Italy – Sovana


Friday 31 August

In our Orvieto hotel I wake up to the smell of fresh baking. Small hotels in Italy seem to bake their own tarts. Hmmm, the smell! 

The weather has turned and we are driving to Sovana through a thunder storm and heavy rain. 

By the time we reach Sovana, an hour west of Orvietto, it is sunny and warm.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria is a small, simple church with an amazing pre-romanesque stone tabernacle. This makes it very special because this type of structure is now very rare. It has a conical dome with an octagonal base and beautifully carved columns. 

There has been very little restoration so the church is very beautiful. (so often the results of alterations to simple romanesque churches are unfortunate). It has a high wooden vault above the central nave, separated from two side aisles by arches. The side aisles have smooth stone arched vaults. The pale tufo stone blocks are perfectly cut – sharp and precise. There are frescoes in surprisingly good condition, and the Madonnas And Child frescoe is particularly wonderful.

The duomo is at the other end of town. Sovana is a small town and the main street is only about 500 metres. (there are only two streets). The cathedral was built in the 1100s and restored in the 1600s without altering the original structure. Like the Santa Maria the walls are made of finely cut stone, but the vaults are made of narrow red bricks. The vault above the nave is, as usual, high, and the two side aisles are lower, brick ribs, alternating with arches. The arches near the altar are carved and attached to columns so that the carvings appear suspended (or as if the arches are cracking!) 

Usually the apse is a half dome, but here the altar is under a full dome. The dome is centred immediately in front if the altar, where a grate opens to a tiny chapel below. The walls of the chapel are perfectly cut, grey stone. It is a simple but magical place, like a cave. Looking up through the grate I can see the top of the dome.

A museum of roman antiquities has recently opened. It is a renovated church under which the remains of a roman building have been found, along with 498 gold coins all the same denomination made over 25-30years. It has been suggested that this is the treasure of the Count of Monte Christo. It seems to be someone’s collection. A Suspended floor allows viewers to see the Roman foundations and original stone walls, as well as an area that has been used in medieval times a cemetery. I am surprised how, in Italy, Roman buildings have been knocked down and the materials recycled, then over the centuries, the process repeated again and again … An archaelogist’s nightmare!

Nearby is the Palazzo Pretorio where there is a model of the Etruscan monumental tomb, il tombo ilbrando, along with Etruscan treasures. There is an absolutely stunning pair of third century BC lead figures about 20cm high. One is a man, the other a woman, and both have the left leg cut neatly off at the knee. They are perfectly formed with features and bodies that are lifelike, representing real people. This is very unusual because Etruscan figurines are usually abstract. They were found in a sixth century BC tomb, and it is thought that the figures and the tomb in which they were found are something to do with a curse. 

I wanted to stop at the Palazzo Pretoria because the model will be useful when we visit the Etruscan necropolis, a kilometre down the road. 

We have our lunch at a park bench in a forest surrounding the necropolis. It is very peaceful and tranquil. Birds are twittering and there is dappled sunlight under the trees.

I walk on dirt paths as far as Tomba demonei alati, where a stone figure lies in recess. Originally it would have been plastered and coloured but now it is weathered and worn.

Peter walks as far to the west as Tomba Palo then returns so we can walk back to il Tomba ilbrando. The dirt paths are sloping and uneven and difficult for me to walk on. It is well worth the effort. The tomb is chiselled into the tufo hillside. I can see one full column with fluting, the remnants of others, stairs on either side and separate tunnels to two tombs deep below. The tunnels have been carved with perfectly straight sides, roof and edges – by hand 2500 years ago!

There are roads, via cava, throughout the area. The roads are two to three metres wide and up to twenty metres deep. They have all been carved by hand in the stone until they are well below ground level. They are thought to be sacred paths through the necropolis. 

Peter drives me up il Cavore, one of the via cava in this area, so I can walk down it. There is a vineyard at the top, and and another vehicle turns into it as Peter leaves. Apparently locals drive their cars through the via cava!

As Peter drives down, I wish I had the camera so I could snap the rear of the car squeezing down between the steep banks. 

I wait until Peter rejoins me and we walk down together. We are well below ground level and it is shady and cool. Trees tower above us, some looking as if they might topple in at any time. Apart from the birds, it is very quiet. It is impossible to believe that we are walking down a path cut twenty metres deep, two metres wide, 2500 years ago. As we walk down I notice tombs cut into the stone wall. There is also a Christian niche cut into the stone, probably cut around the thirteenth century.

When we drive to Pigtliano, we cross from Umbria into Tuscany. The town looks amazing as we approach it. Tall steep cliffs rise from the hillside and the towers of Pitgliano seem to spring from the rock itself – which it literally does because the buildings are made from the tufa rock . Etruscan caves are cut into the hill. The walled town looks dramatic driving up from below, but is once inside there is little to see. The main attraction is the Etruscan caves. The streets are quaint but the churches and buildings, apart from the fortress which is attractive on the outside, are nondescript. There are lots of tourists and plenty of cafes. (but difficult to find toilets that are usable – one has only a hole in the floor!) 

Views over the valley below are good, but the best thing about Pitgliano is definitely the view of it as we approach. And it is the stunning appearance of the hill towns that makes driving through Tuscany so enjoyable, and Pitgliano is definitely one of the most striking.

We return to Orvietto. Tomorrow we drive to Siena via Montepulciano and Montalcino!


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