Vitozza, Tuscany's lost cliff dwelling city. A honeycomb hidden in the woods.
In school we learnt that some prehistoric men lived in caves. My daughter reminds me that in Europe it was Neanderthal man. And in today's modern world we probably wouldn't be that surprised if a National Geographic photo shoot took us to a far off arid landscape where an ancient civilization once did just that. Or to massive tombs and temples carved into the front of a cliff.
Or even if a local newspaper headline told us the human story of a hermit who had been found living in a cave in mountains closer to home.
But if I told you that there is an ancient rock settlement in Italy. In Maremma. The "citta rupestre". That was occupied in the Etruscan age - all twenty-nine centuries ago - and in all probability before then by prehistoric man.
Occupied continuously. With its own castles - two of them, a church, and carpenters, tanners and masons.
Right up to the end of the 18th century. With records of who lived in which cave, each of which had its own address.
And that it is one of the largest and most important cliff dwelling sites in the whole of Italy.
Wouldn't that pique your interest to take a look whilst you were visiting Tuscany?
And to cap it all, just a ten minute detour from a stunning and magical town sat high on its own tufa rock outcrop, will get you there. And that magical town is worth visiting in it's own right. Any day.
So that's one day's itinerary in Tuscany sorted then :)
The local residents of San Quirico take their daily afternoon "passeggiata" (stroll) into the dappled woods next to town, along the beech tree-lined path past the initial cave entrances. But hardly anybody else visits. So you can literally have this whole ancient cliff dwelling site to yourselves if you decide to go.
The beginning of the route, which is really easy going and flat for most of the way, starts at a small car park alongside the River Lente.
TIP. This car park isn't in town. Although you can park there too without a problem. It is a sleepy place. But is another 750 or so metres closer to the start of the archaeological park in which the cave dwellings are situated. Not a distance to worry about, but at the end of a good few hours walking around, not having to carry little feet or listen to a tired teenager on the way back to the car might just be a saving grace!
To find it, drive around the small piazza in the centre of San Quirico to it's north-west corner and the start of a lane where you should spot a parking direction sign. Don't loose faith after that - like my husband did - when there are no more signs and start to question whether it was directing you to park alongside the lane. Continue to its very end, where you will see an information board and the car park down on a flattened area alongside the river on your right.
It will take you over a bridge and past cave garages, some well kept, some not. And then, after 1.5 kilometres, you'll find the first "grotte" with their Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo Sorano information plaques in yellow.
It is here that the adventure really begins.
In the lost city of "Vitoccium", as it was first known.
There are three distinctive types of caves.
The first, which you will see as you enter the archaeological site, are those that catch the sun on their entrances along the south-western slope of the tufa crag. In these you will find "pozzi" - quite deep holes dug into the ground that functioned as water cisterns or grain/food storage pits. Niches for religious artifacts and candles, low, rounded tufa benches (like sofas) carved into the walls, and chimney flues. They are the homes.
Then there are those that once had - some still do - partition walls. The dual use abodes. One room for man. One for his beasts.
And then the stables. You'll find them particularly after the first castle, on the other side of the crag, in shade. With carved out feeders, water troughs and the remains of holes that would have held fence and gate posts.
Grotta number 1's plaque tells you that it was once home to one Madam Laura, widow of Francesco d'Angelo. It has a trough and a chimney. Her next door neighbour in 1783 in Grotta number 4 was Giuseppe Benocci.
But they get bigger, and go deeper under the rock than Madam Laura d'Angelo's house.
Grotta number 5's entrance is partially collapsed. It's two rooms were unified into one large one, in the walls of which you will find niches and holes for the supports of a vertical partition.
Substantial Grotta 6 was the home - in 1783 - of one Domenico Dattili. He would have walked up to his front door along the same steps carved out of the tufa rock that you will climb today to see inside.
The ceiling in the right-hand room of the now one vast area, has partially collapsed, but it is here that you can - with eagle eyes - spot a cross carved into the wall of one of its four niches.
One of the most spectacular, Grotta number 9 comprises of three areas, each with an opening facing the path below. It's central, round area is huge, with a very low ceiling.
Believed to have been the site of mortar preparation, the walls of it's rectangular side room are home to small niches and a horizontal trellis.
See how far you can walk inside before your head grazes the ceiling!
Me photographing the detail in the side room.
Doesn't this one's opening look like a mouth with two bulbous eyes above to you?!
My dad is a civil engineer and I was brought up with him checking places out, even fairground rides, before we could go exploring. He would never have let us go into caves like these - if at all - without hard hats on. So don't tell!
Centuries of water erosion and plant root invasion have taken their toll on Vitozza. You'll spot huge sections of roof split in two and just hanging there. Some ceilings are shored-up with steel joists. But most aren't. And there is a lot of debris on the cave floors. Which means it has to fall down sometime.
So a word of advice, don't hover inside for too long. And avoid some altogether. You'll know which ones I mean as soon as you get close... (I know, I worry too much!)
Grotta number 10 was a stone quarry.
Can you spot my other half in there?
On the way out into brilliant winter sunshine.
A rare photo of me. I can't stand upright in this grotta.
Out in the daylight looking back in.
If you visit Vitozza in the autumn or winter - perfect times to do so - you'll also have the special treat of walking on a very thick carpet of crunchy leaves. It doesn't matter how old you are, doing so touches the magic of the child inside you, and before you know it you'll be kicking them up to hear their sound :)
The road here looks flat, but in fact the leaves have filled and cover deep ruts along its length.
Grotta 11 was formed by the union of three areas and had four openings facing the path which, from the marking around them, probably held windows and doors.
Locally it is known as the "grotta del salnitro" - the saltpetre cave, as records dated 1766 suggest that potassium nitrate was produced in it.
After Grotta 11 you'll arrive at the visitors centre.
It is here that you will find this drawing of a hypothetical reconstruction of what Vitozza would have looked like when it was at its hey day. And you will have the choice of two paths.
Down to the left, or up to the right. Both join in a circular route around the whole site, so you won't miss anything whichever way you go. But we opted to go right to see the first of Vitozza's two castles first. And because we were hungry for lunch and reckoned that the castle grounds would make a good place to have our picnic. And it was.
NOTE. The bright sunshine and shade under the terrace roof of the visitor centre weren't the perfect conditions for taking this photo. But if you CLICK ON THE IMAGE it will enlarge and you will be able to more clearly read and see the details.
Your first glimpse from the path behind the visitors centre.
Following the path round to the right you can either climb up amongst the trees to reach the castle. Or, as we realised afterwards, continue along the footpath and then bear left at a fork in the path. The directions aren't that clear, but it doesn't matter when you are exploring!
This shot was taken as we arrived. At which point were famished for lunch as we had been driving for a good part of the morning to get there. The December sunshine was so warm that day that we took layers off and ate out panini basking in its rays. Pure bliss.
You still have to walk over the moat that once protected one side of the "castello". The cliff face drop provided a natural protection to its other three sides.
But by the time we had eaten our lunch - they were big panini! - the sun had moved around in the sky and the outside of the castle walls were no longer in the shade.
In the south-western wall you'll find a well that is partly built into its internal side and partly excavated below. It's cistern can be found in the outer base of the perimeter wall.
Inside the castle and looking over the edge. This eastern part of the castle was hit by a landslide which completely removed part of its wall and the brickwork facade.
(The rooftop in the top right is the visitor centre. The only modern building in the archaeological park.)
The 125 cm thick wall facing the moat was once much taller. But the movement of land that has all but covered it's two Capuchin architrave windows must have happened much more recently. Because a photo in the local archives dated 1911 shows the wall much taller.
The five holes that you can see would once have housed the floor beams of a loft. But there would have been at least one other floor level.
This 150cm thick section of wall facing south probably belonged to the castle's tower. With a valley view.
There are so many "grotte". Over 200 that were dug out in the tufa outcrop upon which the city of Vitozza was built.
The first of the caves after the castle will require you to walk down dromi to enter them. Most are one room dwellings that housed animals with mangers. You'll find traces of rings dug into the walls and floors.
And most are waterlogged - you'll need Wellington boots to explore them - with (uncovered) cistern holes dug out of the floor. In others their roofs have collapsed.
Even more. Tiers of them are hidden in the undergrowth
Trapezoidal Grotta 38 was used as a stable and a manger and had it's own, separate and close-able, litter area.
They may look like the are sulking, but their not! It is just that I made them walk all the way back inside to take a photo with some perspective of size and they had already explored the church, thank you very much! And had set off in the direction of the second castle. It's a hard life being on the Maremma Guide team!
The room they are sat next to, on the southern side, was probably once the sacristy and had a barrel vault. But it is clear from the bricked-up archways within its internal walls, that it was adapted and then adapted again for different uses over the centuries.
After the church the cave entrances are covered in curtains of ivy that just waiting for an intrepid explorer to be brave enough to enter into the pitch black within. With dangling spiders webs and all!
And passages right through the rock.
The path - well, what is left of one - up into the castle is a climb that will, in all probability leave you with muddy knees.
Up on top, taking a look around inside. The remaining walls that you can see are what is left of the castle's outer perimeter wall.
Now well and truly clad in ivy.
This castle had a semi-circular tower that faced the third side of the moat, whose walls would have formed a continuation of the north-west curtain walls. It enclosed a cave with a strategic window opening over the moat.
At the far end of the castle, in an area called San Angiolino, the rock face takes a dive down into the valley. If you follow the steep path it takes you to the beginning of the Vitozza end of the Via Cava di San Rocco, which joins Vitozza with the Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco at Sorano. Traversing the headwaters of the River Lente in the valley below.
The beginning of the route down.
What were once thought to be Roman funerary monuments archaeologists are now sure are in fact medieval pigeon coops and dovecotes. Lots of them. You will find them not just here, but all around Sorano.
Note. The collapsing roof of the Columbari is now supported by steel joists and its entrance closed to the public. But don't let that put you off going to see them. You can see the first main room and it's pigeon holes really well from behind the barrier and with a nothing special zoom, can take some magic photos of their details.
At this point you might now be tempted to stop entering each and every cave that you pass. After all, you have probably already spent a good hour or two going in and out of them.
But don't stop.
Because you don't want to miss Grotte numbers 22 and 23.
These caves were voted without a doubt the best part of the whole Vitozza, coming first after the columbai. By youngsters and adults alike. Enough said. Go climb its stone steps from the main path below (the lower path of the circular route).
Cave number 22 is a double grotta, with an inner and an outer cave joined by both internal and external stairs. Within the lower first cave is a chimney stack and a rectangular pit. The second, upper level, is full of artifacts. With a raised level home to an oven, two mangers and a water reservoir.
Don't take the easier stone step route upstairs: go on, climb the ladder!
And then go back out from the upper level via the next set of stone steps, for a surprise. A simple one. But which delighted and fascinates nonetheless. For you will arrive at ground level. Literally, like rabbits emerging from their burrow. Your nose will be level with the turf on the roof of the room you were just in. Just a stone's throw away from the Chiessaccia church in front of you.
The whole of the cliff spur that is Vitozza is nothing less than a honeycomb of caves.
The trapezoidal Grotta number 23 is partly collapsed, but you can gain access from the upper level of Grotta 22. Inside you'll find a tank dug out of the floor, a low level seating area and various holes and niches.
The lower entrance gateway was once the point where the main road from Sorano that travelled along the length of the River Lente in the valley below, entered fortified Vitozza.
Note. The pathway now stops here. Unless that is you are willing to swing between a few trees to jump over and around some gaps and spurs in the cliff face.
The walls on either side are now without their crowning crenelations, but you can readily see how it was built along the contours of the tufa crag.
There isn't much to "see" or to capture the imagination of young explorers at the site of the 14th century tannery and workshops, but the information boards here go a long way to helping make it come alive.
The tannery was an open-air structure, with its two back walls formed by the natural tufa rock.
The animal skins came from the local sheep and cattle herds and the tanning tanks in which they were dipped and treated were carved out of the tufa rock. You can still see them today. Covered in a thick, bright green blanket of moss.
The tannin compounds were made from the surrounding chestnut, walnut and oak trees. The treated skins were then laid along a wooden trestle and scraped and beaten with a hand-held stone pad. The leather was used to make roof tiles, shoes, slippers, fine garments, and scrolls and rope.
Heading back to the car munching sweet things along the path as we go.
Passing even more caves along the way that will have to wait until our next visit to investigate.
Including some that will require sliding down into to see what is inside!
If you happen to make your way back to the car park on a winters afternoon as the sun starts to go behind the escarpment on the other side of the valley, you'll notice it cutting out the light to the entrance of the caves. Almost like a chain of street lights, one off after another.
The jacket you had tied around your waist will quickly be put back on, along with your scarf. The temperature change is that immediately noticeable.
And Vitozza, in the space of a few minutes, feels completely different. A cold damp air sets in in the same time it takes to throw a blanket over a bed. And then the dark. Within the dark.
If I had lived here I would have lamented that very last ray of light.
The first written records of Vitozza date back to the 11th century when it was recorded as being part of a substantial feud. A feud that included fifteen strategically placed castles in the area to control the passage of people and goods to and from the sea.
But by the 15th century the then ruler of this part of Maremma, one Count Orsini, had had a new town, San Quirico, built next door. And amalgamated all the pastoral smallholdings into one. Vitozza started to be abandoned. But not everyone left.
The cliffsides continued to be lived in right up to the end of the 1700's.
Vitozza is open every day of the year and entrance is free.
The Vitozza Visitors Centre isn't what I would call a visitor centre. It is a small building with a diagrammatic map of the site on it's walls - the one I shared above - that you should take a look at because it gives you a feel for what the whole place would have looked like. And there are toilets (but not clean and, for those of you new to the experience, they are a hole in the floor type). But, given that Vitozza isn't on any main tourist route and few people visit except, as I said, locals out for an an early evening stroll, or weekend groups of friends trekking or mountain-biking, don't expect to find it open.
There is a picnic bench table under its awnings but no seating. However, on a really hot day, the space would make for a welcome respite from the direct rays of the sun.
For more information - in Italian - about the whole of the archaeological site: the Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo Sorano website.
The Via Cava di San Rocco, if you follow it - it is around 6km long (in part open pathway) - will take you from Vitozza to Sorano's second cave dwelling site, the Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco.
Over bridges, one called the "Ponte del Bicchiere" (Glass Bridge) with a small pond, a 19th century aqueduct and its tunnels, a waterfall. And, a cave that houses the source of the river.
Note. The pathway from San Angiolino isn't maintained.
But on this visit, it was far too late for us to set off following it from Vitozza. It was getting dusk and would soon be pitch black with only the moonlight to light our way. There is very little night light pollution in Maremma :)
So we swiftly walked back to our cars and headed back to Sorano, to the Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco. And the other end of the Via Cava di San Rocco.
We made it to just about the valley bottom with the sound of rushing water all around us, before the more sensible of the parents in our group started to enquire whether or not it would be a good thing to do to call it a day and go back up the path. "Pecatto!" (what a pity!) :(
But we all already have plans to return soon :)
Take a look - the Via Cava di San Rocco.
Explore some more...