The vie cave [pronounced vee-ah cavay, meaning sunken roads] are these incredibly narrow paths that the Etruscans cut into mile-high tuff (tufa) stone. The other day I was looking through some printed (!) travel photos from about a decade ago and I remembered visiting this unique location in Maremma. At that time I had no idea what the vie cave were, and I wondered how an ancient populace could possibly create roads like this, and why.
Now that summer is fast upon us, and Maremma is a great summer destination, it’s time to revisit these strange roads. Here’s what I could find out about the vie cave, including how to get there, and some stunning photos. If you’re planning a trip to Tuscan beaches, consider incorporating a little Etruscan hiking into your itinerary, because visiting these “vie” is an experience that can really not be properly recounted with words.
Apparently I’m not the only person who wonders what the vie cave were used for – we actually don’t know much for sure about them. The vie cave is a network of “roads” that radiate out from the town of Pitigliano. It seems to be an infrastructure that links the landscape to nearby towns, and incorporates religious sites and a necropolis. The functions of these “roads” have been hypothesized as specially designed channels to bring water from the planes to the valleys, strategic enemy-proof roads, ceremonial paths, or simple roads for transportation of goods and information. Given the width of these spaces – hardly enough for a cart – and the fact that they were not paved, we can assume that they were not for transporting vast amounts of goods.
You’ll notice that some of the roads have been “christianized”: the area was also in use in the middle ages and sacred images were placed along the way to ward off devils or evil spirits in an area that could indeed be quite creepy at dusk.
The other big question that remains for me is HOW did the Etruscans dig out these passageways? Did they invent some machines to speed things up? But even with hoisting machines and wheels, this would be an excruciatingly long and manual task. I like to think that some of the scratches you can see on the wall are signs of the manual labour of the roads’ constructors.
The tall walls – in some cases 25 meters tall – make it feel like an adventure to walk through this area. The schematic maps provided at the park entrance also help this feeling of adventure as you come across tombs, wall markings, and other elements that leave it up to the viewer to wonder about the culture that created this space.
The walls provide convenient shade in the summer, so this is a good place to visit even in the hottest months (you’ll want to bring a long-sleeved shirt to cover up against cool air and mosquitos). Thanks to the unique microclimate created by the walls, the area is host to rare mosses and lichens.
With a range of items of interest, from the historic to the scientific, plus the sometimes-challenging terrain, this is a good place to visit for anyone including families with rambunctious children who need to let off steam. Just be careful that nobody knocks off a piece of tuff stone – the vie cave are #44 on the world heritage watch list of most endangered monuments thanks to the easy erosion of this rock.
The towns of Sorano and Pitigliano grow up out of this same tuff rock, a strange mix of architecture and organic structures.
How to get there
Now that you’re fully convinced that your next trip to Tuscany must include a walk in this fascinating area (maybe paired with a visit to the beach near Castiglione della Pescaia or the hot springs at Saturnia (only 25 km away)), you need to know how to get there.
The best starting point to access the most spectacular section of the vie cave is the town of Sovana. From here you can walk 10 minutes (under 1 km) to the entry to the archaeological park, or drive out of town, along the narrow paved road following signs for Saturnia. About 1,1km out of town, after going under a small tunnel, on the right you’ll find the entrance and a parking lot. A ticket to the park costs 5 euros, and the park opens at 10am. Closing time varies by season.
The website of the Parco Archeologico Città del Tufo with information about the Etruscan sites at Sorano, Sovana & Vitozza is conveniently all in Italian. However, I found a very friendly English speaker on the other end of the phone when I called this number for information (this is the information line for the archaeological park of Sorano): (+39) 0564 614074.
There is no map of all the vie cave available online, nor are they clearly visible on google maps (oddly). Pauline Kenny of slowtrav posted this photo of a sign near Pitigliano (the wonderful town in the photo below) that has the paths marked on it, and you’ll see similar signs when you get there.
I was in the area yesterday and hoped to take some new photos for you but it was pouring rain, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to go for a hike in a deep rut that might have been used at some point as a channel for water…
So here’s a set on flickr by user rikyprof who must be very lucky because he says he often goes jogging here!
And, just so you know, you don’t have to restrict yourself to hiking or walking on the vie cave - these guys went there on mountain bikes!