Monday, 18 March 2013


There's a lot of activity in the hills around Tenuta Savorgnano at the moment as new efforts to make the countryside more accessible  for walkers and cyclists. We've added guided walks to our repertoire this year. 

View from Col di Paiolo
Just down the road from us the hills diminish and open out into a vista where you can see beyond Umbria to the snow-capped curtain of the Appenines at the Western edge of Marche. The ancient settlement of Ponte Alla Piera with it's 13th century bridge clusters on steps of land northwards; the dwellings thinning out the higher you look, finishing with stripes of south facing stone terraces. Olives are planted here now but I wonder if, in the past, it was chestnuts. Over to the East at this point looking down towards the Sovara River the trees are bare enough at this time of the year to see the trails and paths snaking through the hills in all directions. Look at the background of the Mona Lisa and you see a scene not unlike this.

Col di Paiolo: Picnic in the pines
For about a year now down here new chestnut fences have been erected, paths have been re-established, lay-bys on the main road reasserted, forests thinned out and old stone reinforcements of the river bank (ancient flood defences) have been rehabilitated. More recently rustic looking notice boards have appeared and brilliant directional signs. Looks like a renaissance is under way to open up this beautiful landscape once again for walkers and cyclists. Interestingly, the Communit√† Montana have renovated a great square stone farmhouse and a couple of weeks ago when we were out walking we noticed a sign there proclaiming “Visitors Centre”. We got excited!

From the visitors centre looking East down the valley Il Conventino  sits like a brooding solid stone block on a tongue-shaped promontory. Of uncertain origins, but possibly dating as far back as the mid-ninth century, it was a hide out for maverick monks and turbulent priests. Sold to the Count at nearby Montauto Castle, passed to the abbey at Camaldol√≠, supressed by Pope Pius II in 1459, receiving official recognition only in 1567, destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt twice in the 18th century and finally relinquishing the religious life in 1786. Today it's occupied by an British couple.

The topography changes suddenly here as the valley narrows and the verdant hills give way to a gorge. Jagged steep verdigris cliffs loom up. The low winter sun doesn't penetrate to the floor of the gorge giving rise to frosts here even on the mildest winter days. Looking up
spindly pines rise vertical as plumb-lines as if they were suspended from above; the base barely resting on jagged outcrops of blue-grey rock. At certain times of the year, clouds like cotton-candy Anacondas snake through the valley and the gorge clinging to the forest canopy for dear life.

Bear Ghrylls
Rock of Ages
This is Monti Rognosi which roughly translates as 'Scabby Mountains'. I kid you not. Mountains of igneous rock, these were forged in the savage heat and and pressures near the molten core of the planet. They arise where the Earth's viscous mantle extrudes through the crust at the boundaries of tectonic plates. Indeed, these formations are key evidence in plate tectonic theory. The glossy rocks are packed with minerals. The turquoise appearance suggests a lot of copper. It seems hard to swallow, but millennia since according to geologists, this colossal mass was extruded from the ocean bed.

The high mineral content and scant topsoil has made this inhospitable terrain for habitation – of any kind. The story goes that the 'scabby' part of the name referred to the people here. Since the soil was poor and the people malnourished they were prone to skin complaints! I'm not sure how likely that is, but when we were out walking I did notice that one of the two varieties of pine that thrive here has a scaly bark that peels easily and which brought to mind psoriasis! One thing the poor conditions has done is select for some very rare plant species here. Indeed, according to the information boards only 12% of the plant life here is native. Incredibly, the pine forests were cultivated!

Plumb-line Pines
Thaw and freeze, freeze and thaw. Meteorological extremes and seismic shifts have carved out this landscape. Water seeps into clefts and fissures expanding as it freezes until eventually rocks sheer and fracture. Boulders big has cars have been known to plummet into the road below. Until late spring cataracts cascade down where streams converge eventually finding the river Sovara runing between rocky cliffs on the floor of the gorge. It's a foaming force at this time of the year a great rush: the hiss and spit always there in the background. Summer heat saps it's energy and it trickles lazily seeping between pebbles and boulders. 

Il Conventino
Today Monti Rognosi is an area for leisure. Picnicking, walking and cycling have all been renewed by recent forestry management. Can't wait to take my sarnies and a bottle of prosecco up to the Col di Piaolo to experience the cool shade of the dense pines at the height of summer. The paths now are clear, safe and well sign-posted and at points afford stupendous views out over the Tiber valley and Sansepolcro. I indulged in 'archaeology' of leisure seekers of the more recent past exploring the wreck of an old theatre in the trees with a ramshackle stage complete with shrubs growing through. There were old green hand-blown glass wine bottles knocking around – left by litter louts from the last century no doubt. I could imagine this as the setting for a pine-scented production of Midsummer Nights Dream during the long light evenings of July.

Dumb Britain

Is a regular feature in Private Eye detailing dumb answers on British quiz shows. How's about this. We were out walking in Monti Rognosi the other day. We parked in Il Coventino lay-by where our car was spotted by other Brits.

Is this the right road for (looks at information) Choosy La Verna? (forgiveable mistake: it's Chiusi La Verna, pronounced Kee-oo-sey)

You're on the right road. First right ahead. Continue on through Caprese Michelangelo and pick up signs there for the monastery.... I assume that's where you're heading. By the way the famous Caprese Michelangelo is worth a visit too. There's a museum.”

Really, what's it famous for?”

Er the clue is in the name.”

Puzzled looks and then a light went on. “Oh, the salad with Mozzarella & Basil?”

Yeah right.

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