I always boast about how I never get sick. Never, ever, ever. Or, if I do get sick, I’m down for a day, then I kick it and I’m back to normal within 24 hours. It’s not that I take incredibly good care of myself or pop vitamins and drink wheat grass juice every day; I just seem to be resistant to colds, flus and other bugs.
That is, until pneumonia came along and kicked my ass.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. My 12-year-old nephew, Adam was set to arrive from the U.S. on June 27, a Wednesday. The Saturday before, I started to crash, big time, at an outdoor dinner. “Paolo, I don’t feel so good,” I said around 10 pm. “Paolo, I feel really bad,” I said around 11. “Paolo, we have to go, now,” at 11:30. By the time we got home I was running a fever, which peaked at 103 degrees – very high for an adult – Monday morning.
Our town doctor makes house calls (this is Italy, after all) and came to see me Monday afternoon. “My nephew gets here Wednesday,” I whimpered. “I have to get better.”
“Forget that,” Doctor Marco said, “this will last for two or 10 days.” He handed me a stack of prescriptions, snapped his black doctor bag shut, and was off to the see the next bedbound wretch.
I cautioned Adam in my last conversation with him before he boarded the plane that his Auntie Liz was “a bit under the weather,” but that it was only temporary. Thankfully, my friend Susan drove me to Rome’s Fiumicino airport to pick him up; otherwise I’m really not sure how we would have gotten the kid. So he was greeted by his sweating (why is sweat so often a theme in my life?), coughing aunt, who had to pause every 20 meters or so, lean against a wall in the airport and hack and cough spasmodically. “I’m good, I’m good,” I assured him.
We laid low the first several days Adam was here, and I saw the doctor twice more. On the last visit, he confirmed what I had begun to fear – that I had walking pneumonia. I needed intramuscular injections of antibiotics, which Paolo seemed all too pleased to administer in my butt. Still, I didn’t tell him about the pneumonia, since he was getting mad at me every time I left the house. “You need to rest! If you don’t get well, we’re ruined!” He was right, of course, but I had an antsy 12-year-old at home, who hadn’t come to Italy to play video games and check his Facebook page all day long. How could I rest knowing Adam was spending every hour ascending new levels of “Bubble Witch Saga” on Facebook?
|Sorano, one of the "tufa towns" of the Maremma|
So it was Susan to the rescue again. She volunteered to take us on a day trip to the “Tufa Towns” – Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana, three absolutely picturesque towns in the Maremma, carved out of the same volcanic tufa, or soft rock, that forms the cliffs of Orvieto.
One of the most enigmatic and lovely features of these towns may be little known to the average tourists doing a drive-by. All the towns have Etruscan remains, and all of them are connected by the Etruscan Vie Cave, or cave roads.
|What goes down, must come back up|
The Vie Cave are narrow paths carved out of the solid tufa that makes up the countryside between these towns. The exact purpose of the Vie Cave is not clear. There are rock-cut tombs along most of them, so they were at least in part ceremonial. But because they connect the three towns and the surrounding countryside, archaeologists suspect that they were used as routes of communication or escape between towns when one or another was under siege. The roads are not easy to spot, and some carefully placed foliage could easily hide the entrance to any of them. If an invading force (cough cough, megalomaniacal Romans, cough) didn’t know of their existence – and presumably they did not – the sunken paths could have easily served as hideouts for a town’s population or its fighting force.
|I'm about to cough on that 3,000 year old wall.|
Today, the Vie Cave are sparsely visited, cool, dark and damp paths that can really transport modern visitors back to ancient times. Susan and I thought they’d be a hit with a 12-year-old, and we were right. Plus, in the relentless heat wave we’ve been sweltering under, they’re a welcome respite.
Except, they involve a little bit of hiking. Not a lot of hiking, mind you, but some elevation change, some scrambling across rocks and boulders, or hop-scotching over culverts carved in the paths to transport rainwater.
This hiking would not be a challenge to a reasonably fit and healthy person who did NOT have walking pneumonia. But for me, every descent into the cool, moss covered tunnels that make up the Vie Cave came at the expense of a climb out, back into the beating sun. My cough, by now “loose and productive” (translation: “tubercular and scary”) would stop me in my tracks every few meters, so I could lean against a 3,000 year old wall carved into solid rock – the chisel marks still visible after all this time – and hack, heave and catch my breath. “I’m good, I’m good,” I assured Adam and Susan, ignoring the repulsed looks of passersby.
It was along one of those steep, shady roads that we dubbed my malady “hiking pneumonia” instead of walking pneumonia.
|At Saturnia, trying to pass my hiking pneumonia to Adam.|
We went on to nearby Saturnia, another not-to-be-missed site in the region, and I coughed and heaved along the Roman road, propping myself up under the old stone arch that formed the gate to the city. Later, at the Cascate del Mulino, Adam and I took a dip in the warm sulfuric water. It’s supposed to have healing properties – no doubt it could help a case of hiking pneumonia, right?
I’m sure our adventure that day wasn’t what my doctor or my husband had in mind when they said, “You need to rest.” But I’m glad we got Adam out of the house and into the countryside, and to sights that one can only see in Italy. We did manage to evoke a couple of “cool” and “wow” exclamations from him, though later, when he spoke to his parents on Skype, he said he had an “okay time.” Twelve-year-olds – what do they know? At least I get to brag that I stared down the high noon sun, the steep, slippery Vie Cave and the crashing waterfalls of Saturnia, all with a case of hiking pneumonia, and lived to tell about it.
|Adam, having an "okay time" on the Vie Cave.|