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Friday 8 September 2000

Way behind again! Sitting in a bar in Castelviscardo — feet hurt — with my bus back to Orvieto in about 20 minutes; from there presumably back to Fossato, although I'm getting so unpredictable, who knows.

Resuming then Tuesday 5th at S. Maria delle Grazie: a quick walk, about 2 km, to Castel San Felice, but with a 500‑meter leg to the rural chapel of S. Maria di Narco first: nothing much, but slowed down by a crew of workers pounding a steel girder end first into a mud path; all these years translating construction engineering, and I still don't have the faintest idea what they was doing. . . .

Castel S. Felice, a little town on a hill, and at the foot of the hill, "behind" it with respect to the modern highway, the wonder­ful Romanesque church of S. Felice: Lombard plan, splendid rose façade, to all of which only photos can do justice.​a The church seemed to be preparing for a wedding, with bouquets all over and the overwhelming scent of lilies: a bit too much, even.

[image ALT: The elegant stone façade of a Romanesque church, with a pediment supported by continuous corbels in the form of blank arcading, and a rose flanked at some distance on either side by a small narrow bifora. It is the church of S. Felice di Narco in Umbria (central Italy).]

About 2 more km — perfect walking weather, sunny, not hot, a bit of breeze — there was Vallo di Nera staring at me from an outcrop of hill with about as much hill again above it: up I went, the caccia ai comuni, this being number 68. The road sign said 1 km, but the distance is about 1.8 km at a fairly stiff climb: I was quite warm when I got to the town, the only time I was warm all day. Withal, Vallo di Nera proper is not much of a place, although a couple of churches, one quite large, both closed. Curiously, houses closed their doors several times as I approached them; I looked OK, other than carrying a knapsack of course, so I was puzzled: it seemed inhospitable, which is a bit confirmed by the cats and dogs being very scared and running away; some towns they run, others they're friendly. One exception, as I was leaving town: a midsize black dog, very friendly, who jumped up on me to be petted; its person came out and led him away, explaining that her dog follows people for miles. Since I've had this happen several times, which makes me very worried lest the animal get run over or irretrievably lost (like that dog at Montenero in 1994), I was glad she did.

The comune offices, despite the name of the comune, are not in Vallo di Nera at all, but in Piedipaterno, my next stop; also my final stop, since once again with all the things to see I'd progressed too slowly to make it reliably to Cerreto Borgo in time to meet the bus.

I never did see where the municipio's real offices were (not that it mattered, but I was curious); its temporary offices are in a brown trailer up behind most of the town. The town is of even less interest than Vallo di Nera; the most interesting monument, apparently, is a small hermitage that may or may not be in the cemetery, about 2 km further up the road: my guide and the people who live here are not on the same wavelength, so it's hard to say. There was a scenically picturesque manorial chapel (of SS. Peter and Paul) on the other side of road and Nera: inside, 80%-ruined frescoes of maybe the 18th or 19th century.

[image ALT: A small very plain stone church with an open belfry in an isolated setting amidst pine trees. It is the chapel of SS. Pietro e Paolo at Piedipaterno in Umbria (central Italy).]

Piedipaterno: the church of SS. Pietro e Paolo.

There is a bar on the highway in Piedipaterno, but recently I've been having a run of bad luck: this only bar in town was closed (its day off) and I had over an hour to kill, and wanted to sit down. Inquiring, I was surprised to hear a woman offer to sell me a beer in her kitchen; so, apparently, was her husband, a man of maybe 70 sitting quietly on a bench against the front of their house: he disapproved thoroughly. Nevertheless, I sat in their kitchen and drank this beer while his wife pumped me with questions; when she was satisfied, or grew bored, she said gosh you're going to miss your bus and turned me out. . . the remaining forty minutes I sat on the shoulder of the road under the bus stop sign and read one of Urbani's truffle books, trying not to get too absorbed for fear I miss the bus and watch it whiz away past me. A woman came to pick plums and figs in her garden right next to the stop; precarious on a rather high ladder. She gave me some, and I ate them; they were good. She wanted to give me more, but I dared not carry them in my knapsack lest they make a mess and ruin all my books.

Bus exactly on time, to Spoleto on time, and train on time to Fossato. Exhausted, I took the cab up and went to bed.

Wednesday was curious; the only thing I knew was that I'd take the 0611 train, which I did; and that I'd be gone for 3 days, which it seems I will have been (as I write, I'm sitting in a train that's been stuck in Spoleto station for maybe 20 minutes, and all the trains of central Italy appear to have been running late today, so who knows, maybe I won't get home at all, but will wind up sleeping in Foligno or something!).

The two main options I had in mind and that I finally sorted out on the train, were (a) to do another piece of Rome, then come back early enough to Fossato to catch the bus to Pietralunga at 6:30 P.M. right at the station — that is, without ever going back to Fossato Alto — then walk to Montone and Umbertide; (b) go to Sovana — thus via Orte and Orvieto.

Sovana was one of the bigger items on my wish list; that's what I wound up doing.

It wasn't as straightforward as that, what with the usual difficulty in getting information, but I made it. Arriving in Orvieto was of course the easy part: despite scheduled maintenance on the cable car, I was in the upper town before eleven. About two minutes before the bus put me in front of the Duomo, I got a phone call from a total stranger, a man who has a sort of business in Umbria, who found my website, and wanted to talk; so he did, and maybe I'll meet him at Malborghetto next week; he lives not far from there.

Then in the (very overburdened) tourist office I tried to see if anyone knew about getting to Sovana: they didn't; I was advised to take the S. Lorenzo Nuovo and Pitigliano buses, which of course was what I would have done failing any advice.

Also jostling around in the small stuffy room, a young Italian woman named Catia who was wondering about how to get to Sangemini, and whether these were the closest thermal waters to Terni: questions which I dispatched easily, quickly and thoroughly — the woman at the desk had no idea — else I'd still be standing there. Well, Catia brought me two American friends from Boston, who are living in Umbria for a year: Andrew who is translating poetry (this is fiendish, I wish him luck!!) and Daphne who paints, but — we talked — who really paints; that is, aware that she doesn't have the techniques quite where she needs them, she's going around copying art and getting inside the skin of the great painters: the classic tested technique but which demands a lot of hard work so almost noone does it any more.

Anyway — I insisted I wanted to sit down (my heel again) — and we found a table at a caffé in front of S. Andrea, and talked. I was irritated with myself and Italy and everything over the uncertainty of getting to Sovana (and of the waste of time involved, bus not 'til 1310 from Piazzale Cahen), so I made a fool of myself, but I was with good people so it didn't matter. I had a Crodino, and Andrew snuck back to the waiter and paid for it; we walked down to the via Roma, almost thus to my bus, where we parted, they to their car. I felt foolish and depressed.

The mechanics of getting to Sovana took over, though: I needed to make sure not to miss things, plus after all it was only the second time I'd been on this road — the first time with James in 1997 — so I was back in observation mode. . . [. . .]

S. Lorenzo Nuovo, the same uneasy wait as in 1997, too brief to walk around very much, and still uncertain where the bus would show up etc.; but everything was fine, and although the bus didn't go to Sovanaº (and no bus does), it did go to Sorano: since my ideal plan was to stay in Sovana 2 nights and use part of the intervening day to walk the round trip to Sorano, I just reversed it; less satisfactory since there is much more to see in Sovana than in Sorano, but it was OK.

[image ALT: A long low building under pine trees, decorated with the flags of Italy and the European Union. It is the Municipio, or town hall, of S. Lorenzo Nuovo, Viterbo province (central Italy).]
Most of what I know of S. Lorenzo Nuovo:
the town hall on the main square.

Sorano is a largish town, bigger than Pitigliano even, dominated by the massive vertical hulk of the Fortezza Orsini, in which it turned out there's a hotel (occupying maybe 8% of it) and the room prices, incredibly, were comparable to normal hotels: 110ML to stay in a castle, which I'd never done. I checked in, showered, and crossed the courtyard for a very good guided tour by a young woman who emphatically doesn't want her name plastered all over the Internet — but nearly an hour of interesting explanations, exploring a good part of the complex from near the bottom to the rooftop of one of the two symmetrical bastions. I just wish (a) I understood fortifications better; (b) had a better sense of three dimensions, since I'm a bit like Hyacinth Bucket and the insurance salesman, I fear.

[image ALT: A partial view of a large compound of stone buildings, with a three-story round tower prominent in the foreground. It is the castle of Sovano, Tuscany (central Italy).]
Home for a coupla nights: the castle of Sorano.
(Very misleading: the hotel occupies a tiny part of this huge compound.)

After this a prowl down into the Pitigliano-like Borgo, very much the same kind of atmosphere; during which I found out that one restaurant in town was closed (for its day off): there are several places to eat, but only one real restaurant, the Fidalma; it's just as well — I'm spending a bit too much, although the dollar is helping nicely these days! — plus there was a perfectly adequate trattopizzeria, the Talismano, only 200 m from my hotel and on the same level so to speak, a flat walk on the upper plain rather than the sharp climb up from the Borgo. I had pici al sugo, a grilled fish called an orata but whose prayers had not been heard poor thing, nice finely spaced set of tiny triangular teeth; a whole bottle of Pitigliano; a tiramisú and a panna cotta — 60ML. Candid friendly waitress, right person in the right job.

Bed; a bit too much to drink — buzz, but I fell asleep at least — since a slight headache when I woke up, but dissipating in half an hour.

Yesterday finally I didn't get in gear early enough. Good breakfast at eightish, and left the hotel at nine for Sovana; by good fortune the more interesting of the two tagliate in Sorano, the via cava di S. Rocco, is actually a slight shortcut over the highway in the direction of Sovana; unfortunately, so to speak, it and the S. Rocco complex are very interesting and thus time-consuming: I didn't actually hit the road to Sovana (at 2 km from Sorano, at the exit from S. Rocco) until 11:30.

Part of the delay had nothing to do with Etruscans. I fell into a conversation with a German woman feeding cats on the steps of her house inside the Porta dei Merli — about cats and dogs. I'd noticed (how can one not?) the happy fat cats of Sorano; well, no: actually those are just the ones that survive thru the winter. When the summer population shows up they find a small number of thin, sick cats with conjunctivitis and open sores: an Englishwoman recently has been having them spayed, as many as she can catch, and the problem is less bad now as a result.

With dogs the situation is worse. At least stray cats, the problem is a natural one; but with dogs, quite a few of the locals cage up some poor dog on an outlying property, to bark at people, and only stop by once or twice a week to feed them for a minute. Dogs are social animals, and many of these are unhappy and howl and cry a lot; in theory this is a reportable offense and anyone can go to either the vet or the carabinieri, but in a small town people are afraid of a vendetta, so noone does. I saw a little puppy of maybe four months in Polino the other day, locked in a chicken-wire coop about 80cm on a side between two ruined walls up behind one of the little piazzette, and at the time I thought this was close to maltreatment (no clean food, no comfortable or even flat place to lie down) and I should have taken a photograph or done something.

The tagliata S. Rocco is right up there with those of Pitigliano: steps, side channels for water, including at one point where such a channel is made to cross thru the main path — the most mystifying darn things. The explanation(s) might be simple, just the current state of the tagliate very hard to read, mind you: the superposition of as many as six strata of civilization (proto­historic, Etruscan, Roman, medieval, early modern, contemporary) each one using the things for maybe different purposes, plus the natural erosion of the very soft tufa, and the effets trompeurs of natural cleavage and of the growth of tree roots — make the so‑called "vie cave" a conundrum of the first order. One thing they were not, is roads, as anyone who's walked them can plainly see; and the S. Rocco makes it clearer than most: at one point, between two undamaged stone walls artificially carved and without any sign of a detour around them, in the middle, more or less, of the current length of it, the space available to pass is narrower than any four-wheeled vehicle (if the tortuous path, the steps and multiple channels were not proof enough).

Emerging behind S. Rocco, I see a sign: "To visit the necropolis, see the ticket counter" — and sure enough, around the front of the church (which appears to be late 16c or later), a man at a table: 3000₤. He gets an average of about 60 visitors a day in the summer, who stop in from the other side (a small parking area, fitting maybe 5 cars and a path of 50 m off the road to Sovana); although in the half-hour I was there, I was the only one. Rather good view of Sorano; a few artificial caves, whether tombs or stables or houses or all of the above, very very hard to say. One of them had two stories and seems to have had a chimney and some hollows to contain things (water, fodder, or corpses), and it may be what a general placard in the area says is a mediaeval foundry; on what grounds, who knows.

Very soon after rejoining the road, it and I were out on the altopiano; not very high at all, but a curious effect up there, just like at Pitigliano: a big flat empty area, with deep pits or gorges where the towns are, all three of them. Landscape pleasant if pretty nondescript; at 2.5 km from Sovana, the plain slopes gently down, the top of the slope marked by the curious Hand of Orlando: obviously a natural outcrop of rock (quite a few dot the fields — sheep — up there) that looked a bit like a hand, so someone gave it a push, and presto, we have another mystifying monument, which may or may not mean a blessed thing: the yellow tourist plaque near it cautiously avoids even suggesting it's manmade.

Sovana itself must have once been important — very power­ful Rocca at the entrance, large and beauti­fully built Duomo — but is pretty much a ghost town now, living entirely off its visitors, and about to lose its (presumably elementary) school; there can't be more than 50 regular residents over the winter.

It was one o'clock, and although there was tons of stuff to see, I stopped for a rather long lunch at the Taverna Etrusca, sort of on the main square. I'm glad I ate well, because I more or less had to: it is owned by my hotel back in Sorano; the actual owner is a pleasant matronly Colombian woman named Amparo — couldn't be more Colombian — with whom I'd had a fairly long chat at the hotel (as soon as I realized she was Colombian, we talked Colombia, my trip there in 1993, etc.; my Spanish better already than the last time a few days before: so all I need is to get back in the swing of it, a month in Spain and I'll be fine), and who'd actually called her manager at the restaurant, Sabrina, to tell her I'd be there the next day; in effect making a reservation for me — but I needed to eat and ate well, so it turned out fine.

Antipasto: a plate of charcuterie (finocchietto, schiacciata toscana with large white flecks of fat, capocollo, prosciutto) and a plate of crostini (tomatoes; pheasant, boar: a pity to kill these animals for this result); tortelli al boragine the borage-and‑ricotta filling slightly over­powered by nutmeg; more wild boar — in chunks al sugo, pretty good; two bavaroises: coffee with white chocolate sauce, peach (this latter with too much gelatin, too stiff: insures safe unmolding but still a mistake!) — A quarter of Morellino di Scansano; limoncello, coffee; 60 ML, quite reasonable. Even that little amount of alcohol was unwise: I sweated a bit more than was pleasant thru most of my tomb clamberings until well into the afternoon.

The main sight is the Tomba Ildebranda (Hildebrand was born in Sovana: his house is now a museum of mushroomology) on the other side of town, so I ignored everything in town and headed straight for the west exit. There is a lesser group of tombs — actually more numerous, but less interesting — before the Ildebranda, however, along the via cava S. Sebastiano: did these first, starting to feel rushed already. As the day progressed I felt more and more rushed: Sovana requires 2 whole days, not a piece of afternoon.

Anyway, the via cava S. Sebastiano is the only one I've seen where my pet theory doesn't fare so well, although it does end at a river: it does in fact take one past a collection of what is absolutely indubitably tombs — although again, the "cava" part is not where the tombs are, and the tombs front on a path which, though old, is not carved out of rock, and has also been much reworked in recent years for us tourists: Sovana's vie cave are much better signposted than Pitigliano's, although they are fewer (only 4).

On along the road maybe 500 m to the Ildebranda and others. The space in front of the Ildebranda was occupied by a busload of Italians listening to a rambling and meritless hash of generalities from the mouth of a guide (little plastic tag made him official); the frequent party line involving fairly minute descriptions of Etruscan funeral processions (in the Cavone, a few meters ahead of this group that I found again after escaping from them via the lesser tombs, I heard that the vie cave are tortuous to symbolise the path of the soul thru the underworld. . .) despite the fact that nothing whatsoever is known, and only a very little bit reasonably presumable, about Etruscan religion let alone the details of their rites.

[image ALT: An outcrop of some kind of sandstone or tufa, carved by man: a single pillar can be seen supporting part of the natural roof. Trees and grass grow on top of it, but in the foreground a wooden staircase leads into it. It is the Tomba Ildebranda in Sovana, Tuscany (central Italy).]

Sovana: the Tomba Ildebranda

Later Note:

a You should not confuse this beauti­ful church (S. Felice di Narco) with another beauti­ful Romanesque church of S. Felice, also with a Lombard plan (S. Felice di Giano).

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