Maremma Toscana, Solstizio d’estate 2021
Dear R. ~
What a weekend it’s been!
After the thermal baths at Saturnia we drove in search of what has been called the Italian Stonehenge. With such a name you’d think it would be on the map, that maybe you would see signs for it on the road, or that you might come upon a caravan of sun worshipers en route showing you the way, especially on Summer Solstice.
We set off after a mediocre meal near the baths. It was a sleepy Sunday afternoon and the town’s restaurants haven’t fully opened up yet since the tourist flow is only just picking up after the pandemic lockdowns, so it was slim pickings. It was hot, muggy, and our clothes clung to us, wet bathing suits underneath slowly seeping the musk of rotten eggs. The sulfurous thermal water is so beneficial to the body, it’s so hydrating and packed with minerals, but it stinks! It would have been helpful if the server had just told us that there really was only one item on the menu – papardelle in a wild boar meat sauce – instead of letting us read through the whole menu, decide on our meal, only to be told that in fact there is no menu del giorno, that the pizza oven is out of order, the mushrooms are out of season, as well as the wild fennel, and that they don’t make that dish anymore but they do have the papardelle and a green salad. Everyone who arrived after us ate the same thing, happily of course, because the baths make everyone extra hungry. I am sure that if the restaurant had put out a sign that read Papardelle al Sugo di Cinghiale they’d have attracted even more diners. I am also sure that it was frozen wild boar meat too because it isn’t hunting season. So with too much salt on our palate – good for electrolytes though – we set off into the hot and hazy Tuscan hills in search of sacred stones.
“Take the first exit off the rotary and go straight till the pavement ends. Then turn left,” read the directions from an obscure article on Tuscan archeology we had pulled off the Internet. Unsure if they were rhetorical or literal next steps, we continued, driving past a handful of country houses, vineyards, and olive groves, and after several miles the road was still paved. We passed a handful of dirt roads to the left and each time wondered if that had been the turn we were supposed to take. Finally we reached the end of the asphalted stretch and turned left onto a dirt road, eye scanning the horizon for a circle of large stones. We passed a farmer mending a gate and saw handmade signs posted on trees warning us of aggressive dogs protecting private property and do not trespass or else, but we saw no circle of stones. As the road began to climb the next hill, densely covered in vegetation, we began to lose hope, silly us not doing better research, running off into the hills without a paper map, because by then we didn’t have cell phone service either, and it did begin to feel a bit solitary out there.
Eventually we came upon a stone structure with the now familiar Etruscan arches – one forgets that we owe the arch to the Etruscans – with a wooden sign planted in the grass that read “Megaliths”. Hope restored, even though the place looked abandoned and I still did not see the cosiddetto Stonehenge, we drove into the lot. We thought it was parking for the archeological site because there was an old car parked under a tree, but the area also looked a bit like a junk yard with rusted bikes in a pile, an assortment of rustic furniture lying around, little collections of enamelware and pottery in mounds here and there. I noticed a small vegetable garden with tomatoes and peppers on stakes, and then the more I looked, I realized we had driven onto somebody’s private property and I was sure that a guard dog was on it’s way to attack me for trespassing. A man stepped out of the house and waved at us. A good sign. We put our face masks on and got out of the car. Buonasera, we sang out in unison and the man seemed genuinely happy to see us, smiling broadly, almost giddy, and for a moment I thought I had come to visit my uncle.
“We’re here to see the megaliths,” we called out, and he cheerily responded “oh good, good!” and then he peered at us expectantly, which was unsettling. “We saw the sign,” we continued. He nodded proudly “oh yes, yes I made that sign.” In fact, he was working on another right there, he pointed to the pile of wood. He had been given a nice plank of olive wood and was just finishing the sign now as we drove up. “So very interesting,’ we said admiring the sign. It was a nice sign, elegantly hand-carved into wood. “So we are in the right place, we assume?” “Oh no, no, not at all,” he laughed, this was just his house. But he did have a book on the megaliths if we wanted to take a look at it, the author himself, the researcher who discovered the site in 2004, had personally given it to him he said excitedly as he ran off ducking under an Etruscan arch returning with book in hand.
It turned out to be a delightful conversation and we also got a tour of his home. It turns out that he used to have a stall at a flea-market in Rome (thus the piles in the yard) but he and his wife have retired and now make art in an Etruscan ruin. He’s a wood worker and his wife is a painter. As he showed us around he told us all about the several archeologists who have come around to study the site, including his home, because an old barn on his property is actually part of a necropolis and has tunnels that lead to old tombs and also once served as a hermitage for an early Christian priest. He walked us deep into the quiet dark space that was carved into volcanic rock thousands of years ago. Pointing out an ancient well that he uncovered and now keeps clear, nicely surrounded by potted plants and signage made in wood, he showed us the niches that once held the remains of the Etruscan people. We then inched further back into the muted space and gathered around a symbol roughly etched in the rock. It looked to be the Chi Ro. We stood in silence, two wanderers and a keeper. A keeper of time past and place current, and somewhere on that timeline we exist for a moment, in search of the sacred and the eternal, as all of those who came before us, in that very spot.
Before he sent us off back into the hills, with detailed instructions on how to get to the stone circle (it involves walking up a hillside forest and then through a field, don’t mind the guard dogs they are friendly) he pointed to a little wooden door inside the barn, a very shrunken Alice-in-Wonderland sized door, and said we could go in and have a look if we wanted. The archeologist had. But I really wanted this journey to have a happy ending so we declined.
The breeze tickled the faded colored ribbons gently wrapped around a tree by fellow seekers who’d found the site long before us, and as the sun rays began to stream through the designated passageways, we walked into the circle of stones.
Wish you were here,
P.S.: On our way down our friend was putting up the new sign at the bottom of the hill. He says the farmer who owns the not-so-aggressive dogs always takes them down because he doesn’t want people walking the land. I hope it’s still up when you come visit so that we can find our way back there.