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Transhumance in Northern Lazio

This experience threw me back in time of I don’t know how many years! A traditional transhumance with the Butteri delle Due Maremme and their herd in the land of the Etruscans was the most wonderful experience. It was definitely the most complicated photoshoot I ever took, but without a doubt the most fun. Complicated simply because riding a happy horse with a camera in hand, and at the same time capturing the essence of the experience, avoiding potential horn stabbing on behalf of Maremmane cows is not the kind of multi-tasking I’m used to, but once my sweet companion of adventures, a grey filly named Lola, understood what we were doing, she become a perfect tripod (or should I say “quadripod” as she has 4 legs?).

I’ve always been a lover of tradition, especially anthropologically and ethnographically speaking, curious of past history and fascinated by what life was like without technology, without engines, without comfort. Traditions are linked to the various lifestyles and adapt to the different needs of the people. I’ve always loved horses and thought that man would not have developed so quickly without it, but despite this, today he is so advanced not to need this wonderful animal anymore. Yet, horses are good for the soul and in some parts of the world, they are still used as faithful working partners. We’re all used to hearing about Cowboys and when one thinks of them, far West movies come to mind, but one must not necessarily go to America to meet the real ones! The Butteri are native Italian cowboys, great horsemen of past centuries, men who lived on their horses and governed the great herds of rich landowners in the marshlands of central Italy. A tradition that is slowly disappearing partially because of economic and landscape changes, as well as the abandonment of the countryside; and today there are not many left to defend the ancient knowledge of this noble profession.

One may often encounter the butteri at equestrian trade fairs, they are easily recognizable from their elegant clothing, their typical hat and cane (the mazzarella), the native black or bay horses, the bardelle and scafarde (typical butteri saddles); yet at trade shows, in spite of them parading in exciting performances, one cannot fully gain the centuries-old tradition that these riders have to pass on. To find out more, I joined them during a transhumance. This is when before the hot season, the butteri used to move the herds from the marshy plains to the hills to avoid malaria, that used to plague this land until the 1930’s, when the area was finally reclaimed and improved. Needless to say I had a fantastic time during the transhumance! We were a group of 35 riders of all ages. Just under half were butteri by trade, the other riders were want-to-be butteri cowboys like me.

We left Friday morning from Vejano (VT), a small town in Tuscia, the Maremma of Northern Lazio, located near the Marturanum Park and not far from the Tolfa Mountains: a set of hills that surround an endless stretch of grasslands, where horses and cows still live in the wild. Nature here has remained untouched, and everywhere one can see animals running up and down the valleys or just grazing peacefully in the vast green patches of this charming area. We visited places of breathtaking beauty, crossed turquoise rivers and enchanted woods, lands forgotten by civilization.

Our first stop was lunch near a fountain where both cows and horses refreshed and we enjoyed a delicious bowl of acquacotta, a traditional buttero meal. The night we slept in Civitella Cesi, a tiny town of about 300 inhabitants where there is an experimental archeology village called Antiquitates*, complete with traditional huts like those used by the butteri during the long transhumance. The next day, we crossed the valley of the Mignone river and reached the Etruscan archaeological sites of St. Giovenale and Luni sul Mignone. I think it is almost impossible to reach Luni without a horse, unless someone has a great desire to walk and lots of time, but it’s worth it, the view extends from the top of the hill down to the sea and one can see why the Etruscans built here an important city.

Riding through the land of the Etruscans, the mysterious civilization that preceded the Romans, is an experience that I recommend to everyone at least once in a lifetime, especially if blended with the guidance of the butteri during the transhumance. Our cows, also known as “manzine”, had a great desire to stop and eat all the time and had great fun squeezing into every hole in the bushes they could find, helped by their long horns that allowed them to make their way through the brambles and vegetation; but their escapades were to no avail because the experience of the butteri brought them immediately back to the herd.

In the evening, having been riding most of the day, we were really hungry and recovered our energy tasting delicious local dishes, enjoyed by the fire in a beautiful cabin with a definitely excessive dose of good wine. It was a truly great experience and I miss those days, I felt like a centaur on Lola and at one with Mother Earth, in harmony with the world, a world where man and nature work together, which in everyday life, unfortunately, no longer happens.

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