A Walk in the Montagnola Senese
A Walk in the Montagnola Senese – Monteriggioni to Santa Colomba
Keith and Anne – 22 April 2007
On Sunday 22nd April, Anne and I had a great exploration in the countryside, the second thus far this spring of our longish (10mi or a bit more) walks following a guidebook written by some English walkers and using Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) hiking maps. Because there is restricted bus service to the little towns around Siena on Sundays, we caught the train to our start point, Monteriggioni station. Our only morning option was the 6:39am train from Siena, which we thought was a tad early, but of course ok. So, next day we rose at 5:45am, well before the San Domenico bells, walking the 20 minute route down to the station in the cool and quiet of a Siena not yet awake.
Our train was bound for Firenze but our destination was the first stop, making our trip just 12 minutes long. The small station serving Monteriggioni and Castellina in Chianti is bypassed by most trains going to and coming from Florence and only a few local runs serve this un-personed station. It was still quite chilly at 6:50 when we got off and began our two mile walk to the start of our hike. The small road was scenic and provided a nice bit of serendipity when we discovered that our route was right along the ancient trade and pilgrimage road, the Via Francigena, which was used widely from about 900 AD onward by northern Europeans going to Rome or the Holy Land. Dotted along it everywhere are small fortresses and castles, way points for travelers and defensible spots in the never ending wars between Siena and Florence. So, we were happy to find, only a half mile from the train station, an interpretive sign and small gravel road leading to a hill on which sat a ruined castle dating from about 1000, but partly built of cut stones salvaged from the Roman and Etruscan periods, so surely this hill with its 360 degree views was home to earlier defenses going back at least to 800BC. Another hill settlement just nearby (per interpretive signs in both Italian and English) was excavated by archaeologists some years ago – this was an Etruscan village, now no sign of which seems left. We managed to see this site a day after our forest walk, but other than some disturbed ground and tantalizing hints in the small oak undergrowth that humans lived here in the past, we could not really “see” the village. We felt its aura instead, eerily.
Our hike start point was the gem-like castle-town of Monteriggioni. This ring of cut grey stone walls with a symmetrically placed set of towers sits stark and like a diadem or crown on its own hill. Monteriggioni, captured on many postcards and calendars each year, commands a hilltop site with views in all directions, and particularly overlooking a broad plain to the west, through which any approaching groups or army would be likely to come. Just to the southwest is the wooded hill which was the site of the Etruscan village excavated recently. Our route today would pass near this site and tomorrow (when we returned to find Keith’s dropped pocket watch) we would have the chance to explore it a bit, though as noted, we could not find the traces of house foundations said to be there. We’d skipped breakfast today due to our early start, so the Bar dell’ Orso (Bar of the Bear) near the gravel road leading to Monteriggioni was our first destination. The cheerful barrista (female) made a creamy doppio caffe macchiato for me and cappuccino for Anne. I noticed that another bar customer downed her espresso in 40 seconds, more or less normal for coffee drinking while standing in Italian coffee establishments, though we lingered a bit longer, observing the scene and eating our pastries.
As we walked into the rear gate of Monteriggioni several tourist shops were just setting out their signs, and we passed a 4 star (and reportedly $250/night) hotel within the walls. This walled town-let was here in its present form from at least 1100 and is mentioned by name by Dante in his Divine Comedy (completed about 1300). We hoped to get a second coffee in the town, but its only bar was still closed since it was only 7:30a.m. by now. A sign by the main gate, said that this afternoon guides in medieval costume would lead tours of the town and the castle walls with their spectacular views. This would be enjoyable, but for another time.
We left by the eastern gate, the Porta Romana, our road curving down the back side of the hill, passing a campground with rented campers, just a flat field really. Soon we came to the gravel road that was our route, cutting to the right up towards the woods. We had noticed a group of four walkers with backpacks ahead of us, and in a few minutes, at the first trail branching, we caught up with these Dutch hikers, older folks like us, and hiking the Via Francigena to Siena today. We compared maps, as they were doubtful at the crossroads. They set off while we changed into shorts, and we did not see them again – not sure if they hiked the same route or not.
Our route was a north to south traverse of much of the wooded area west of Siena called the Montagnola Senese, the Sienese Mountain Woods. This mixed oak forest has probably been logged for thousands of years, albeit selectively, and feels quite wild and only slightly used. Our hike was on small cart tracks and sometimes trails, and provided an interestingly varied route. Incredible wildflowers, old walls, oak and mixed woods, meadows, ruined ancient farmsteads, tiny villages of 4-5 houses and churches dating to the crusades and earlier. Along the way there were many signs of rooting by wild pigs, cingiale. Not a bad choice today, thanks to Anne!
I was fascinated to notice, as we walked along, that the path itself was along old wagon roads for many miles. Though the path often felt narrow and overgrown, and was rugged and nothing like a road for carts, as I looked down over the miles I could see deep ruts into the rock itself, sometimes two of them, though often only one was visible. The cart wheels were spaced about 3 ½ to 4 feet apart. Some of the ruts were 8″ or more deep, cut into pure rock by metal tired wooden cart wheels over centuries. I tried to get photos of the ruts.
This silent echo of the ancient forest felt to me a bit like seeing wagon tracks still going down the sides of alluvial fans in Death Valley. But those tracks, archaic in the western United States, are only 150 years old, while those we walked along today I am sure were roads used at least from Etruscan times (800-500 BC) to cart produce, crops, animals and other goods back and forth between scattered hill town settlements. Given that human settlement in Europe dates back more than 100,000 years, it is virtually certain that these paths were used for a very long time, well before the “Johnny come lately” Etruscans gave their name to a small slice of the region’s history.
Our hike was about six hours in all, including our many photo and “ooh and aah” stops and a picnic lunch spread out beside Costa, an abandoned stone farmhouse near the village of Colli Ciupi. It was a great day of ups and downs, and with a lot of consulting of both map and pages copied from our guidebook, as there were lots of decoy trails and roads that one is not wanting to follow. The weather was perfect, shorts and tee shirts after it warmed up. By about 1:30 we came to our end destination, Santa Colomba (“Saint Dove” is a gloss, though not likely the right one), a small town with a church dating from at least 1100. Interesting that the history of all the little hamlets and places is only vaguely known – in this case, the church is first mentioned in tax records about 1100, the first recorded mention, though it was likely there much earlier, and of course the village was also.
Santa Colomba itself is just one street with houses, a social hall (noisy as we passed by but everyone was in the back room, perhaps playing cards), and a coffee bar. The latter was open, but with lights off to save power, and we chatted with the proprietress for a while, a kind woman who sold us a Fanta, and helpfully spoke in slow and clear Italian, telling us a little about the place. Besides Italians, there are several retired folks from other parts of the world living up the hill, an area of new and expensive villetas (modern brick houses, most of two or more stories, some with swimming pools). One of them, in his 80’s or 90’s, now speaks great Italian and still drives his car to town, she added.
Thanking her, and using the bathroom to wash up, we walked a half mile up the hill to the far end of the bus route where she assured us the bus would turn around and stop and we could sit in the shade. Along the way the houses were impressively big and modern, one or two of them with Mercedes parked in the drive – clearly a bedroom area for affluent Sienese or Florentines we suspected. At the top we spread out our hulus, sharing an orange, and reading in the shade of a big oak. A small deceased snake diverted me for a short photo opportunity, and we then passed a pleasant hour before the small orange bus arrived as scheduled. This being Sunday, there were only a couple running to Siena, one at 3:30pm, another at 8pm. We did not find the thought of waiting 5 more hours very appealing, one reason we’d walked fairly fast today. Our 30 minute ride back to Siena was over many interesting and bumpy back roads, the driver zooming along as if late and the bus badly in need of new shock absorbers. About 4 pm we were deposited at Piazza Gramsci just a couple minutes walk from our apartment near San Domenico.
A fulfilling day full of adventures, history, great scenery, new wildflowers (including two types of orchid at the start of the walk). At home, after showers, we had the “tired but pleased with oneself feeling” — a good day’s adventure in the Sienese countryside along routes where the past is so layered and deep with history that most all of it is in fact utterly forgotten. All those dozens or likely hundreds of generations of “lives lived in obscurity” (but not obscure to those who lived them!) going all the way down.
Oh, and this bit of nature note: at Costa, the ruined ancient farmhouse where we had lunch, I was poking around in one of the stone and brick outbuildings and was surprised when I disturbed a snake just inside the threshold where I was about to put my foot. I had come upon a viper (vipera is the Italian name) about two and a half feet long, a poisonous snake related to our rattlesnakes and the asp of Cleopatra fame. Vipers are not too common and I felt fortunate to be able to watch it as it slithered along one rocky wall in the ruined barn trying to find a crack to escape into. I opted to watch instead of trying to take a photo in the shaded light, as I’d likely have not gotten it and not even seen it if I just fiddled with equipment. This viper was taupe color with light grey stripes, with an eerily triangular cross sectioned flat body, not unlike a sidewinder (which I’ve only seen in nature films though). Its triangular head, saying “poisonous,” was the stuff of bad dreams.
ksc 24 April 2007 — Siena
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