An Adventure in Murlo
An Adventure in Murlo
May 10, 2007
Last weekend’s adventure was to Murlo, a tiny ring of a castle-town some 20 miles south of Siena. Anne and I had plotted out a loop walk which could be done on Sunday, despite the lack of busses to the countryside. Luckily, the local rail line from Siena southwest toward Grosseto passes this mountainous area, and equally fortunate although unlikely seeming to us, the tiny abandoned station at La Befa is still a stop for several trains a day.
Two students in our study abroad program, Caroline and Alyssa, avid walkers and joggers, were interested in our country excursions and wanted to join us. We agreed to meet at Siena’s train station at noon on Sunday 6th May. We all bought round-trip tickets to La Befa (€2.70 one way) and made our way to track number two. As the 20 minute ride took us past seas of deep green wheat covering the rolling hills descending from Siena, we began to wonder if the train would actually stop at the station, or perhaps we had to let the conductor know there were passengers for a station that was virtually never used?
When we stopped at Buonconvento, the only station before ours, I hopped off the train to speak to the conductor. He assured me we would stop at La Befa in just 7 more minutes, but that we needed quickly to move to the first car in the train since the platform at La Befa was short and only those on the first car could exit. We scrambled through several cars to the front and a couple minutes later got off and stood watching our train head south.
Stazione Murlo, as the rusted barely legible sign says, consists of a weed overgrown platform and several stuccoed buildings which feel boarded up. A house with fenced yard next door had an aging dog that looked like a shaved Old English Sheepdog – with a bark so deep it was below baritone.
We walked up the tree-lined gravel road to La Befa itself, a hamlet with about a dozen houses, mostly restored old stone and brick places, charming with spring flowers. An 11th Century chapel, locked tight, had a sign saying its art works had been removed to a museum in Siena. A quarter mile east of this settlement and near the tracks are the ruins of a 1st C AD Roman villa and bath – La Befa used to be a Roman town. Except for that villa, which Anne and I explored on a walk a few years back, there are no signs of this vanished world.
Our hike began above the town, the trail (its start handily marked by an Italian Hiking Club marker) heading off into fairly wild woods following the Crevole river along the roadbed of what was once a small mining railroad. Along the route are interpretive signs in Italian describing flora, fauna and geology of this area, which has clays and rocks from the old sea floor some 160 million years ago (Cretaceous, age of dinosaurs). We were serenaded, as on almost all our Tuscan walks, by a symphony of song birds, but did not see other wildlife. Reportedly it includes foxes, weasels, hedgehogs, badgers, porcupines, three or four kinds of snakes including the poisonous viper (an “asp”!), and many smaller critters. We walked fast, a bit too fast for me to fully appreciate the many wildflowers, and made good time, coming out in about two hours to Le Miniere di Murlo, where ruins of the old mine plant tantalizingly provide no clue as to what was once mined. A twenty minute walk steeply uphill on the small road brought us to Murlo, our destination.
Murlo, a walled ring town only 150 yards in diameter, commands a view over the plains north toward Siena as well as east and south. Several small rivers diverge here, and this was a defensive fort allied to Siena in the middle ages, later became a palace for the Bishop of Siena, and most recently is a “borgo,” a tiny town. Besides its beauty and charm, what makes this a really interesting place is that before Murlo was a medieval Italian fort it was the center of a major Etruscan settlement, a connection point in a network of Etruscan trade routes that linked important centers including Chiusi, Fiesole (above Florence) and Volterra.
This was the heart of the great Etruscan high culture that dominated central Italy from the 8th to about the 1st C BCE, “before the current era.” Roman civilization borrowed freely from the Etruscans (it is thought that the first Roman kings were in fact Etruscan), who themselves were in contact with and influenced by ancient Greece. Recently, a major archaeological project excavated the hilltop just over from Murlo, uncovering the only Etruscan villa ever found substantially undisturbed. That is, its ruins were uncovered – the house and outbuildings had burned and been buried by the Etruscan inhabitants in 600 BC. The former Sienese bishop’s palace in Murlo is now a small, ultra-modern museum devoted to displaying the finds from Poggio Civitate, the name given the hill with the excavated Etruscan villa.
Among the wonderful displays are small gemstone carved sphinxes just an inch across, gold work and incised ivory or bone items of exceptional delicacy (also small), black decorated pottery plates on small pedestals or with elaborate animal or god-figure handles, reconstructions of how the villa and other buildings looked and, most exceptional, half life-size terracotta figures wearing what look like huge Mexican sombreros. Whether these were Etruscan gods, ancestor figures, or creatures from folklore is not clear, and likely will remain unknown. These enigmatic seated figures with arms crossed in lap seemed to have been mounted on the roofs of the villa.
We could not forget that we had four miles to go to get back to La Befa for our return train at 6:56 pm, especially as it was the last train of the day. Murlo’s only business, a small but excellent restaurant built into the perimeter wall and with a nice view out, had just closed for the afternoon, disappointingly. We did use their restrooms, and the great fragrances made some of us wish we could have ordered pizza. But we sat and ate our bag lunch in the tiny deserted piazza. As we did so, a man strolled by and said good day, and we began chatting. We found that this elegant white-haired retired businessman had bought and restored one of the houses built into the ring wall, after having come here from his home in Milan on vacation over a dozen years before. His wife had not wanted to leave Milan, but he moved here and now lives with a girlfriend. We were treated to a tour of his apartment, itself many centuries old and carefully restored to maintain this character, keeping the original worm-eaten (but now preserved) beams, old terra cotta floor and roof tiles, with lintels over the doors still showing hand-adzed marks. The view was superb and on a clear day he could see Siena’s towers and spires on the hill in the distance.
We turned down his generous offer to drive us part way back to La Befa, and set out on the other half of our loop hike. As it turned out, our trail took us right through the archaeological area on the next hill, the old Etruscan settlement. I was especially interested to see if any house foundations or other clues were visible. Sadly, we had to make fairly quick time if we wanted to catch our train home, so it was not possible to linger more than a few minutes. My main impression, other than a weighty feeling that I felt to be the presence of truly ancient human settlement and hundreds of generations of people living complex lives, was of low scrub oak forest canopy over tantalizingly up and down disturbed ground, lumps and hill-lets, mounds, perhaps old terraces.
What used to be here? I suspect it was mainly cleared and open 2,500 years ago, that farming of olives, grapes and grain went on in terraced hillside plots and down on the lowlands – but all I could see were lumps and bumps! Their lives, their loves, philosophies, children’s laughter and play…. all erased, or nearly so!! I’d like to go back one day and sit among them with a bag lunch and poke around a bit more.
Our winding trail home passed by deserted semi-ruined farm houses, agriturismo (bed and breakfast establishments in renovated farm houses), a small shrine to San Biagio (patron saint of sore throats), and an 11th C church now housing a “New World” spiritual retreat center, before arriving back at La Befa almost where our outbound trail started. We were an hour early! This cluster of houses has one commercial establishment, a small coffee bar. No coffee back when the Etruscans and Romans farmed here. Wonder what stimulant they drank, if any?
For our part, we had coffee and snacks, served us by two Nigerian women who told me the pleasant sounding language they were speaking was Eddo, one of Nigeria’s many tribal languages. Finding it a bit mysterious to encounter Nigerians working in a coffee bar, especially in a town that is far removed from anywhere, we continued down the gravel road to the Murlo/La Befa station. The baritone dog barked listlessly a few times, but there was still no sign of any people in this out of the way place.
Our joke, as we waited for our train, was a) will it really come? and b) will it actually stop? We heard it coming and, playfully, Anne, Caroline and Alyssa put out thumbs in hitchhiking mode as the three-car train rounded the curve and pulled up — I snapped a photo. This tiny but ultra modern train that plies the Grosseto-Siena-Florence route took us in comfort back to Siena’s station, just 23 minutes from the wild, exotic and ancient Etruscan/Roman world of these canopied woodlands near the Crevole and Ombrone rivers.
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