Thursday, June 28, 2007

Along The Sheep Trail

The steady breeze brought cooling relief as well as the only sound audible, rustling the grasses in the pastures. High in a mountain valley we found solitude and a break from the incessant heat of the last few weeks. We also found relics of a bygone era scattered about the area, le caciare, as they are called. Round huts built without mortar by stacking stones in a concentric manner to form a beehive shape, the caciare were constructed and used by shepherds for many years as they grazed their flocks in the mountains.

There are said to be one hundred of the unusual shelters still standing in this area, testimony of the importance of the wool industry in this region, dating back as far as the medieval times. In Ascoli, the wool merchants’ guild was very powerful and paid for the construction of a colonnaded loggia abutting the monumental church of San Francesco, on the Piazza del Popolo, as a shady place to gather. One guidebook says the Medici family of Florence controlled many of Abruzzo’s Appenine mountain pastures as wool represented one of the major sources of income in those days. This part of Monti dei Fiori may have been included in their holdings. An old map in another guidebook shows that in 1605 there were an estimated 5,500,000 head of sheep along the Wool Route, which included an elaborate system of trails to move the sheep from mountain valleys to the lower plains. That's a lot of lambs!

The rustic caciare, with their conical shape, are reminiscent of the trulli in Puglia, and may well have been inspired by them since the route stretched from Abruzzo all the way to the plains of Puglia south of the Gargano Peninsula. Inside, the dry stone construction keeps the primitive interior a relatively constant temperature.

In some of the fields, evidence (ahem) of sheep having been grazed here in the past was abundant, though we were surprised that we did not encounter any animals nor shepherds. We inspected several caciare, wandering around the recently-harvested grain fields and enjoying the breeze and the silence. Not a single car passed along the road during the two hours we were exploring. The gorgeous, calming views swept across the mountain ranges included in the national parks of Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga and included the Sibillini and Monte Ascensione as well. A few puffy clouds skirted overhead and cast shadows on the mountain slopes. We were reluctant to return to the heat of the city, but will return to the high pastures with picnics throughout the summer now that we have found a tranquil refuge with picturesque remnants in the cool, fresh mountain air.

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