Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Good Swill Hunting: In pursuit of the wild boar

Proverbial wisdom about early birds catching worms doesn’t apply to boar. I am used to fox hunting in the U.S., where you have to be ready to go at dawn. Not so with boar hunting; at nine am the hunters were just starting to arrive.

The countryside in Maremma was spectacular, but for me the most interesting scenery was the parade of men. From seven year-old Luca, there for his first hunt, to 80 year-old Andrea, every one of them was magnificent in my eyes. Their hunting garb featured greens and browns, luscious cashmeres, scarves and hats, all layered with casual elegance. I imagine if Armani had been asked to style a hunt for a film, it wouldn’t have been as perfect. Each man lifted my hand to his lips in greeting. And what made it even more exquisite was the fact that in a sea of 70 men, I was one of only four women.

A membership costs approximately 1000 euro for two hunts a year. The boar are fed year-round so that they stay in the area. Each hunter is assigned a different post through a lottery system. Groups leave either by a type of hay wagon, or by foot to their individual numbered stand. The group leader then makes certain each hunter finds his spot and offers the traditional words for good luck: ‘in boca al lupo’- which literally translates to ‘in the mouth of the wolf’ and must be answered with ‘crepi’, meaning ‘may the wolf die.’

Because my host, Francesco Mazzei, had organized the hunt, he was able to beat the lottery and pick a prime spot (on top of a small hill, with a 360 degree view of the hills, forest and sea) for himself and me. We climbed the ladder, onto our tree house (approx. 4’ by 4’ platform with railing and bench for sitting and gear), and waited for the horn to sound for the hunt to begin. After making sure I was seated and safe, Francesco took a machete and climbed down again to clear some of the brush around our site so there would be more visibility of the animals as they ran by.

Once the hunt started, groups of men- called ‘beaters’-with 50 dogs in each group, track the boars and ‘beat’ them ouf of the bush. “You hunt boars with your ears,’ Francesco explained. “You hear the dogs barking louder as they approach and listen for them to become more frantic as soon as they are on the tail of a boar.” The sound of a boar running than that of a dog, and you can hear the sound of branches cracking under its weight.

So we waited, listened and heard a boar come very near. Francesco pointed his rifle where he thought it would appear. Hunters have to be ready to shoot the second the boar comes into sight. There’s no time to take aim once you see the boar. We waited, and aimed and listened for four hours. My sense of urgent excitement dissipated after the first hour and I settled in to enjoy the scenery and the company of my host.

“I like hunting boars because it is not a sure thing,” Francesco explained. “It takes skill and patience. You have to be attentive and listen. It’s almost meditative.”

Suddenly, he put his finger to his lips and lifted his gun. Even I could detect the unique sound of the boar’s movement. I couldn’t see it but I knew it was close. Just as Francesco poised to shoot, the boar changed direction and disappeared. Francesco’s reaction startled me. He grabbed me by the shoulders and sniffed my neck. “Are you wearing perfume?” he demanded. Then I understood. Luckily, I had been forewarned not to wear any perfume or even shower before the hunt. Although hunters use their ears to hunt, the boar’s survival sensation is its nose and one ‘whiff’ of human odour is enough to send it in the opposite direction.

Though we never hit a boar that day, we heard shooting all around us. As we walked back down the road, I asked him if now was the time when everyone got to tell their hunting stories of how they caught, shot or missed the boar (married to a golfer, I am familiar with this custom). Francesco nodded, that was exactly what would take place next over the luncheon spread. “Francesco,” I warned, “I may not not speak Italian fluently, but I understand everything. If you blame the loud and perfumed American woman for your not shooting a boar, I will know!”

We arrived back at the camp and I felt like a soldier coming back from the war. We sat down to long tables of incredible food, tired but in great spirits. The last part of the hunt experience consisted of watching while the 48 boars that had been shot that day, were hung, skinned and quartered. The beaters are paid in meat and then the hunters can have what they want. Whatever is left over is sold to local butchers. I left satiated- with food, wonder and friendship. Although I had mixed feelings about not seeing an actual kill, I was filled with gratitude for the access I had been given to such a rich and authentic experience.
(excerpted from The Florentine, Feb 9, 2006)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Pristine Sistine Visit

(reprint from The Florentine May 2005)

Did you know that you could have a private visit to the Vatican Museums and have the Sistine Chapel to yourself? That you can be in this holy place after it closes to the public, to the 'masses?' Alone, so that you can stand far enough away to take in the entire wall of The Last Judgment, without two backpacks and a raised guidebook with a photo of the same blocking your vision? No wait. No lines. No noise. No one pushing, shoving or bumping into you, or otherwise spoiling the sanctity of this sacred and transformative experience.

If a a 'Pristine Sistine' viewing is what you desire, this 'once in a lifetime', 'dream come true' opportunity is available to you. something we generally assume is only reserved for presidents, royalty and George Clooney, can be yours. For a mere 1800 euro, you and up to 29 of your closest firends (or like in George's case, your entourage) will enter the Vatican Museum at 5PM.

Since you have to wait until closing to enter the museum, take advantage of your trip to the Vatican by arranging to first visit the Scavi (the tombs and Christian graveyard necropolis), a fascinating tour into the archeaological discoveries and theories of St. Peter's and his bones. Depending on your guide (a priest), the trip can either be a DaVinci Code-like tour filled with mystery and suspense into the authenticity of 'the bones' or merely just wondrous and interesting. Either way, it is an important archeaological discovery, believed to be where St. Peter himself was buried.

You walk through an excavated street between tombs and an ancient graveyard, a part of the Vatican that most miss. Due to the close quarters, the Scavi tour, which needs to be booked weeks ahead, is limited to groups of no more than 15. So you will get acclimated to the 'privacy' and 'exclusivity' you will encounter in the Sistine Chapel.

At 5pm, after 'the mortals', or public, have left, you enter the Vatican Museums. A few moments (instead of hours) to pass through security, then you enter the grand and quiet halls. Of course guards accompany you, but it appears their only job is to serve as your valets, to open and close doors (translation: lock/unlock/secure).

Most memories of entering the Vatican consist of rushing and maneuvering through the crowds in a race to get to the Sistine Chapel, missing or perhaps not even conscious that there are halls and galleries filled with some of the world's most precious art. Sculpture from ancient Rome, a room filled with the paintings of Raphael, the amazing hall of Tapestries and Maps. When you enter alone, something is very different, you are not in a museum, but a private villa or palazzo. You are no longer a tourist but an invited guest. At the same time that you are overwhelmed by the grandeur, there is a feeling of intimacy, a closeness to the awe.

Take your time, the Chapel is waiting for you. Go into the gardens, be moved by the same ancient sculptures that possibly were seen by and moved the great Michelangelo. and let the expectation build (you know you won't be disappointed), then as the sun begins to set, enter the Sistine Chapel. Stop. Breathe. This is a moment you will remember for the rest of your life. for now, it's all yours.

Reservations and information:
for 'Scavi'