Pitigliano

After our relaxing lunch in Saturnia, we detoured on the way home to explore Pitigliano. You might think we’d seen enough gorgeous medieval hilltop towns perched on tufa rock but it’s not something I could ever tire of.

The town is also known as Piccola Gerusalemme or Little Jerusalem, as it became a haven for the Jews escaping from the ghettos of the cities in the 16th century. They lived happily here until 1622 when the residents were confined to the Jewish Quarter and remained so until the Jews were emancipated in the mid 19th century. Many of them moved to the cities and by World War II none were left. Houses seemed to emerge from the rock

as we made our way into town.

We didn’t get far before our attention was diverted by La Dispensa del Conte (The Count’s Pantry), a wonderland brimming with local produce.

With a few purchases in our bags, we wandered to the edge of town

and discovered a spectacular structure with two large arches and thirteen smaller ones incorporated into the walls of the town. The Medici aqueduct was built between 1636 and 1639 to bring running water to the village and the Lorraines added the series of small arches in the 18th century.

From there we had a great view of the road into town and the stunning arched bridge over which we would soon be driving.

Adjacent to the aqueduct, the 14th century Palazzo Orsini is now a museum. The twenty one rooms are filled with antique furniture, jewellery and wooden sculptures as well as sacred art and precious fabrics.

As we drove out of town, there seemed to be one gourmet paradise after another.

It would have been wonderful to spend more time in Pitigliano, there was so much more to see.

Saturnia

We had worked up an appetite lounging around in the healing waters of Cascate del Mulino and so, smelling slightly sulphurous, advanced to the nearby town of Saturnia. Despite dating back to the Etruscans in 800BC, there was a feeling of openness and modernity.

There is a reason for this. In 1300AD, it became the hideout of outlaws and was razed to the ground by the Sienese. Forgotten for hundreds of years, it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, the land around the spring was drained, the spa was built and the town breathed new life. While the boys relaxed with a coffee,

we girls wandered the streets, exploring shops

and local sights,

some of which were quite unexpected.

The Church of Santa Maria Maddalena dates back to 1188AD but the building we see now is due to a restoration in 1933. If only we had known the 15th century Madonna and Child frescoe by Benvenuto di Giovanni was inside.

We found a lovely alfresco dining area at Ristorante Il Melangolo, the perfect setting to savour a vino and delicious pizza.

We enjoyed friendly banter with our waiter, Alex and as we left, an ardent “good-bye” reached us from a smiling chef Marco in the top floor window.

We made our way back to the car and, with a last glimpse of the stunning panorama, farewelled Saturnia.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Despite the exhaustion from our adventures at Bomarzo, we couldn’t resist a detour to explore Civita di Bagnoregio. The two towns of Civita and Bagnoregio were once connected but by the 16th century, Civita had begun to disintegrate. The clay base below the tufa subsided and the cliff edges were weakened by the constant removal of stone to build houses. An earthquake in 1695 sealed its fate and the residents moved to Bagnoregio. There is now a permanent population of 12 in Civita, swelling to over 100 in the summer months, not to mention thousands of tourists. There is only one way into the town, across a long, steep footbridge.

We parked the car in Bagnoregio and boarded a shuttle bus, the driver uninterested in collecting our €1 fare. A white-knuckle ride brought us to the start of the walkway with magnificent views across the valley.

As we climbed, the vista opened up to the mountains beyond.

At the end of the bridge, we entered the town through the Porta Santa Maria, a stone doorway cut by the Etruscans 2500 years ago. Redecorated in the 12th century, the lions holding a human head are medieval symbols of the church.

The effort was definitely worth it, this magical place seemed frozen in time.

We wandered through streets unchanged since medieval times, the decorative door of the old palazzo and window above it has nothing but sky beyond. The rest of the building has long tumbled off the edge of the cliff.

The main square, Piazza San Donato, takes the name of the 5th century Romanesque church dedicated to Saint Donato of Arezzo, a 4th century martyr. The only church in town, it was the cathedral of Bagnoregio until 1699 when damage from the previous earthquake rendered it unsafe.

There was no shortage of eating establishments in the piazza, though the dinner crowds had yet to emerge.

A double archway leads to the Piazza del Vescovado, the seat of the ancient bishop’s palace.

We ambled along the cobblestones, fascinated by the architecture and intricacy of alleyways, arches and stairs.

At the end of the village, a road leads to nowhere

and an interesting set of steps descend into the tufa below.

The return journey was easier on the legs,

though we were tempted to hitch a ride.

The erosion on the surrounding hillsides hinted at the future of this beautiful landscape.

We waited for the bus in a lovely square with a bronze monument dedicated to Bonaventura Tecchi, a writer born in Bagnoregio in 1896.

From here, ‘the dying town’ of Civita shone radiantly in the evening sun.

piccioni Italiani

The mention of pigeons in Italy usually conjures images of tourists in Venice being smothered by masses of the unruly birds, left with hair dishevelled, clothing akimbo and the odd splattering of egesta. The feeding of pigeons in Piazza San Marco was legally banned in 2008 with a penalty up to €700 to discourage the practice. While we saw the occasional pigeon on our travels, they were very discreet and didn’t exhibit any manic flock behaviour. A paddle in the waters of Fontana dell’Acqua Felice cooled the feet on a warm day in Rome.

The ancient stonework of the Colosseum now serves as a comfortable columbarium. The word is from the Greek for pigeon or dove and describes the niches in walls designed for roosting and breeding.

The merging of local and imported breeds over the centuries has led to an array of colours and markings. There aren’t many places better to enjoy the morning sun than the walls of Chiesa di San Pietro at Porto Venere.

Pigeons have long been maligned as bearers of disease, possibly due to their indiscreet toilet habits and their link to the infection, psittacosis, which causes a pneumonia type illness in humans. Along with that, it seems they were responsible for the closure of five rooms in the Uffizi Gallery in April 2016. An infestation of ticks was discovered by a security guard and the rooms, displaying 15th century Italian paintings, were closed for two days to undergo pest control. The outbreak was blamed on the pigeons that perch on the Uffizi’s windows. No such problem in the Torre Guinigi at Lucca, there is plenty of aeration and fabulous views.

Pigeons obviously have a head for heights, what bird doesn’t? They can fly at altitudes of 6,000 feet or more with speeds up to 90 mph and can travel 700 miles in a single day. Some are happy to just find a quiet perch and admire the fabulous vista in Pienza.

One of the most intelligent birds on the planet, the pigeon can apparently recognise itself in a mirror as well as all 26 letters of the alphabet. Sounds like interesting research, some do look more inquisitive than others.

The belltower of Chiesa di San Donato in Bagnoregio provides a perfect niche from which to observe the wanderings of tourists in the piazza.

Pigeons have been used as messengers for centuries, the earliest reference dating back to 2500 BC. They have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in both World Wars with their efficient, reliable service. It wasn’t until 2006 that the last service, used by the police force in Orrisa, India, was disbanded. Presumably, the Orsini family relied on the birds to keep in touch at their palazzo in Pitigliano.

As well as breeding for food, sport and as messengers, pigeons were found to have another valuable resource. In the 16th century, their excrement was found to contain saltpetre, a substance used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertiliser. It seemed to be in plentiful supply on the window ledges of Acquapendente.

The first mention of domesticated pigeons being used for food was in Egypt in 3000 BC and it is not unusual to find a piccione dish on menus throughout Tuscany. In January 2016, Italian celebrity chef, Carlo Cracco, caused controversy when he cooked a pigeon with turnips on Masterchef Italia. The president of the Italian Institute for the Protection of Animal and the Environment reported him to the police for encouraging people to cook wild animals. He overlooked the fact that pigeons are farmed for food and the law protecting pigeons only applies to wild ones. Of all the pigeons we encountered in Italy, this was by far my favourite.