Italy: Birds and Art in Tuscany 2011

I don’t sleep well in Italy.

Moonset over the hills and sea–from my patio at our Manciano hotel.

Just about the time I’m finally able to tune out the endless tooting of the local Scops Owls, a Common Nightingale bursts into song outside the window, or an insomniac Common Cuckoo reminds me to look at the clock it imitates so convincingly. If I’m lucky, I drift off just in time to be roused by the pre-dawn warbling of Golden Orioles. But by the time a few minutes later the Cirl Buntings are buzzing and the Hoopoes whooping, there’s just no point in lying abed any longer, and I rise to the bright and bird-filled skies of another Tuscan morning.

What keeps me up as much as the birds of the night is the anticipation of the new day afield. Our 2011 tour of the hills, seashore, islands, and mountains of Tuscany found each day better than the one before, starting with our first stroll through the ancient ruins of Vulci and ending with our final days among the wild peaks of the Apennines and Apuan Alps. Every day and every new landscape produced surprising sights and unprecedented experiences: where but in Tuscany could we see European Bee-eaters nesting in the ruins of a Roman villa, Squacco Herons patrolling grassy paths, and Hoopoes bouncing implausibly across a newly mown hotel lawn?

The click was almost audible when our congenial group met on a fine bright afternoon in Rome. We drove north on the ancient Via Aurelia, lined with Barn Swallows, Common Magpies, European Starlings, and Hooded Crows; the first life birds came as we turned in to the archeological park of Vulci, where our arrival was celebrated by Crested Larks and Hoopoes flopping across the fields. Nightingales, Blackcaps, and European Robins serenaded us as we walked the Roman road among palaces and triumphal arches built on the site of an even older Etruscan city.

The famous cryptoporticus of Vulci.

Our comfortable hotel awaited us in Manciano, and as we dined on the first of several exquisite Tuscan meals in the dining room, the local Scops Owls tuned up for their all-night chorus; we would hear their peeping every night during our stay, but the tiny birds remained true to tradition, never allowing so much as a glimpse during daylight hours.

The next morning set the routine for the six days we spent in Manciano: waking to warm, clear skies and the sounds of Sardinian Warblers, Serins, Goldfinches, and the other feathered residents of the hotel grounds; a lavish breakfast; and finally our departure—at a thoroughly civilized hour!—for a nearby site rich in cultural and natural historical significance.

We spent our first full day together visiting areas around Orbetello, walking slowly past green frogs and bright flowers to damp fields and shallow lagoons teeming with birds. Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints fed on the mudflats while five species of tern, including a single Gull-billed Tern, fished in the waters plied by elegant European Spoonbills. An adult Slender-billed Gull was among the loafing Black-headed and abundant Yellow-legged Gulls; Zitting Cisticolas zitted overhead and Cetti’s Warblers mocked us from the thickets. A Melodious Warbler was more obliging, giving us the first of several great views of this Mediterranean specialty. So many birds, so much sunshine, and then gelato: a perfect day in Tuscany.

And followed by another. The vast Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri is among the most evocative sites anywhere; even on a fine spring day, even sharing the place with crowds of loudly cheerful schoolchildren, we found dark, quiet corners where the distant past peeks through and bright Bee-eaters and Barn Swallows dart about the dwelling places of the ancient dead.

In the afternoon we visited the impressive National Museum in Tarquinia, which houses many of the most spectacular objects from the tombs of Cerveteri; nothing, though, can rival the dramatic beauty of the famous winged horses from the cornice of the Temple of the Queen, the epitome of Etruscan art.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the day couldn’t get better—but a Red Kite and no fewer than three Black Kites on the drive back to Manciano proved otherwise.

The marshes of Diaccia-Botrona were our next major destination.

Our flat-bottomed boat lazed along the channel, giving us close-up views of croaking Great Reed Warblers, Ashy-headed Wagtails, and Corn Buntings in the dense phragmites. The short walk to rendezvous with our bus was punctuated by fresh juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons and our first pair of Red-backed Shrikes, surely among the most handsome members of that appealing family.

After a first-rate lunch in the breathtaking village of Castiglione della Pescaia, we returned to the marshes, this time walking a trail on the back side of Diaccia-Botrona; a pair of European Rollers perched obligingly on the wire, watching over the antics of a Squacco Heron feeding from a fence post. Perhaps the most memorable sighting was of a common bird, a very young, still downy European Coot on the grassy path, certainly the cutest of the thousands hatched in the marshes this year.

The next morning found us headed to the massive promontory of the Argentario, where we boarded the ferry for Giglio Island. The crossing, beneath summery skies, was almost birdless, but things improved rapidly once we were on the island and had made the bus ride 2,000 feet up to the Castello. A walk around the medieval fortress led us, inevitably, to one of the town’s least kempt corners, where we saw five species of Sylvia warbler in just a few minutes. Careful attention to the abundant aerial insectivores eventually produced a single Pallid Swift, but the best bird of the day—and of the tour—came after lunch.

A strikingly slender raptor passed by, leaving us scratching our heads for a few excruciating minutes until it returned to give good, close views of a rare and unexpected Eleonora’s Falcon, a bird seen only a few times each year in Tuscany, and not known to breed any nearer than Sardinia. The excitement of that find was still fresh as we crossed back to the mainland, but we managed nevertheless to enjoy our views of a few Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters and a dolphin splashing in the deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Up to this point our pre-breakfast birding on the grounds of our hotel had been “unofficial,” but early the next morning we assembled as a group to spend a short time out together. Most of us eventually caught at least a glimpse of Golden Oriole, a common and noisy and irritatingly elusive summer bird; we saw five Cuckoos, another bird too often just a voice from the fastnesses, and a pair of Woodchat Shrikes was busy ensuring the survival of the species.

After breakfast we set off for the countryside, stopping to admire the unequalled view across a deep gorge to the medieval city of Pitigliano.

We would return to Pitigliano for lunch, but first we explored the romantic alleys of Sorano, where Common Swifts and House Martins passed at eye level and Blue Rock Thrushes fed their nestlings on the rooftops.

A post-prandial walk above the ancient hot springs of Saturnia produced skylarking Sky Larks and a wide variety of open-country wildflowers. Our visit to the Erik Banti winery in Scansano was almost as memorable for the classic Tuscan views as for the fine wines we sampled.

The earliest morning of the tour found us at breakfast at 7:00 and on board the bus shortly after 7:30 am. Reluctant as we might have been to leave the generous hospitality of Manciano, we knew that ahead of us were even greater treasures.

Siena’s Campo greeted us in all its proud medieval glory, while the cathedral square was the site of one of those juxtapositions possible only in an ancient but still very much living city: beneath the marbled west front of one of Europe’s finest churches, hordes of teenagers played basketball while their friends and parents looked boisterously on. We escaped to the cathedral museum, where we admired the church’s original rose window and statues before contemplating Duccio’s Maestà, the first of dozens of truly great paintings we would see in the course of a day that ended with two overwhelming hours in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.

Both cities were a shock to the senses after our week of rural retreat, but our new hotel in Florence—a scant ten minutes’ walk from the cathedral, baptistery, and campanile—proved a welcome refuge. Occupying the second floor of a Renaissance palace, Hotel Casci once belonged to none other than Rossini, and two of us stayed in the composer’s own rooms. A welcoming, English-speaking staff, good breakfasts, and free internet make this a place we’ll return to in a city where even just adequate accommodation can be hard to find.

In the morning, Marco led us to the daily market, where we admired the range of products and produce brought in from the Tuscan countryside. More or less beating the tourist hordes, we paid a visit to the renowned bronze doors of the baptistery and gawked at the wedding-cake marble front of the cathedral before walking a few minutes to Santa Maria Novella, generally acknowledged as the most important, and the most beautiful, Gothic church in Italy.

Simply entering the quiet cloister took us into a different world, and we wandered from masterpiece to masterpiece inside the church; particularly impressive was the fourteenth-century Strozzi chapel, its walls decorated with well-preserved frescoes of judgment, reward, and redemption. Giotto’s crucifix (recently dated to the 1290s, or even to the decade before) remains perhaps the single most moving example of that genre ever created.

Our bus had encountered heavy traffic on the way to meet us at the hotel, so we took advantage of the additional time to walk across the Arno to the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens.

The gardens themselves were disappointingly bleak on a warm, sunny afternoon, but the views—of hilltop villas and of Florence itself—are one of a kind. We walked back by way of the Ponte Vecchio, lined with jewelry stores and thronged with shoppers.

By the time Ubaldo arrived to pick us up, we were ready for more peaceful surroundings and a chance to digest the cultural feast we’d been gorging on.

That chance was provided by the drive north to the Garfagnana Valley, nestled between the green Appenines and the spectacularly rugged Apuan Alps. Before arriving at our comfortable, modern hotel in Castelnuovo, we stopped on the wild Serchio to walk across one of Italy’s most famous medieval bridges, the twelfth-century Ponte della Maddalena—also known more sinisterly as the Ponte del Diavolo.

We didn’t catch a glimpse of any demonic architects this year, but we did see our first Crag Martins hunting over the river and slipping in and out of their nest crevices on the bridge.

The next morning we set out for the Apuan Alps, reversing the planned sequence of our itinerary.

The Orto di Donna, a patchwork of high-elevation meadows, dramatic peaks, and hornbeam forests, greeted us with a morning coffee and Bonelli’s Warblers; an Alpine Chough high overhead left no doubt that we had left the coastal lowlands for good. The local marble quarries, some of them in almost continuous operation since the days of the Romans, were quite active, and there was a certain excitement in watching the great creamy blocks and slabs making their way to artists and architects around the world.

A short stop at the Romanesque church of San Lorenzo turned into an impromptu tour offered by the sexton, who proudly showed us apparent fragments of Roman temples incorporated into the walls and pulled back the curtains to reveal works of art usually hidden from the public eye.

We hadn’t chosen a restaurant for lunch yet, so followed the suggestion to try the restaurant Rei della Macchia, felicitously named for the Eurasian Wren; it was a remarkably good choice, and some of us started to wonder whether the plates of delicious homemade pasta would ever stop arriving on the already groaning boards.

A nap might have been in order after such a heroic meal, but the canyons and caves of Equi Terme called.

Gray Wagtails haunted the rushing stream, and Crag Martins flycaught in front of the high cliffs, but for most of us, the moment most deeply etched into memory will be that of the strong cold draft issuing from the grotto on a warm, nearly hot, afternoon. On the way back to Castelnuovo, we stopped briefly at yet another Romanesque church, this time at Codiponte, where the capitals of the nave are ornamented with strange, even primitive carved figures of humans and fanciful beasts.

It was hard to believe the next morning that our tour was coming to a close; the gray, cool weather seemed to mimic our mood as we gathered at the bus, some of us wearing jackets for the first time in our ten days together. Soon enough, though, the clouds lifted and our spirits, too, and by the time we reached the fortified village of Castiglione di Garfagnana, it had become another bright, clear morning in Tuscany.

Castiglione was full of the common birds we’d come to know over the course of the tour, and we added great views of a foraging Common Redstart before our minibus continued its ascent of the Apennines. Our short walk on the high ridge above San Pellegrino took us along the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, a boundary that meant nothing to the Sky Larks and Tree Pipits lining our way.

We went as far as the Giro del Diavolo, where pious pilgrims still commemorate the saint’s encounter with the devil by depositing stones—sometimes quite large stones—on a pile that has been growing for centuries; our own contributions were more modest.

We spent a few minutes scanning the now blue skies from the promontory of San Pellegrino, then repaired to the village itself for one of the best lunches of the entire tour; the unassuming restaurant claims to have been offering refreshment to pilgrims and tourists without interruption for some eight centuries, and the secret of its success was evident in the extraordinary quality of the food that appeared before us.

We walked off our repast at Sasso Rosso, where a pair of Golden Eagles in uncomfortable possession of a cliffside ledge ducked and cringed under the pesky assault of an acrobatic Common Kestrel.

We returned to our hotel in the late afternoon, with time for packing and a short rest before assembling for our poolside checklist session and a final dinner (and our last gelato, alas).

I didn’t sleep well that last night in Italy.

This time, though, it was not anticipation but the rich replay of a thousand memories that kept me up, the same memories that already have me looking forward to the next chance to bird with all my new friends in a new landscape.