After the last blog entry on the Giant of the Apennines, which can be admired at the Parco Mediceo di Pratolino, though in the direction opposite to that which we really want to explore, it is time for us to get to the other side of Tuscany, more exactly in Maremma.
n ancient times, this immense region was populated by the Etruscans. The presence of fertile and hilly lands, vast mineral deposits and easy access to the sea allowed the development of a prosperous economy. As testimony to this, Vetulonia, one of the wealthiest Etruscan cities, had the right to coin its own money, more or less as Europe issues Euros, the Americans dollars, the Chinese yuan, and so on.
Over the centuries, the Maremma has seen the best and the worst times: it has, infact, been defended, defeated, conquered, divided, subjugated, exploited, abandoned, rediscovered, and finally healed and refurbished. The territory, moreover, was for a long time covered by vast coastal marshes with swamps and rivers without levees which flooded the earth covered by Mediterranean shrubland. This caused serious poverty, as the lack of arable land led to small harvests, and open pasture land was practically nonexistent. In addition, the inhabitants had to deal with malaria, which carried away hundreds of thousands to their deaths.
Thus, a majority of the people emigrated in the hope of finding a better future. In practice, the region was almost totally abandoned. The destiny of the Maremma started to recover only in the middle of the 18th century, when Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorraine (who himself died of malaria) began a process of land reclamation which was completed only under the fascist regime of Mussolini in the middle of the last century.
History has profoundly affected the region, which remains rugged and wild, giving rise to inhabitants who are edgy, proud, and independent, endowed with great courage, sense of duty, and undeniable charm.
Therefore, when I was presented with the opportunity of participating in a photography course organized by a true “Maremmano”, I could not resist. I also liked the contrast between the region’s severity and harshness and the prospect of seeing one of my favourite things: wild orchids. Towards March/April the fields of our azienda agricola host several varieties, but I was particularly interested in seeing an orchid which does not grow in our area.
And so, one beautiful Sunday morning in mid-May we left at five o’clock in order to arrive in time for our meeting at eight o’clock sharp. The trip was calm and relaxing, the weather soft and mild; and to see the rising sun while walking to one’s destination is always a spectacle that leaves me speechless.
The group of professional and amateur photographers was close-knit, maybe because they already knew one another, maybe because they had already spent the previous day taking photos together, followed by an evening together enjoying tasty Maremma dishes (possibly accompanied by a good glass of some local wine). We had to arrange care for our dog and cat, therefore overnighting in the Maremma was out of the question. The head of our group, an expert photographer who knows the area well, made us drive about fifteen minutes to stop at a certain point and scour the land near the guardrail. It went without fail, because there we quickly found our first orchids; small, insignificant, and light years away from what we usually think of as orchids. Our expert (in fact, there were two), nevertheless, went into explanations regarding the peculiarities of the plantlings, the spotted leaves of one of them, another whose flowers resembled the abdomen of an insect, and the difficulties of finding and identifying them.
After everyone had taken photos of these first varieties, the two leaders took us to a hill about five or six kilometers away. The improvised car park afforded a lovely panoramic view, but our destination was on the opposite side of the road. A meadow filled with a huge variety of flowers, almost all pink. Incredible! I have never seen such a thing in my life. There, although hampered by a strong breeze, we could indulge ourselves: orchids as far as the eye could see, all there for good-willed photographers who had hope that the wind would cease at least for long enough to take a few shots. Personally, I found what I was looking for: the purple or major orchid (Orchis purpurea) which, windy or not, completely satisfied my expectations.
After an hour and hundreds of photos, our itinerary carried us towards a village where we bought provisions for a sack lunch. A few more kilometers brought us to our final destination: a forest where we enjoyed our lavish meal. The reason we finished in these woods were two varieties of orchid that are difficult to recognize as such. One white, slender, and concealed in the undergrowth; the other, often in groups, brown, barely more than dried herbs to a normal human (my apologies to the organizers). Even photographing them with special lenses did not make them more spectacular. Alas.
By now it was late afternoon. The photographers wanted to make a few shots of “reptiles”: a lizard, a millipede, a rat snake, a viper. Not for me, thank you. Now that I think about it, perhaps a green lizard: innocuous and with spectacular emerald colour, but that afternoon no such specimens appeared.
It was time to return home. The day had been lovely, interesting and entertaining, and the variety of orchids really amazing. I had not expected such delicate and ephemeral beauty in such a wild place. Also the organizers had surprised me: open, pleasant, tolerant, patient…and vegans; maybe a bit far from the image of the Maremma, but what can one say? Times change. Until next time!
Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x