You wouldn’t see this from a tourist coach would you. This is the real Italy, that old, unique country that has a history so rich, it is hard for many visitors to even comprehend. This skull in located in the ruin of a wall that was built over 1000 years ago. The poor unfortunate soul above could have been a plague victim, a soldier, or an unfortunate who died young. A doctor from Israel once rode with us to this site, and said the bones were of a younger person…
This is true immersion. These are the places tourist guides miss, more historically ‘real’ than many of the ‘in’ tourist hotspots in Tuscany. Of course out in the dense Tuscan woods, we are far less affected by tourism too. Here we can stop our horses and take a moment to enjoy the scenery around us. A castle that was built over a thousands years ago, lies in ruins nearby. Overgrown with vines and looking not unlike a forgotten Mayan ruin. This place is older than most can comprehend, and full of nooks and crannies that one would love to explore in better detail. Above us looms the shadow of Volterra, of recent twilight fame.
Riding on through soft dirt trails that allow for short bursts of canter into open fields (often surprising deer and foxes). The area is home to a wide selection of wild animals, including the elusive Appenine wolf, though they are far too smart to let themselves be seen during the daylight hours. I imagine romantically that perhaps they are watching me; looking out from a safe den in the mountains that look down over us. We ride out of the forest to a cultivated field of grain. Riding onwards a farmer is pruning his olive trees on a faded yellow ladder. He stops and watches us as we pass our horses below him.
Tuscany has always been famous for its wines, its art galleries and its wonderful cucina povera. The forested and hauntingly lovely Val d’Elsa is home to some spectacular ruins: Vignale, medieval castle abandoned after WWII; Castelfalfi, an ancient Long Bard settlement, soon to become one of Europes largest resorts; San Vivaldo, Monastery and Pilgrimage route built 400 years ago, Cafaldo a mysterious natural spring located at the bottom of a shadowy canyon and on and on. This forest was once filled with bandits and thieves – so much so, that all of the castles during medieval times were forced to build high walls to protect their inhabitants. In more recent years, it was home to the infamous Banda dello Zoppo. A team of antifascists that took to the woods in the 1920’s after a shootout in nearby Certaldo. The leader of this group was lame, hence the name ‘Il zoppo’, and together this group became legendary in the area for their skills at outsmarting the local police (even when il zoppo was finally caught and sent to prison in Volterra, he escaped and was never re-aprehended) but also because the group helped locals, and held up only the rich facist leaders.
Riding through the countryside out here, the Tuscan badlands so to speak – one can almost imagine what it would have been like to live as outlaws hundreds or thousands of years ago.
It is only by horseback (or for the very fit, by foot) that one can experience this very unique Italy. Horses negotiate the terrain superbly, and one can travel up to 30km comfortably in a day.
We stop at San Vivaldo for a gelato on the way home, and the horses are watered. Hot and sweaty, this type of tourism isnt for everyone, but at the end of the ride. With an ice cold beer, and a happily watered and fed horse – who wants the air-conditioned tour bus anyway!