Wild Italy

Nancy Henderson-James

Copyright 2002 by Nancy Henderson-James

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash
                                                     Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Wild is not a trait I immediately ascribe to Italy. More often, in my
daydreams, I find myself in a domesticated landscape of terraced hills,
fields of bright sunflowers, groves of gray-green olive trees, grape
vines tidily attached to trellises, sheep grazing in a meadow. I think
of tiny hilltop towns, surrounded by walls to repel invaders, inward
looking, protective, the very opposite of wildness. Historically, Italy
has been the definition of civilization. From the Romans to the
Renaissance to the present, Italians are known for their artistic
sensibilities, sophistication, and a fabulous sense of design.

On a recent trip to Italy, wherever I found a hike within easy reach of
town, I donned my boots and daypack and took off to give my legs a
challenge. Challenge I met, and more. I found the wild.

On the first day of the trip, my husband and I dropped our luggage at
our hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure and inquired at the desk about
hikes in the immediate vicinity. We needed to rid ourselves of sluggish
brains and legs brought on by a long flight and hours of driving. The
owner of the Albergho Fiorina pointed across the street to a narrow lane
that led straight up into the hills. "Follow the Costa Secca," she said.
It changed from street to alley to paved stepped path until we passed
the last of the houses, an old stone farmhouse being renovated, and the
path became dirt. On frequent breaks from the steady steep uphill trek,
we looked back down on the red roofs of town, the terraced hills, the
Ligurian sea, and reminded ourselves that, yes, we were in Italy. The
path wound up the hill, over little streams, and into an oak forest from
which we could no longer see Santa Margherita. Hiked to its end, this
path would have led us across the Portofino peninsula to hook up with
other paths going south, west, and east. After an hour and a half of
hiking, I told my husband that I'd sit while he hiked further up. I was
stumbling from lack of sleep on the overnight flight.

He soon returned with a tale. About fifteen minutes up the path, he saw
a pack of dogs in the woods. But on closer look, he realized they were
wild boar, complete with tusks and dark bristles down their backs.
Hoping that they were as leery of him as he was afraid of them, he
turned and walked down the path, with as much calm as he could muster.
What could be wilder than to meet a beast on its own turf?

In my fantasies, wild boars are the stuff of mythology, not the
scavenging denizens of the hills of Liguria. If I had not had (almost)
first hand knowledge of their wild roamings, I would have assumed that
the boar served us several days later at the Osteria del Cinghiale
Bianco in Florence was a variety of domesticated pig. (Cinghiale means
wild boar.) Its flavor reminded me of pork, but was richer and stronger.
Wild boar made their accidental appearance on our first day in Italy
and, even in most civilized Florence, we continued to stumble upon their
feral trail.

Later in our trip, we rented a villa in the hills west of Assisi above
the tiny (one square block) walled village of Tordibetto. We continued
searching out challenging walks as we explored Umbria, an easy task
since Italy is laced with sentieri, paths more or less marked and
maintained. The Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini headed our list of
must-hikes. Monti Sibillini was designated a national park as recently
as 1993. This late impulse to protect the natural environment has had to
compete with the millennia of human occupation of the land and, I might
add, the delight Italian hunters take in shooting every wild creature
that flies and runs, most evident during our October sojourn, when the
blam-blam of shotguns echoed incessantly around us.

We stopped in Norcia, on the edge of the park, to buy lunch provisions
and a map of hiking trails. Upon entering the main drag to the piazza,
we were suddenly and gloriously jerked right back to wild boar. Outside
the half-dozen or so shops selling pork, the hairy heads of the
long-snouted, tusked, squinty-eyed boar hung, advertising hams, salami,
and every type of pork product within--the scavenging wild boar morphed
into ham. We had arrived at the Holy City of Wild Boar, the mention of
which makes Italians swoon and salivate, as we discovered a few days
later. On a winery tour, we mentioned to a fellow tourist, an Italian
woman, that we had been to Norcia. She wilted and sighed, "Ah, Norcia!"
Norcia is so well-known for its pork that ham and salami shops elsewhere
in Italy are often called Norcineria.

Could the hundreds of hams, salami ropes, and fresh sausages derive from
wild boar running about the Sibillini hills? We didn't stumble upon any
wild boar on our hike. But the flavor of the sausage we picnicked on
pointed to something other than domesticated pig. It had a gamy, edgy,
musky taste. Later I discovered that in Europe half a million wild boar
are harvested a year out of more than 800,000 roaming in the woods.
Eastern Europe is especially teeming with the beasts, most of them wild
and some cultivated on reserves. To maintain those numbers, boar must be
prolific breeders. They do, in fact, produce up to fourteen offspring
per litter, sometimes birthing two litters a year.

In the tabaccheria across from the Basilica of San Benedetto (Norcia is
the birthplace of the twin saints Benedict and Scholastica), we bought a
map of Sibillini hikes, also available at the Norcia headquarters of the
Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. We settled upon a hike up Monte
Patino, the hill that crouched in the distance beyond city hall and the
basilica, and whose trailhead was a mere six km. out of town. Trailhead
is too grand a description. At the Forca d'Ancorano, we found an empty
field to park in and an unmarked gravel road. Using the topo map as our
guide, we hiked along the road a good hour before it became more
path-like. We walked between the south side of Monte Patino on our left
and a wooded ravine on our right. The thick woods turning bronze and
yellow glowed in the sun. In the hills ahead of us, we were struck by
something we didn't understand. The trees, in their fall reds and golds,
clothed the hills part way up and stopped. The tops of the hills were
barren, yet these were low mountains. Monte Patino has an elevation of
6120 ft. Tree line is usually considerably higher than that. It wasn't
until we came upon some still-operating livestock watering troughs,
where the velvet-brown grasslands of the summit started, that we
understood what we were seeing: a landscape modified by domestic

In the six hours of our hike, we did not meet another soul. For six
hours we felt the stillness and isolation of the wild. We heard no
mechanized vehicle. We startled a partridge. We walked through a dark
forest right out of the Brothers Grimm. And we followed the contoured
paths of centuries of grazing sheep, sheep that had modified the
Sibillini forests, turning them into graze lands.

Italy reminds me of M.C. Escher's print, Sky and Water I in which flying
swans gradually turn into fish. I went to Italy expecting a cultivated
landscape but found my eye improbably diverted by the wildness of boar
and the isolation of the Sibillini. In the middle of Escher's print,
swan and fish grow out of each other and the eye is forced to flip back
and forth, vacillating between seeing the black swans and the white
fish. So too, my images of Italy morphed from the domestic to the wild
and back again, the wild shimmering through the veil of the domestic.

Nancy Henderson-James works and writes in Durham, North Carolina.

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