I realize that many people travel to see other parts of the world, to find themselves, to buy lots of stuff, to brag to their friends, etc etc etc... I admit that I have not seen the majority of Italy. I have limited myself to exploring and knowing Tuscany, especially Chianti. And, even though I've been tromping around Tuscany for many years, I've yet to see more than a smidgen of this area.
My dream is to see many more Tuscan hill towns. I believe that the essence of travel is discovery. It is a personal adventure in curiosity. I believe that my curiosity of Italy is inexhaustible. I believe that there are scores of people with whom to get acquainted, personages of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, paintings, sculptures, architecture, customs, and always... always the unbelievable views.
According to an old Italian fable, there was once a village on a hilltop so steep that the people tied sacks under the tails of their hens so that the eggs would not roll downhill. The village is Pocopaglia, which means "Littlestraw". This fable still stands because the village still stands. I want to go there. I want to talk to some really old villagers and ask them about this fable.
One can think of any number of Italian towns to which the story might be applicable, for from the earliest days of history, or before, the people who lived in what is now called Italy built their towns on the hilltops. From a point on the west side of Lake Maggiore one can count twenty six villages clinging to the hillsides. Usually, one sees an ancient wall, or part of it, circling the town, and a gate or two just wide enough to admit the traffic in a day when that meant pedestrians, oxen and donkeys, armed horsemen, and maybe some wide-wheeled chariots of war.
Seen in the sunset light the villages are blue, lavender, and gray, and as the lights come out, winking up the hillside, these hill top towns have an air of magic....as of a fairy tale. But in the morning they look solid and substantial - like fortresses where men and women of this day are living, the descendants of men and women who lived there a thousand years ago. Or two thousand years ago...and, in some cases, three thousand years ago. wow.
Their forefathers found it safer to go to the hills, which could more easily be defended against marauders. Back then every tribe warred with every other and every town was a potential enemy. So around their hilltop cluster of houses they raised thick walls and, at the entrances, they placed heavy doors with gates, often with double or triple arches, that could be locked and barred. There were other reasons to choose hilltop living - the air in the summer was less hot and humid....and healthier. In the ancient days, the people liked to build their churches as near to heaven as possible and they centered their lives around the church. Every aspect of village life took place in the piazza, possibly the only level place in town, from their education, their court of justice, their neighborhood gatherings. These hilltops became their homes.
Yes, there are similarities among these ancient hilltop villages.... streets are narrow, laundry is hung in colorful displays, strung across from window to window and draped along the balconies. The buildings are all of stone and one finds the usual medieval or Renaissance palaces. There are stone benches, palladium windows, coats of arms mounted above the doorways, courtyards with marble fountains. In the small yards, one will see grapevines, olive trees, chickens, ducks, rabbits...the occasional goat. Around the piazza, the streets house shops that supply the town...the butcher, the grocer, the baker, the pharmacy. The residents don't have to leave town for anything...with the exception of a doctor or dentist. And many times, those professionals are also in residence.
When I visit these wonderful hill towns, I am usually in search of Etruscan history.... because, of course, Tuscany is steeped in Etruscan everything. I go looking for anything that teaches me about this race of fine, intelligent, fair-minded, wealthy people. Whether or not I discover Etruscan goodies, I always learn about the pride of place in the people of these hill towns. What makes each village stand out individually is that they all have their histories and their fables. They all have their festivals celebrating these things. These wonderful people like to show you the way to their treasures - their faces light up when you admire the town or tell them that the view is bellissima. They love sharing that the village has been their home for many generations and every stone and shrine is part of their communal memory. There's no stuffiness in their local loyalty, no flag waving. It's just an inherited attitude. And, rightly so. Their attitude is only matched by their friendliness.
I've had so many great adventures, but one comes to mind when I think about the welcoming acceptance and friendliness of the Tuscan people. I was taking a photo of the doorway of a fine old palace. A rather aristocratic-looking woman came out and introduced herself. Would I like to come into the garden courtyard and see the ancient fountain and take a picture there? Certo! (Certainly!) I followed her into the courtyard, which contained a beautiful garden, plus her husband and children. Soon they were taking me up the long marble staircase to see the old palace and the frescoes on its walls. Their surname was that of the owner of the palace when it had been built in the 1500's. It makes me sigh deeply to think of the experience now....several years later.
I will continue to explore as many hill towns as possible and I invite you to join in the fun. My Tuscan friends and I have some great itineraries planned. Please take time to read about the tours on my Facebook page and let's go answer the "why travel?" question!