Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears: Animal Encounters on Lazio's Yellow Brick Roads

"Lions and Tigers and Bears! Lions and Tigers and Bears!" That famous refrain from The Wizard of Oz ran through our heads as we thought about the world of fauna that one naturally encounters in hiking the hills and mountains outside Rome. The lions and tigers are few and far between, and in our experience there are no bears except in the Abruzzi. Even so, in Lazio you'll often have animals as hiking companions, and they can be intimidating--especially if, like suburban-raised Bill, your life experience with farms is limited to children's books. Having visited her Italian-American grandmother's farm outside Seattle in the summers, Dianne is more familiar with the bucolic. You'd be amazed at the use once made of the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

The pigs you'll encounter as you walk Lazio's ridges and valleys are not of the barnyard variety.

They're wild boars--cinghiali--brutish and potentially dangerous creatures. Fortunately, they flee at the first sight of hikers, even if they're already hundreds of yards away and off the trail. Our only encounter with more than one of these savory fatties was in Umbria, where we had gone to visit friends who had restored an 18th century farmhouse in the luscious rolling hills near Gubbio. To avoid farmers' fields and try something different, the two of us had set out to hike straight up a muddy streambed
(surrounded by trees, the stream we walked was just to the left of the center at the photo at left, taken from our friends' terrace; that's me looking toward the camera). Coming over a rise, we surprised about 15 of the beasts with their snouts in the watery muck some 50 yards away. They took off like bats outta hell, up the stream and away from us. We continued ahead but never saw anything of them again--and we were glad of it.

Sheep are a common presence on the trail and usually just mill around and eat, especially if tended by a shepherd (most of them now from Eastern Europe) and his dog. We had one experience that was different. We had come off the top of Monte della Fate, not far from Pontinia (one of the Fascist-built cities to Rome's southwest), and descended into a coll. Just ahead were hundreds of sheep, many of them large and fat, the flock unsupervised. As we approached, the animals reacted with dread, apparently convinced that we were terrorists. The pack exploded down the steep, rocky, adjacent hillside, a sea of wool in full flight, raising clouds of dust in their desperate effort to escape the threatening hikers. We were transfixed, horrified at the thought that our presence had precipitated what was sure to end as a sheep massacre, blood and broken bones everywhere. As it turned out, the sheep were more agile than we ever imagined, and not a one even fell.

While sheep generally prefer slopes and fields to the paths trod by humans, Italy's cows and horses are likely to be right there on the trail
as you come around the next bend. Our rule of thumb is that the cows will stand their ground and the horses will run for cover,
though neither is always true. If the terrain is open (right, above) and the trail proper a mere convenience, it's easy enough to skirt the cows and the occasional stationary horse, but often the trail is confined. (Below right, a bunch of skittish horses has taken off down a confined trail at our arrival; harder to see is one that decided to get away by going up the rocky hillside at the right).

Sometimes one must pass gingerly by the beasts. We are particularly cautious about cows with huge horns, which we identify as potentially mean bulls, especially if there are calves nearby that the bull may be anxious to protect. On one occasion, we were returning to the hilltop city of Norba via a set of terraces in back of the town--and only meters from paved roads--when our progress was effectively blocked by a large bull. We retreated to find another route (which proved dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful). Another time we had ill advisedly decided to finish a hike by going off trail toward some farm houses. We entered a narrow, sunken streambed that we imagined would take us past the farms to the road beyond. It was a good idea, but two enormous bovine stood midstream, and we scrambled up the bank.

We no doubt over-estimate the hostile intentions of cattle, female or male. The trail up Monte Gennaro, the most popular substantial climb close to Rome, is laced with passive cows, guys and gals, enjoying the sun of the high pasture or, as in the photo at the top of this post, taking refuge in the shade of the dry riverbank leading to it (the photo is ordinary; we were seconds late in capturing an episode of fornication). Another day, when crossing a huge open field with an Italian hiking group, we passed within 20 feet of a cow that had recently given birth, its calf still attached by umbilical cord. None of the animals seemed to mind our presence--but we did not linger to take photographs. You'll find donkeys
on the trail, too, and they are harmless. Here's one helping Dianne read the map.

Every farmer has a dog--and often more than one--and while they bark a lot, most of them are territorial to a fault and don't care much if you're not on their turf. And if the owner's around, he'll call them off. Still, if you're off trail and cutting through the bushes in a farmer's back yard (not so uncommon for us), the anxiety is palpable.

Yet only once have we been really frightened by dogs. It happened in the hills near Palestrina. We were nearing the end of a long--and needlessly difficult--day of hiking. We had missed the trail down into the enormous gorge in back of the city and, at Bill's urging, had plunged a thousand feet down a steep wooded ravine to the creek below, then up the other side (on a dirt road), finally, finally (Dianne was upset), emerging on the far crest of the gorge in lovely, flat country,
with the paved road to Palestrina and a cold beer less than half a mile distant. In that moment of temporary bliss, Dianne took the photo at right.

Within minutes (see the buildings at the left of the photo that promised our return to civilization), we understood that to get to that road we would have to walk through the middle of a rural homestead, several buildings on each side, with the holy grail of the paved road two hundred yards beyond. And there were dogs. One at first, then a few, then NINE (we counted), barking, snarling, teeth-baring, and all following us in a pack as we walked at a measured pace between the buildings. The farmer or his wife would appear at any second, we thought, to rein in their crazed mutts and appease us with pasta and wine, but never did. The dogs were at our feet, sniping at Dianne's heels, and to keep them off--but hoping not to provoke an attack--I poked at the more aggressive ones with my hiking pole, which seemed to give them pause. Ha Ha. And we methodically walked on. As the road got closer and their turf farther away, the dogs lost interest. We felt spared. And I had saved Dianne (Dianne remembers the event somewhat differently: she led the way through the pack of dogs, Bill following behind).

We have had close encounters with nice dogs, too. A scruffy white one met us in the main square of the small town of Calcata; followed us down into the Etruscan ruins of the Valle della Treja below and 4 miles,
some of it off trail, to Manzana, where the three of us ate our lunch; napped (see photo) on his full stomach; then took us back to his village. An inquiry at the local bar revealed that this is pretty much what this dog does. Once we knew he wasn't going to get lost, we enjoyed the company.


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