Tag Archives: Where the wild winds are

Beneath the surface: Tuscany’s ancient walking trails

The sunken vie cave paths were made by the Etruscans

Our friend Nick Hunt (author of Walking the Woods and the Water and Where the Wild Winds Are) has recently written an article for the Guardian about the Vie cave network of sunken paths. Dug by the Etruscans more than 2,000 years ago, they offer a fascinating way to explore a little-visited corner of southern Tuscany. Nick has also recently published a short book – The Parakeeting of London. Apparently the skies of London have been taken over by flocks of bright-green parakeets and nobody knows how they got there. Nick tracks the progress of the parakeets from park to cemetery to riverbank, meeting Londoners from all walks of life who share their thoughts, opinions and theories on these incongruous avian invaders. Did Jimi Hendrix release them in 1968? Did they escape from a set during the filming of The African Queen? Are they anything to do with climate change? And, most importantly, are they here to stay?

First published in The Guardian

“Here there are wild boars with four legs, and wild boars with two,” says Walk Italy tour leader Roberto Carpano. We are drinking volcanic wine in the tiny village of Sovana, and he is referring to the fact that people from this forested, hilly part of southern Tuscany (50 miles south of Siena and as close to Rome as Florence) are sometimes nicknamed cinghiali (wild boars) for their stubborn, bristly nature.

Not that there are many locals about – Sovana has fewer than 100 residents, and the piazza is deserted apart from a small, self-important dog. My partner and I are here, with four others, to join a two-day walking tour of the area’s mysterious vie cave (sunken roads).

We are not exactly off the beaten track, for these tracks have been beaten since the bronze age. The vie cave are a network of paths dug by the Etruscans, the civilisation that ruled this area until 100 BC, when the last of their cities were absorbed into the Roman Republic. The ancient thoroughfares were cut into the tufo – the volcanic rock common in south and central Italy – connecting settlements, religious sites and necropolises. Some are just sunken footpaths, but others are six-metre deep ravines broad enough to drive a chariot down. In places the walls are carved with sacred symbols to protect against the pagan spirits later populations believed might haunt the trails.

Our journey begins above Sorano, at Fortezza Orsini, the 15th-century castle of the Orsini family, perched atop a tufo bluff riddled with tunnels and caves. We tour the catacombs with Sean Lawson, a New Zealander who came here on holiday 18 years ago and stayed on. He leads us through the cramped passageways that honeycomb the rock – their walls coated in saltpetre, used for gunpowder that fuelled the Orsinis’ incessant wars – and into the wooded valley, where the vie cave begin.

The sunlight disappears as we burrow into the shaded valley – the marks of 2,000-year-old picks are still visible on the walls. But soon we emerge into an open landscape of vineyards and olive groves, roads more Roman than Etruscan. Our goal, eight miles to the east, is a place of even greater mystery: an ancient necropolis called the Città del Tufo, whose largest, most majestic tomb is the Ildebranda, carved from the living rock, surrounded by hundreds of smaller burial chambers. Sean shows us the Tomb of the Winged Demons and a statue of Vanth, angel of death, pausing to chat to some local women who are picking wild asparagus – it’s perfect in risotto, they say.

The next morning’s vie cave take us south from Sovana to a place that’s very much alive: the Sassotondo vineyard, owned by wine producing couple Carla Benini and Eduardo Ventimiglia. “He is the mind and I am the nose,” says Carla, after showing us round a cellar cut deep into tufo, like everything else, and pouring glasses of red, white and orange wine as an icy wind shakes the mimosa trees outside.

The wine cellars at Sassotondo vineyard are cut deep into tufo

After a lunch of unsalted Tuscan bread and sheep’s cheese sprinkled with oregano, we are back on the sunken roads heading for Pitigliano – an unreal vision of a town with steeples, towers and defensive walls on a rocky outcrop, its terracotta rooftops circled by rooks. We pass beneath the arches of a 16th-century aqueduct into a warren of vicoli, narrow twisting alleyways. Roberto shows us the synagogue of the ancient Jewish quarter, which thrived from the 15th century but didn’t survive the 20th – its members fled or were deported, with others reportedly finding refuge with Christian families during the second world war – and is now another monument to a vanished culture.

A full moon is rising as we settle into La Magica Torre, a guesthouse with views of the old town. Sleep is a long way off, though, for something special is about to happen in the main piazza. The Invernacciu is an effigy of canes and straw, which represents the departing spirit of winter. As darkness falls, a line of flames weaves towards us along the vie cave across the valley. A procession of young men in monks’ robes staggers up the hill, trailing sparks from huge bundles of burning canes on their shoulders. Their chants get louder as they come: “’Eppe, ’eppe, viva San Giuseppe!” This festival, the Torciata di San Giuseppe, is dedicated to the town’s patron saint, but the veneer of Christianity is unconvincing. Tonight is the spring equinox, and this is a pagan celebration of the end of winter.

The monks touch their torches to the pyre and the straw man goes up in flames. A fierce wind turns the piazza into a maelstrom of swarming sparks. Chunks of burning wood rain down on the crowd, and parents brush embers from their children’s hair as watching firemen chat and smoke cigarettes. As music blasts from powerful speakers, inebriated monks dance hand-in-hand around the inferno.

It is a glorious end to our walk. Winter is truly over. By midnight the streets are deserted. We return to the smouldering heap to gather a handful of still-warm ashes to take home on tomorrow’s train – good luck for the coming year.

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Jan Morris review of Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

Jan Morris’ review of Nick’s new book, Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to ProvenceFirst published in The Literary Review. She is effusive in her praise, concluding …

Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

This extraordinary work is a prime example of that contemporary genre, the ex-travel book. Travel writing as such being a bit obsolete now, since so many readers have been everywhere, the form has evolved into something more interpretative or philosophical. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence is a work of this sort – a thoughtful (and perhaps rather too protracted) relation of a journey on foot across half of Europe – and it contains much admirable descriptive writing of the old sort. It is also, however, something far more interesting than most such enterprises: it describes an expedition into the Winds!

The Winds? Yes, four European winds, sometimes with a capital W, sometimes not, into which, one by one, Nick Hunt goes. He wants to experience and explore them all. Each is rich in history, myth, folklore, superstition and effect. Many of us have travelled across Europe, but as far as I know nobody has hitherto so deliberately explored the kingdoms of the great winds. Scientists, geographers, glider pilots, artists, poets and theologians have investigated and commemorated them, but travel writers never before. Hunt immerses himself in those Windlands and manages to give his readers a blast, a sigh, a shiver of each.

He chooses four named winds out of dozens, four being a geographical sort of number. His first and smallest wind, one I have never heard of before, blows across a northwestern corner of England. It is called Helm, and its headquarters, it seems, is a desolate plateau called Cross Fell in a particularly uninviting stretch of the Pennines. Helm is the only named wind blowing across Britain. It sounds perfectly awful and its reputation is frightful: it howled for fifteen days in 1843, it demolished a castle tower once, everybody complains about its psychological and temperamental effects and for centuries the countryside it rules was plagued by vendettas, pillagings, rapes, cattle-rustlings and murders. Hunt relates an awful curse that a 16th-century archbishop cast upon the place: it ran to more than a thousand words and finally declared that the souls of the local miscreants should be condemned to the deepest pit of hell, their bodies to be torn apart by dogs, swine and wild beasts.

Of course Hunt does not blame Helm for all this, but the wind does seem to have a baleful influence upon people, even now. He never experienced it for himself, diligently though he tried, tramping the high fells in search of it and miserably camping out, but his description of the experience is sufficiently vivid. It seems to me that the whole of Helmland is blown through with scoundrels and demons.

Less baleful, thank goodness, seems the influence of Foehn, which the novelist Hermann Hesse once described as the south announcing news of spring to the snowbound north. It is a warm wind (katabatic, Hunt helpfully explains, meaning that it blows downslope, not anabatically), and although it is said to cause migraines and depressions, it is also associated with clear skies and warmth. It sounds an ambiguous sort of wind. Our author starts his walk through its realm in Zurich in late March. He hopes to catch the wind doing what Hesse said it did, and he gives us some classic travel-book stuff on the way (‘flocks of sheep clanged their bells in a satisfyingly Alpine way’). When he gets to Liechtenstein he finds an entire exhibition devoted to Foehn. ‘We say’, announce its curators fondly, ‘that Foehn is the Oldest Man of Liechtenstein.’ This lively exhibition seems to reveal a different sort of attitude to the wind from anything Helm inspires in the bitter Pennines – more considerate, more affectionate perhaps. As Hunt walks on, though, he finds that while his front is growing warmer, his back is getting cold, and I take that to demonstrate that Foehn is a two-faced sort of wind.

It apparently is responsible for an illness of its own – Föhnkrankheit (‘Foehn-sickness’). Citizens complain of wind-induced depressions, anxieties and headaches. Farm animals grow fretful when Foehn blows and schoolchildren become uncontrollable. Hunt saw for himself a horse ‘excitedly’ performing ‘a small dance in its field’, and took this to mean that Foehn was on its way. When he told one elderly citizen that he was hoping to experience the wind for himself, the old boy scowled, tapped out his pipe on his trouser leg and simply said schlecht (‘bad’).

When our author did at last encounter Foehn in person, as it were, sure enough it was an ambiguous fulfilment. The energy of its gusts was evidently thrilling: ‘Now that I had found the wind, I had to follow it.’ But with Foehn, he says, came a powerful sensation: ‘Melodrama was everywhere: in the lake, the trees, the grass, the birds, the mountains, the sky, the light.’ He was, he says, ‘worn ragged from the struggle … I had come a long way to find the wind, but now for the first time … I had the strong sensation of wanting it to stop.’

Ah, but Hunt’s fourth wind (I will get to the third one later) is the Mistral, and we all know that one. The very name whispers holiday, art and the warm south. Van Gogh, Hunt tells us, painted his Summer Evening specifically because the Mistral was blowing through the Midi that day. ‘Aren’t we seeking intensity of thought’, Van Gogh asked a friend, ‘rather than tranquillity of touch?’ Intensity is evidently a hallmark of the Mistral. Both the French and the Spanish have warships named after it. Van Gogh himself, of course, eventually went mad.

Hunt knew all about the Mistral when he began his exploratory walk at Valence, where the wind is popularly supposed to start, and he had no difficulty in finding it for himself. It hit him in the face the moment he went out, and all around him, he tells us, passers-by ‘walked at forty-five-degree stoops, their hair-styles heading south’. Was this indeed the Mistral? he asked one of them. The reply was definitive: ‘Oui … This is the place with the most wind in France.’

He need not have asked. Throughout his stay in Provence, the Mistral was boisterously and proudly with him, and everyone talked about it. It used to be called ‘the idiot wind’, he learned. In the town of Orange in 2004 it blew for sixteen days without stopping, and it regularly blows there for one in three days throughout the year. ‘It makes us nervous – angry, even. Yes, it makes us angry! He enjoys this! He likes the passion! Me, I hate it.’ It had lately changed its blowing patterns, some said, while others suggested that in the law courts judges sentence more leniently if the Mistral is blowing hard.

One connecting theme of Hunt’s book is the subject of madness and its supposed links with particular winds. Van Gogh spent a year at Arles in Provence and painted two hundred pictures there – scenes all distinguished, Hunt suggests, by ‘the restlessness of the air’. Van Gogh himself called the Mistral merciless and wicked, but he loved the clear light of it, and it was not in Mistral country but in northern France where in the end he shot himself.

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

I have left to the end Hunt’s second Wind, the Bora, because it is the one I have personally experienced, and because it seems to me the one most dramatically associated with a particular city. The Bora is a terrific climactic phenomenon that periodically storms down the mountainous coastline of the Adriatic and bursts through gaps in the highlands to fall upon places on the coast. Hunt calls it the ‘enfant terrible of the Adriatic’, and at its worst it can reach hurricane strength.

The Bora is intimately associated with Trieste, a city of tangled nationality, mingled fortunes and pungent character. I have known the place myself for seventy years and have written about it often, but until Hunt’s book reached me I had never heard of the Bora Museum, which is in a back street near the docks and contains 150 bottled winds from the four corners of the world.
Trieste and the Bora have become almost synonymous and they are proud of each other.

Everyone in the city has tales to tell of the wild and boisterous Bora, its rolling over of trams, its stripping of roofs and all its extravagant goings-on – such a contrast from the sometimes melancholy suggestiveness of the city itself. The Bora is fundamental to the self-image of Trieste. There is a street named in honour of it, artists repeatedly celebrate it, you can buy comic postcards of it and local historians like to claim that a nearby battle fought under its influence in AD 394 led directly to the fall of the Roman Empire. I forget exactly why.

I can myself testify that the Bora has the usual deleterious wind effects, including odd sensations of desolation or enervation. Nevertheless, after finishing this fascinating work, it seemed to me that the Bora is the happiest and jolliest of all Hunt’s Winds, the only one, perhaps, with a sense of humour.

Where the Wild Winds Are is full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction. It is travel writing in excelsis, and if I have judged it to be too long, that is perhaps because I have had enough of the genre itself. Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

Buy Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence
By Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brearley Publishing 258pp