April in Paris, sure, I’ll go. But autumn is the best time to see Italy.
No crowds, no sweltering heat, and no mosquitoes! My sister Constance and I rented a little Fiat at Fiumicino in Rome…
…and drove straight to Orvieto, one of the ancient hilltop towns they call “Cittaslow,” or a ‘Slow City.’ Cittaslow status is open only to towns with a population under 50,ooo. These towns are committed to restricting modernization. They resist homogenization and globalization in Italy (and around the world), and promote cultural diversity and the uniqueness of individual cities. The pace of every day urban life is slowed by restricting traffic flow and saving open space for local markets, not parking lots.
Slow Cities fiercely protect their environment. They market local produce…
…and maintain their own traditions.
Orvieto is situated dramatically on a 300 foot high volcanic plateau.
Originally Etruscan, it was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century B.C. (Fun fact: the word ‘Tuscany’ is a derivative of ‘Etruscan.’) Like the ancient Egyptians, the Etruscans believed in a life after death, and were obsessed with death and burial. Vast cemeteries–cities for the dead–were often carved into cliffs at the foot of Etruscan cities. Orvieto looked down upon this one.
On top of the plateau, at the heart of Orvieto, stands a cathedral begun in the year 1290. The facade is impressive. It has all the extras…
…and even comes with black and white sidewalls.
In neighboring Todi, also a Slow City…
…they tell a story demonstrating the intense rivalry between Italian city-states. In 1291, a year after Orvieto’s cathedral was begun, Todi broke ground for San Fortunato, a cathedral they claimed would be even more impressive than Orvieto’s. Todi hired the same sculptor, Lorenzo Maitani, to create a new cathedral with as beautiful a facade as he had created for the cathedral in Orvieto. Not to be bested by their rival, Orvieto authorities prevented this by having Lorenzo murdered. Italy is a land of many stories, with such a colorful and passionate history!
…but I went to research a novel set in Italy. Even for autumn, it was unseasonably cold…
But we didn’t mind.
We made day trips to surrounding villages. We drove past beautiful scenery, including Lake Bolsena.
…and were lucky enough to stumble upon Pitigliano, my favorite little village in Italy.
The surrounding landscape is dramatic, with a network of ancient ‘sunken roads’ carved by the Etruscans into the soft volcanic rock.
Some extend for half a mile, with walls as high as thirty meters on both sides. Their purpose is a mystery. Perhaps for defense, but more likely a pathway for funeral processions leading to the necropolis where tombs were carved into the tunnel walls.
What I loved about Pitigliano had nothing to do with funerals and death, and everything to do with survival.
We also visited Civita di Bagnoregio, built 2,500 years ago by the Etruscans.
Civita di Bagnoregio is accessible only by this narrow bridge–no motor traffic allowed. In bygone days, goods were packed in by donkey, but now they are delivered by motorized vehicles small enough to cross the bridge. If you go in autumn, beware of strong sidewinds!
Today, the population varies from 12 in winter to 100 in summer. It was incredibly charming. We passed a middle-aged man in knee britches and vest. Con said, “Is he for real?” I said, “Only if his name is Geppetto.” We saw more quaintly dressed people, and wondered if we’d walked through a gateway into the past. I asked a woman in an old-fashioned dress, who kindly told me, “Chee-nee-mah! Pee-noh-chee-o!” They were filming Pinocchio, and we might really have seen Geppetto! I pointed to her costume and said, “Bella! May I photograph you?” “Si!” she said. After posing for a picture, she led me back to where the film crew and cast were preparing to film the next scene. “It’s okay to be here?” I asked. “Si, si!” she said, obviously proud of her role in the production. When we parted, I said, “Molte grazie!” She lifted my hand and pressed it to her cheek, then released it to blow me a little kiss. I found the gesture very moving, and I know exactly where in my novel I will use it. It’s the sort of souvenir you don’t find in a tourist trap. And it’s the kind of research you just can’t look up in a book.
All images and words copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck