Under the Etruscan Sun

In the morning, the bestia waits at the doorway, eagerly anticipating a new day.

The next morning Pedro and I were told to eat and drink anything from the house that we wanted, and we were served bread, fruit, sliced meats and cheeses, juice, and coffee. I put my avocado into their fruit bowl because it was still not ripe. Manja was intrigued by the avocado, and we explained that we had carried it all the way from Oregon because it was still not ready to eat. Avocados are now forever linked to us, in her mind. 😊

The night before we had presented our gifts in thanks for the room and board and tour guide services. First of course was the new old Nikon that I used to use. I bought it in 2011 but it’s still in great shape. Soon after I upgraded to my new Nikon, I found out Manja wanted a new camera and it was serendipitous. I promised my old one to her, which is an upgrade from her old camera. We also gave them a ceramic coaster with Mt. Hood on it (my favourite volcano), a sticker in the shape of Oregon with a Bigfoot silhouette on it, a box of smoked salmon from the Columbia River, and our most personal gift: honey from my bees which had been harvested just weeks before. I had searched to find honey jars that would meet TSA’s strict rules of 100 ml or less. I bought four and filled all four with honey. The TSA agent was delighted, saying, “Oh, you got the right size! I just hate taking these things away from people.” The first jar was presented to the kind man who helped us on the plane on the way over. The second jar was for Marco and Manja.

The beauty of Tuscan landscapes did not fail to live up to our expectations.

Our first stop that morning was to an ATM to get some Euros. I can’t believe I used to go to the trouble to exchange money before I traveled, when it’s so easy to show up empty-handed and just pop my card into a machine and viola. Then we all settled into the car, Pedro in the back with bestia once more, and began our journey. Our drive was through the Tuscan countryside, with its rolling hills and wide yellow fields divided by stands of green trees. Tuscany reminds me much of northern California.

Manja took us to the tufa towns of Pitigliano and Sovana in Tuscany. We had not looked them up and did not know what to expect and were ready to be surprised. When I got my first look, I was not surprised, but astonished. We crested the final rise and on descent into the canyon got a look at the town of Pitigliano rising from the top of a tufa mountain. I actually gasped out loud and started gesturing spastically to pull over and saying something like, “Oh! Oh! Ah!” while Manja smiled and made her way to the wide spot along the narrow road that she had been planning to stop at anyway.

View of the tufa town of Pitigliano from the mountain road as we approached.
A closer view so that you can see the tufa (or tuff) volcanic rock that forms the foundation of the city. The imposing bell tower of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul rises above it all.
There’s Pedro and me (I’m very excited) {photo by Manja Maksimovič}

This area was occupied by the Etruscans until their assimilation with Rome by 27 BCE. Both the Etruscans and the Romans used tufa (a volcanic rock made of ash also called tuff) extensively in their construction because it is relatively soft and easy to carve. Etruscan remains can be found in Pitigliano in the form of cuts into the rock that could be roads, quarries, or water conveyances, but no one really knows. They may have also built the Vie Cave, a network of deeply carved channels between villages and an Etruscan necropolis of the region. It seems logical that the channels were part of a communications network, but again, this is not certain. The entire old city of Pitigliano perches atop a tufa outcropping which serves as the foundation to all of the town’s structures.

After taking a few photos, we continued down the hill and across a lovely bridge, then up tight curves into the mountain city and found a place to park. We walked into the city beneath the eye-catching Medici Aqueduct, then made our way to Il Noce, a restaurant where we had reservations for lunch.

On the left you see the road we descended and the bridge we crossed to get here.
Narrow, tight curves take people up and down the tufa mountain. We noticed the garage entrances and tried to imagine the strategy needed to access those units.
Walking from our parking spot into town. You can see the aqueduct near my face. {photo by Manja Maksimovič}
Pedro and I waiting to be seated at Il Noce. {photo by Manja Maksimovič}

The restaurant was exceptionally lovely and our food was outstanding. We were seated outdoors on a wide garden patio completely covered in grape vines and with a view of a neighboring mountain community. I have to include photos of the food too, because it was not only delicious but beautifully presented. Pedro had a pizza and I asked for mushroom pasta with truffles, because I had never tasted them.

Looking from our table toward the kitchen, with the balcony and view to our left.
The view from my seat.
Pedro’s prosciutto, arugula, and tomato pizza and la birra. Notice the pizza is not cut! It never arrives cut unless you ask for it. We were surprised by this every time.
My handmade noodles with thinly sliced truffle and porcini mushrooms.

After lunch we explored. I am perpetually delighted by narrow streets of old towns, and took dozens of photos of them. We wandered to the edge of the city and peered into space from balconies perched at the edges of cliffs, we peered into tiny shops, we admired flowers and flags and laundry and balconies.

Viewing the Medici Aqueduct from inside the city.
Pedro standing beneath the aqueduct.
Look at this deliciously narrow staircase. Followed by a whole bunch of narrow streets:
Manja and Pedro in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
On the day we visited, flags brightened up several of the streets and plazas.
Happy blogger in a narrow street with flags. {Photo by Pedro Rivera}
The Church of San Rocco, rebuilt in 1400 but originating in the twelfth century, is the oldest church in Pitigliano.
This butcher shop had a stuffed boar greeting visitors.
Pitigliano was the first place we spotted my dream farm vehicle: the Ape. This is the perfect truck for me at Dragon Manor. First I’ll lift it and put on tractor tires, then I’ll paint flames on the side like it’s a 1970s hot rod. {photo by Pedro Rivera}

Finally we made our way back to the car, distracted one last time by a cemetery. Manja waited outside respectfully, with her bestia, while Pedro and I walked inside and reported that it was a lovely cemetery for her to visit on some future dog-less day.

Cemetery near where we parked the car.
Chapel in the cemetery.

There are three tufa towns in the Maremma district. The other two are Sorano and Sovana. We made our way to Sovana next. We parked outside the village and walked in, passing a row of bins helpfully labeled so that it was easy for tourists to discover where to put which recycling materials or organic waste, etc. The final bin was labeled “?” We laughed all day as we imagined the things that could qualify for that bin, including things that are still alive, or radioactive waste.

Sovana was a thriving Etruscan city in the 6th century BCE and is famous for its fierce resistance to Roman assimilation – though of course it eventually succumbed. Even after being colonized, the villagers stubbornly clung to their own culture, including their own art, language and writing, until the 1st century BCE, which was uncommon for Roman colonies. Sovana is much smaller and less developed than Pitigliano, and especially appealing for that reason. It also retains much of its medieval character, which makes it unique. The village is arranged around a single small street encompassing a single gorgeous square, with St. Peter’s Cathedral at one end and the fortress La Rocca Aldobrandesca at the other.

The absolutely perfect central square of Sovana with the old Church of San Mamiliano which is now a museum. I think there should be a market here, with fresh vegetables.

The Church of San Mamiliano is named after a saint who supposedly left a hidden treasure. This legend was turned into a story about a lost treasure on the island of Montecristo – possibly you’ve heard of it (wink). In 2004 renovations were approved to include archaeological exploration, and a vase was found, buried below the church, containing 498 gold coins.

After making our way to the Cathedral, we stopped in the central square to get our first gelato of the trip. Pedro’s best friend lived in Italy for a while, and she had been insisting to him for a month that he desperately needed to eat gelato in Italy. We complied, and the gelato was delicious, naturally. After finishing our treats, we walked to the ruins of the fort.

Looking the other direction, toward the gelato shop.
St. Peter’s Cathedral
The entrance to the Cathedral.
The street that runs the length of Sovana, and carries you from the cathedral to the fortress.
The ruins of the fortress La Rocca Aldobrandesca.
Pedro and I walking in Sovana. {photo by Manja Maksimovič}

After all the walking around under the Etruscan sun, climbing many narrow passages in villages perched on mountain tops, we were ready to go home. We wound through the gorgeous Tuscan countryside once more, with a stop at San Martino sul Fiora where Manja knew there was an especially photogenic church. After admiring the church, we found our way to a vista point across from the church and goofed around with Pedro’s panoramic photo option on his phone. To make a panoramic shot, you aim your phone at one side of the view and slowly move it to the other side of the view. The camera makes it all into one long photo. I stood on the first side, and when I could see Pedro’s phone was no longer focused on me, I took off at a sprint! I ran behind Pedro and over to the other side of the view, and set myself up and waited for the phone to move to where I was. We had to do it about three times to get it right, and I was giggling and slipping on pine needles in my sandals while I ran. It must have been entertaining for Manja to watch.

In San Martino sul Fiora, Chiesa di San Martino is just waiting to be photographed.
Across from the Chiesa di San Martino, Pedro found identical twins to pose for his photograph.
This is us making the shot above. {photo by Manja Maksimovič}

We arrived happily tired and hungry. Marco served us for dinner exactly what we wanted: the remainder of the pasta with ragù, and more tiramisu. Our intent was to get to sleep early to continue our jet lag recovery, but that is not exactly how it went. :o)

9 thoughts on “Under the Etruscan Sun

  1. Beautiful, Crystal, images and words. You put much effort in your account. The panorama with the twins is fantastic. I’m glad we found the perfect spot for it. Again I learned so much history from your post. I had no idea that Sovana resisted for longer than its neighbours. I’m glad that you chose some of my photos to post, but most of all I LOVE your first shot of bestia! Oh and also, I was under the impression that tufa and tuff are not the same thing but I started to trust you more than me. 😀

    1. This from Wikipedia: “Tufa, which is calcareous, should not be confused with tuff, a porous volcanic rock with a similar etymology that is sometimes also called “tufa”.” I would call the rocks in Maremma tuff, except that through you I learned it is regionally called tufa. And when in Rome…

      Yes, my blog posts often take such time and effort to produce. It takes me 2-4 hours per post. That’s why it blows my mind when people regularly post every day. I wonder how on earth is it possible to post so much and do anything else? But it’s part of my nature to slowly and meticulously plod through things and tweak details that no one notices but me, ha ha.

      I often learn wonderful things about places after I am long gone, while I’m researching my post. For example, I did not know the legend of the lost treasure from the Count of Montecristo comes from the church in Sovana! How super cool! And they found an actual treasure there too, which is amazing! I also found a casual reference in multiple places that the treasure was subsequently stolen, but couldn’t find any news stories about it – likely because I can only search news in English.

      1. In Italian the three towns are called Le città del Tufo. So tufo equals tuff, and tufa is something completely different! Who’d thunk! You do it in your sweet time, no rush. Even if details evaporate, memories will stay.

  2. This post and your whole adventure have brought back some great memories from our visit in 2018.
    Manja, Marco and Fonzie are amazing hosts and tour guides aren’t they? I hope we get to return the favor to them one day.
    You got some wonderful shots Crystal. I’m looking forward to seeing more and reading about the rest of this amazing trip 🙂

    1. Yesss, Norm, I’m glad it brings back good memories. This day was the same as one of ours, and it ended in Terme di Saturnia too, but now the owners have changed there and it will slowly get worse. The part above the waterfall is already only accessible if you pay and the parking is not free any more either. I love Crystal’s posts and often wish I was there. (Oh! But I was!!) 😉

    2. Thank you Norm! Yes, we talked about you multiple times while we were there, and I was constantly taking door photos, haha. Thank you for the compliments on my photos. I’m so pleased when I visit a place where the scenery is so amazing that it makes me look like a talented photographer. :o) Our hosts were so wonderful and I, too, wish for an opportunity to return the favor one day. Thanks for stopping by and please come in the next few days while I try to post daily and get this whole trip documented. We went to Slovenia – did you guys make it to Slovenia? – and then back to Italy before we came home, so hopefully I can get those old memories stirred up and dusted off for you.

    1. Brian it’s good to hear from you! Yes, the pandemic made me shift my priorities a little. I’ve been blogger friends with Manja for years, but we had not met in person. I told myself in the depths of pandemic isolation, that if I ever had the chance to travel again, I would use it to connect to people and not waste the opportunity. So viola! Manja and Marco were so good to offer their home to us, and Marco cooked for us and made us laugh, while Manja was a tour guide and interpreter. It was a good choice.

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