbit and grilled meats. And we feasted, morning and night, on the region's most famous speciality - ricotta cheese - fresh ricotta cheese for breakfast, ricotta cheese cakes, ricotta cheese yoghurt and on the last day, a wonderful ricotta cheese and fig gelato. When you walk 15 or more miles a day up and down steep hills, you can indulge yourself.



We got back to Pisa just in time to attend what we have begun to unofficially call the Annual Pisan Italian/American Barbecue. It's held in a friend's garden, hidden behind a tall stone wall right in the center of Pisa.  Guests make a dish to pass. JR and Gaetano grill hamburgers, lamb and pork over a wood fire. Everyone contributes advice.

We expected to spend our last full day in Pisa - a cloudy, rainy May Day - doing errands and packing. Instead we got an invitation to have lunch with some new friends at their beautiful Cosimo Maria Masini winery near San Miniato. (Click here to visit their great web page.) Naturally farming vineyards and olive groves on an estate that dates back to the 1600s, Cosimo Maria Masini produces great Tuscan wines and high-quality olive oil. We lingered a long time over lunch, eating, talking and, of course, enjoying a selection of the vineyard's fine wines. At the end of the afternoon, the sun came out and we walked out into the beautiful Tuscan countryside.



It was a perfect end to this year's Italian adventure.

For more photos, click here.





A presto, 
Geraldine