Italy: The Vie Cave of Tuscany- Etruscan Highways

What? 
Mysterious 2500 year old paths- hacked out through massive rocks.

Why visit? 
The Vie Cave are one of these unique Italian sights that just don't get a lot of air time.

Nobody knows why they were made.
Nobody knows how they were made.
Nobody knows when they were made.

And that's all part of the fun. These mysterious paths are just waiting to be explored.

Where? 
In the Maremma, the southern part of Tuscany, near the towns of Pitigliano, Sovana, and Sorano. Map.


THE ETRUSCANS CONTINUE to fascinate us at Minor Sights. Although we can find plenty of their tombs and artefacts in places like Tuscania and Tarquinia (click here for Etruscan Minor Sights), our understanding of their culture is so limited that they easily maintain their status of International Men of Mystery.

Take these Vie Cave (Excavated Roads, singular: Via Cava.) What were they for? We don't know.  Did they serve a purpose? Probably. How did they make them? We sort of suspect, but we are not quite sure...

But what's clear is that the Vie Cave are an impressive feat of engineering. These paths have been hacked, presumably by hand, straight through formidable rocks and cliffs, creating narrow passages flanked by walls up to 6 meters high.
Why all this effort? Let's imagine you go for a walk in the woods, beating a path as you go along. You stumble upon a massive rock. Do you A, curve around it, B, simply go over it, or C, hack right through it, taking several man years of bone-breaking labour?  Of course, it's the latter option that the Etruscans chose.
Some of the paths connect burial sites and tombs, others lead straight from a village like Pitigliano to nearby fields and streams.
Near Sovana the Vie pass several man-made grottos- used as tombs as well as dwellings. 
Yet it is entirely unclear whether they served some kind of religious purpose, or that it was just a practical way to sneak out of the village without being noticed by your spouse.

What we do know is that Vie Cave continued to be used long after the Etruscans were gone. In some cases they were even dug out even deeper, presumably in the Roman era as well as the early middle ages.

It's obvious though that medieval Tuscans were spooked by these mysterious paths. And you would be too if you had to walk through them at night. So they were equipped with crucifixes and small shrines to keep the evil spirits at bay. Some of these protective saints ended up lending their names to the Via they were placed at.
A crucifix a day keeps the evil spirits away...
An image of St Joseph keeps an eye on the Via Cave San Giuseppe.
Back in the 21st century, there are numerous reasons to visit the Vie Cave.

They make excellent hiking trails to work off those excess calories gained by eating all that great pasta. They are cool during the summer, as they are have lots of shade, so you can escape the heat. And if you're into fern spotting (and who isn't?) The Vie have, thanks to their shade and humidity, a unique microclimate that harbours an extensive collection of unique plants which cannot be found anywhere else in the region.
The graffiti here probably does not date back to Etruscan times...

Getting there: 
Either of the three Maremman towns (Pitigliano, Sovana, Sorano) makes a good starting point. A decent map of the Vie Cave near Pitigliano can be dowloaded here. And the three towns themselves are of course worth exploring as well.

Useful links:
Interactive Map and Guide at Wandering Italy.
For more info, pick up a copy of the excellent The Etruscans and the Vie Cave by Cesare Moroni, available in English in local bookshops.


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