The medieval cave city of Vitozza was abandoned by most of its citizens in the 1400s. Until the 1700s a couple of lone mavericks survived in its cave dwellings, but most was left to crumble. It was revived briefly when it was used as a refuge during the war, but since then landslides and nature’s stealthy hand have wrought its ruin.
La Città Perduta
A wooded trail leads to the first of the cave dwellings. They appear as yawning gaps excavated from the soft tufo rock. In the darkness within the rough-hewn mouths of the caves an occasional rudimentary column can be discerned. Thankfully Italian health and safety is lax so with a little scrambling up rocky slopes many of the caves can still be explored. And once inside the visitor is surprised by the vastness of these warren-like dwellings. Signs outside some of the grottoes provide a plan of the interior and highlight rock benches, niches and carvings that those with keen observation can identify inside. But although it seems an incarnation of fairytale mystique, the rugged rock walls and uneven floor suggest a life of little luxury. Like the Sassi of Matera, most caves would have housed both people and animals, often together in one dark, squalid space.
Around 32 of the grottoes have been signposted, but almost 200 exist in total, most of which are inaccessible due to landslides or collapses. These caves are thought to have already been inhabited in the Etruscan and Roman times, and by the Medieval period it clearly had a sizeable population. One local resident of San Quirico, who stopped to talk while on his daily passeggiata, told me the number of Vitozza’s residents once reached 1500. And while it remained forgotten and uninhabited during the 1800s, it was a surprising haven during the Second World War. This same resident recalls living in the caves for a few years when very young to escape the bombing of San Quirico. He remembers the women going down to the town each morning to get bread, and washing the clothes in the river.
The city’s church, the Chiesaccia, testifies to its once numerous population. Although little more than a ruin, imagination can reconstruct what was clearly a grand structure. Vitozza also had at least three fortresses, the traces of two of which remain, built by the Aldobrandeschi family.
But the highlight of the fragmentary remains of this city is the Colombaria, the dovecot. At the end of the trail after clambering down a stony slope the visitor almost stumbles across this architectural delight. The rock walls of this series of caves are patterned with tiny niches, regimentally spaced, which change subtly in form between the different caves. Although clearly for a practical purpose, the simple geometric beauty of the pattern of niches is typical of medieval building. As can be seen from the photo this cave has sadly suffered structural problems and as such cannot be entered. However only a couple of planks of wood across the entrance have been deemed a sufficient preventative so you can still get a good view in. And though it would be easy to sneak beneath the planks the ominous cracks and heavy-duty scaffolding inside are the best repellents for rebellious visitors!
Vitozza’s epithet of ‘the lost city’ is ironically rather fitting when trying to find it as a modern visitor. If arriving by car it’s best to follow the route for San Quirico d’Orcia (the town where Vitozza’s population moved) and from the main square follow the brown signs for Vitozza and the car park. Arrival by public transport is messy and requires alighting from a train at Chuisi or at Buonconvento and then taking a bus to San Quirico. More information here in Italian.
From the car park it is still a substantial walk to the beginning of the caves, and then further to complete the circuit shown on the map below. As such, leave plenty of time particularly as exploring caves and ruins can be time consuming! Good footwear is recommended (I completed it in velvet sneakers with pompoms but the shoes, and my feet, will probably never be the same again). There is obviously no medieval bar on the route selling water, and the public bathrooms are indescribable, so satisfy any needs in San Quirico before setting off.