After two months abroad, the novelty of traveling independently and planning all of your own trips starts to wear off. Luckily, included in SAI, the program I came to Italy with, was a weekend excursion to the border of Tuscany and Lazio. At five a.m. on Friday, eight other students and I woke up, grabbed our backpacks, and headed for the bus station. It’s a bizarre experience to see your city first thing in the morning, when the streets are quiet and the air is chilly. We piled onto a bus, pulled out our iPods, and readied for the four hour bus ride to Roma that comprised the first leg of our trip.
Once in Roma, one the the SAI staff members shuttled us into vans for a thirty minute drive across Roma where we then met up with the SAI Rome students. It was a bizarre feeling, being tossed onto a bus with thirty strangers, like the first day of school all over again. By this point we were all exhausted, and the three-hour bus ride was fairly quiet. As we left the city streets of Roma behind and headed north towards Toscana, the landscape became more mountainous and green; it looked bizarrely similar to rural Virginia.
Our next stop was a cheese factory somewhere in the south of Toscana. We were all excited to finally get off the bus and smell the fresh mountain air. Unfortunately, the air wasn’t fresh for long. We all donned aprons, hairnets, booties, and face masks before entering the enormous cheese factory. I cannot even begin to describe the smell that hit us as we entered the building. Partially, I probably found it particularly offensive because I’m not a big fan of cheese in general, but even my friend Morgan, a self-procalimed cheese-lover, was grossed out. After twenty minutes of winding through the maze of the enormous production area, suffocated by a smell that I can only describe as a mix of spoiled milk, mold, and sadness, we were able to escape. We were then offered a huge array of cheese that I could not bring myself to try after smelling the process to make them.
Following this thoroughly disappointing first stop, we re-boarded the bus, and headed north again. Just as I was ninety percent sure I was going to die before we reached our destination, we rounded a corner and were treated with our first view of the beautiful city of Pitigliano. Pitigliano is a city carved from tufa stone, a type of rock made from layers of volcanic ash that is particularly malleable. The Etruscans used deposits of this stone high upon hills to carve out cities. Instead of building their settlements with bricks or stones, they carved directly into the tufa.
Finally, after an entire day of travel, we reached Sorano, where we were lucky enough to stay. We were showed to our enormous villas and greeted with fresh robes and towels so that we could go immediately down to the natural mineral baths. The water in the baths is heated and infused with minerals by the volcanic activity in the area. From the time rain water hits the ground to the time it comes back to the surface through these springs, approximately eighty years passes. The entire groups spent our pre-dinner free time relaxing in the warm water as the sun set on the Tuscan countryside. We met for an enormous dinner, then called it an early night before our packed day on Saturday.
Saturday morning greeted us warm and sunny, and we were treated to a buffet of pastries, coffee, cereals, and fruit. Several activities were offered in the morning, and I chose to go horseback riding. When we arrived at the farm, I went immediately to a beautiful, dark horse and buried my head in her neck, inhaling the scent of horse and home. The ride was serene and felt so comfortable to me, as if I was riding through the hills of Northern Virginia. We all bonded with our horses, and were sad to leave for our next activity.
After a quick lunch, we headed out to see a few hilltop towns, also heavily reliant on tufa stone as a building material. Our guide told us that in the functioning towns, the tufa stone has to be reinforced periodically with cement to ensure that it doesn’t collapse. After all, it’s easy to manipulate, not only for humans, but for the elements as well. The Etruscans were just as interested in the afterlife as the life itself, and so we visited the necropolis where they buried their dead. These tombs are built to resemble houses, with a passageway that leads into a room, where the dead would be placed on a bed with their most important belongings, in order that they might keep living on in their new house.
As the day began to wane, we headed back to Pitigliano, and after a tour and some history about the religiously tolerant community that has populated the area throughout the years, we were allowed some time to explore. The coolest part about the trip, for me, was that none of the shopkeepers spoke English. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to use my Italian, and I made friends with a wonderful woman named Elena who makes leather goods. I bought a handmade leather purse from Elena and she told me about her passion for leather working and her small town of Pitigliano.
Another rich dinner and the thermal baths closed out our night before an early morning the next day as we prepared to return to Roma. On our way, we stopped at another beautiful hilltop tufa stone town before having lunch overlooking a beautiful lake.
Despite the endless hours on busses, my trip to Toscana might just be one of my favorite places so far. I can only hope to return to the hills of Tuscany, but I know if I don’t, the Appalachian mountains back home will remind me of the beauty of these hidden treasures of Toscana.