Some places are made for exploring at dusk and the Via Cava di San Rocco at Sorano is one of them. Magnificent, mystical and mysterious at any time of the day, the incredible and unique Vie Cave in Maremma Tuscany are an experience best taken, at least for the first time if you can, at evenfall. In the twilight world of super sensitive senses.
Now that was a lot of adjectives to use for paths cut out of rock! But when you begin to walk down a Via Cava you will feel the atmosphere of another time between it's curvaceous walls.
Within your bones.
Do so as the last light of day is disappearing, and boy oh boy do those walls talk. And conjure up all sorts of feelings. It's not spine tingling horror. That is far too simple a reaction and it isn't what the Vie Cave are about. But, as your feet are finding their way over the thick moss covered sides of the ruts beneath your feet. Or stepping fathomlessly into the leaves that fill them. Every mark and line in the walls comes alive. Leaving your head spinning with which man, woman, or child chiseled each one? For how many years? And why?
For the why is still a mystery. And I just love mysteries, don't you?
Archaeologists have deliberated, speculated and debated. Roads between civilisations? Sunken funeral routes to the necropoli, symbolic of the journey to the after life? Water channels? A defense system against invaders? A quarry system? And more. Perhaps all.
Some hypothesise that the Vie Cave are simply the result of the passing of cartwheel after cartwheel that wore through the soft tufa rock. Down and down.
And it is true, in the succeeding centuries the Romans used the roads and middle age travellers too. And water erosion did it's part to make the ruts even more profound and the pathways even deeper. But 20 to 30 metres down. Before the Romans even walked them. Is way down for no one to have contemplated changing the route and establishing a new road.
And then again perhaps we have missed the point altogether.
Because there is something. That all of that conjecture misses. And you know it when you are stood there. Because your bones tell you that there is more. When you touch the fragile coloured rock of a Via Cava wall and trace a line with your fingers, it is then that no one will ever convince you that the Vie Cave are simply erosion gullies and not one of the unexplained wonders of the world.
If you are visiting Tuscany, don't miss them.
In Italian, the singular for one of these Etruscan roads is a "Via Cava", and the plural "Vie Cave".
The Via Cava di San Rocco is the most important of the Vie Cave around Sorano. What we do know is that at least one of its functions was to take the Etruscan people to their necropolis. And for more than six centuries, from the late Middle Ages until 1940, it was, incredibly, the only road linking the city of Sorano to Sovana. Every horse and cart and traveller had no choice but to walk the steep and dank road between its high walls.
Not surprisingly perhaps, small recesses and alcoves were gouged out of it's sides to make for resting areas that sold food and drink. Today's version of inns and bars.
At the end of the 3rd century BC it connected, along with some others around Sovana and Pitigliano, to the "new" and paved Via Clodia. The Roman road that was built along an existing Etruscan Via Cava to serve as a commercial route with the Etruscan colonies in the tufa hills of Maremma. Connecting at its ends with the military, much longer-haul routes of the coastal Via Aurelia and the high-road of Via Cassia.
What you see today along the breathtaking trek (for it is so for more than one reason!) isn't the Via Cava in all its splendour. For the abandonment of the plots of farmland high up along its length that began in the 1960's has enabled trees and their roots to invade its walls. Open up crevices that rain and ice have expanded. And some sections have started to crumble. Mother nature at work when man walks away.
But at more than 20 metres deep in places it's sinuous trail is still awe-inspiringly awesome.
At first the going is easy, you just have to walk along the rounded ridges in the road.
But then the 6 kilometre track takes a dive.
Down and down.
Past some of those roots and a crumbling rock face.
And down again. Turn a corner and the light is gone on one side completely.
My family and friends stepping into one of the small "rooms" carved into the side wall. I took a second photo with them hiding from sight inside, but in the interests of perspective decided to use this one instead!
The walls are closing in! But down and down we go.
Light from the valley floor streams up the Via Cava.
Which one will you take, the high road or the low road around the bend?
Looking back up from where we have come.
At this point the more sensible of the parents amongst us decided that it was well and truly high time to make our way back up, as within twenty minutes or so it would soon be pitch black between those walls. We were within earshot of the rushing waters of the river in the valley below, but judging distances by sound can be deceptive and sometimes just pushing on another little bit isn't the most sensible thing to do. Especially after you have spent all morning exploring a lost city! See below.
So I'll add the photos of the rest of the route next time.
Depending at which point you start your trek along the Via Cava di San Rocco, you have two wonderful places to explore. The Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco and the lost city of Vitozza. Both filled with ancient rock dwellings that will give you and your children tons and tons to talk about on the drive home and set their history teachers on their toes with their questions when they get back to school!This map shows the first half of the Via Cava trail, from the Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco to the valley floor and the bridge over the River Lente.
Just a clearing for a picnic with a view, a boring looking church that is always closed anyway, and some holes in some rocks? Or is it? The Insediamento Rupestre di San Rocco at Sorano.
More than two hundred "grotte" - caves - to explore that will take you deep into a tufa cliff side.
If you don't mind walking into the dark that is!
Madam Laura d'Angelo's house.
The lost city of Vitozza: another of Maremma's incredible treasures. Without another tourist in sight nor sound.
Explore some more...