‘Oh-Oh, Ay-Ay!’ Riding to an Italian Rhythm on the Transumanza

‘Oh-Oh, Ay-Ay!’ Riding to an Italian Rhythm on the Transumanza


“Expect four days of sacrifices,” Carmelina Colantuono told me a week before I left New Jersey to travel with her family and their 300 podolica cows from Puglia, where the cattle pass the colder months, to their home in the Molise region of Italy. I was joining an eager band of cowboys, herders and pilgrims, some on horseback, some on foot, who wanted to experience her family’s 110-mile transumanza, the twice-yearly journey undertaken around the world to move grazing animals between winter and summer pastures.

In Italy the transumanza proceeds along tratturi, lanes etched into the land by herdsmen, cows and other livestock over two millenniums. As an unbroken link to the culture’s agricultural past, the network of tratturi — “Almost a silent grassy river / on the footsteps of the ancient fathers,” as the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio described them — has a unique emotional resonance for Italians.

A few stretches have been turned into roads, but elsewhere the routes remain as they’ve always been, wending through forests, across rivers and alongside planted fields. The tratturi exist outside any tourist itinerary, so the sacrifices for us modern journeyers, Carmelina explained, involve few options for comfortable sleeping, “and some days we can’t even manage to wash ourselves.”

On a sunny Wednesday morning in May I arrived at the family’s outpost in San Marco in Lamis, Puglia, at the foot of the Garganos mountains. Bright red poppies and gigantic, neatly rolled haystacks dotted the fields. A hawk circled slowly above. I was ready to sleep rough, skip showers and share in any other sacrifice required, the better to plug into the improvisational spirit of the transumanza.

Most farmers now transport livestock between summer and winter homes in vans, but there’s much to be gained from doing things the old-fashioned way, as the Colantuonos do. For one thing, the long journey at the cows’ pace is a salve to the spirit of the accompanying humans, a retreat from the mechanized pace of modern life, a chance to connect to both nature and the past — all while immersed in spectacular Italian scenery.

The transumanza practiced by the Colantuonos — Carmelina, her parents, three of her four brothers and two cousins — has developed a following as one that’s particularly authentic, having been passed down for five generations. Three documentary teams, two Italian and one from France, were shooting the trip, along with several photographers. The family had invited 25 or so others, including me.

Our ultimate destination, the Colantuono family’s farm in Molise, is in a town called Frosolone, known for its artisan knife-making tradition. Molise, the second least populated region of Italy, lies just below Abruzzo, in the Apennine Mountains of south-central Italy. The region’s stunning, rugged land has been relatively untouched by development. Here and there are well-preserved ruins of the Samnites, fierce adversaries of the Romans who for centuries remained proudly independent in their mountain stronghold. But with little industry and iffy transportation, the economy has long been stalled, and the human capital is continuously depleted by emigration. While so much of Italy groans under the weight of mass tourism, in Molise a little of the spillover would go a long way.

To that end many hope the Colantuono transumanza will become an incubator of a new eco-tourism boom, turning the route the family travels into a kind of wild, secular Camino de Santiago. Carmelina is known as “the last Italian cowgirl.” She appears in the media with her cowgirl hat on, wavy black hair flowing down her back, dark eyes shining. In March, she was among a group of delegates from Molise who applied to Unesco for recognition of the transumanza as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

I wandered into the cow pen for an up-close view of the cows, most of them all-white podolica, a sturdy, ancient breed that produces high-quality milk that tastes of the grass and herbs they eat all year long. Several cows had been outfitted with heavy cowbells for the journey, and now they chimed gently. Before long three priests in brown robes entered the pen to lead a blessing.

Then came lunch, served under a tent by Colantuono cousins and in-laws: an antipasto of salamis, bread and the flavorful cheese called caciocavallo made from the milk of the podolicas, followed by bowls of cavatelli with tomato and pork sauce, plates of roast veal, potatoes and salad, and chocolate cake, pastries and espresso. An array of locals was there to see us off. As dessert was served, lively music filled the tent, played on guitar, traditional horn and tambourine by three amateur musicians who’d be making the trip.

Soon the pen was opened and the cowboys rode around, making the Italian cowboy noise: “oh-oh, ay-ay!” The cows jogged past me like a live, rushing river of white.

For the first leg over the flat Pugliese landscape, some of the tratturi are now state highways, and the cows took over roads blocked to traffic. The youngest Colantuono brother, Franco, tall and imposing in a dark cowboy hat, rode a sleek black horse in front, flanked by two teenage nieces, wearing cowboy hats, neckerchiefs and red-checked shirts. I drove ahead with Massimo Di Nonno, a photographer, and Maurizio Cavaliere, a journalist. They had done the Colantuono transumanza before and knew where to stop for the best vantage points.

We stood on hilltops to watch, then climbed up to a highway overpass, making for a stirring, dramatic sight as the cows occupied all four lanes, moving forward en masse, Franco and the girls trotting at the front. At each intersection police officers staffed barricades, and people lined the roads to get a look.

Stereotypes about bovine laziness, sluggishness or dimwittedness do not apply to the podolica. These cows are strong, trim, intelligent beauties, with long bodies and noble-looking horns curved like lyres. For four days I watched them move gracefully between a steady walk and a gentle trot. Several calves, their fur a chestnut brown that will later turn white, scurried alongside their mothers adorably, cadging an occasional sip of milk. Herdsmen on foot used bastoni, long curved sticks, to whack the rumps of any cows who veered too far off the path, while the cowboys on horseback patrolled the edges of the line, whooping “oh-oh, ay ay” and brandishing their own bastoni when needed.

As the sun began to set the cows crossed one final highway. From here the tratturi only occasionally went over paved roads. I got up on the horse I’d ride for the rest of the journey: Messico, a gray appaloosa. We stayed toward the back of the cows, occasionally mingling with the last of the herd. I rode horses a lot as a teenager, but I hadn’t been in a saddle in years, and I had jitters. Riding next to me was Mario Paoli, Messico’s owner, who runs an adventure travel company in Tuscany with his wife, Mariarosa. They had come to do the transumanza with their colleague Robert Rottensteiner. “Be calm, breathe,” Mario said. “He will feel as you feel.” Before long, Messico and I got into a happy flow.

We rode through groves of cool green olive trees. We rode next to fields of yellow wheat, almost ready to harvest. As the daylight waned, some of the cowboys took out lights to shine ahead of the riders. Nunzio Colantuono, the second-youngest brother, rode up next to us. “We still have an hour to go,” he said.

Now the only light was the glow of the moon and pinpoints of stars behind a scrim of clouds. We rode through a forest that smelled like sage and pine, the cowbells still gonging their ancient melody ahead of us. I could describe the feeling I had then, and often over the days ahead, as awe, but there was also something grounded about it, a sense of refuge and camaraderie among the people, horses and cows.

In the dark I could make out the herdsmen on foot using their bastoni to redirect a few cows that had wandered into the brush. Other riders would trot up to ask me, “tutto bene?” After navigating a few scarily steep embankments, we arrived at the spot where we’d spend the night: a clearing next to the ruin of a former customs house, where 19th-century shepherds walking the tratturi were forced to pay for passage with their animals.

Long tables were set up under the trees for dinner. The chef traveling with us, Filindo Russo, had driven ahead to prepare dinner, with help from Colantuono relatives. There was an antipasto of bresaola and crusty bread, then bowls of long, thin maccheroni in tomato sauce, followed by plates of veal and pork meatballs. Platters of caciocavallo arrived at each table, along with salad and giant fresh fava that we peeled to get at the tender beans inside. I could barely remember a meal that tasted as good.

Afterward, as we sat around a campfire, the music started up: “O surdato ‘nnammurato,” a Neapolitan love song about soldiers at the front during World War I. “Oh my life, oh heart of my heart, you were my first love, and you’ll be my last love,” the cowboys sang in dialect over the strumming guitar and the wail of the horn. On the fire the chef began grilling torcinelli — lamb intestines stuffed with sweetbreads.

I’d planned to sleep with a blanket and pillow on the floor of a chapel, where most of the travelers would be hunkered down, but Carmelina mentioned a bed-and-breakfast nearby, where one of the documentary crews was staying. Did I want to spend the night there? Well, yes, I said. So far the transumanza was a small slice of heaven. Maybe the earthly sacrifices would begin the next day.

But in the morning the wonders kept multiplying. I woke up to find myself at a gorgeous, meticulously maintained ranch-style property, Masseria Difensola, where I sat on a patio watching swallows glide between the trees while I had a breakfast of cappuccino, berry crostata and fresh figs. When I got back to the camp it was almost time for pranzo: ciambotta — a stew of fresh vegetables — followed by a seasoned beef dish called spezzatino.

Over the next three days, time passed with an almost liturgical rhythm, a mix of repetition and variation, accompanied always by the hypnotic music of the cowbells and the cowboys’ occasional “oh oh! ay ay!” We rode through fields of yellow-green chamomile. We rode through fields of delicate green peas. The cows walked on as the views of rolling hills to either side went on for what must have been hundreds of miles. We passed through a grove of cherry trees and reached up to eat some right off the branches.

We stopped, of course, for multicourse meals, twice a day, washed down with red wine. Some of the meals were cooked by the chef, some contributed by restaurants at towns along the way. In Santa Croce di Magliano, a town still not totally rebuilt after an earthquake 17 years ago, tables were set up inside an auto shop for dinner, and the young mayor delivered a heartfelt welcome speech. There, too, I confess I opted to forego a night of sacrifice and sleep in a bed-and-breakfast, albeit a bare-bones room operated by the restaurant that had provided our dinner, rather than roughing it on the ground. I rationalized it as supporting the hard-pressed local economy.

As we rode on the next day, more refreshments materialized every so often. People came out of their houses to hand us paper cups of homemade wine, bottles of water, espresso poured right out of a big stovetop cafetiere and served with freshly baked biscotti, which we ate and drank in the saddle while the horses kept walking. All of this seemed to happen miraculously, though I knew it was the result of careful planning by Carmelina and her team, along with some diplomacy, necessary because not everyone along the way was a fan of the transumanza and its thousands of beating hooves. More than once, someone shook a fist at us when cows wandered off the path, shouting, “This is private property, not a tratturo!”

Now we’d left Puglia and crossed into Molise, and the tratturi began climbing into more mountainous terrain. The views became ever more rustic and even more astounding. Fields of wheat, still green at this higher elevation, rolled off into the horizon. White stone formations dotted the fields and jutted out of the peaks above us. The cows kept going, with the riders and walkers following, all of us in an increasingly blissed-out state. Mario and Mariarosa occasionally held hands as they rode side by side. “Three days on horseback is good for you,” Robert said. I murmured in agreement. We stopped for lunch at a spot called Femmina Morta, or Dead Woman, where the cows and horses drank from a pond. Another staggeringly good meal emerged from the kitchen truck in waves of platters — roasted peppers, pizzette, crioli pasta with carbonara and asparagus, grilled pork, salad. I ate and fell dead asleep under a tree.

An hour after we were back on the tratturi, a heavy rain started. None of my fellow travelers even flinched. The cows and horses had barely slowed their pace. I put a waterproof saddle cover over my head, but the rest of me quickly became soaked through. Here at last was my sacrifice. Yet in my still peaceful inner state, it really wasn’t so bad.

When we reached the next road crossing half an hour later, I handed Messico’s reins to Mario, and he rode on while leading a riderless Messico. I got into a car, shivering but still unaccountably content. At the spot we’d spend the last night, next to a sanctuary of the Madonna in the remote town of Ripalimosani, everyone was standing around a tall, roaring fire, trying to dry off before dinner. I accepted the offer of a room at a comfortable bed-and-breakfast called Le Quercigliole, where I took a hot shower that restored me before we all sat down for pasta with a red sauce, veal with peas and potatoes, and pastries baked by the Colantuono women.

The next morning the sun was out as I woke up, chagrined to realize I’d slept through the cows’ departure at dawn. But Maurizio came to fetch me, and we met up with the herd just as they were about to hit what I’d been told was the most breathtaking moment of the journey, the crossing of the Biferno River. I wished I’d gotten to swim on horseback with the cows myself, but instead I got to watch it unfold like a movie. Antonio Colantuono, on a sturdy brown horse, plunged in first, followed by the 300 cows, moving in the water as briskly as they’d walked for the past three days, then clambering up the riverbank. I stood mesmerized as Franco and his girlfriend, Pasqualina, appeared in the middle of the herd, riding bareback together on the same horse, like a mythological god and goddess.

Back on Messico, I was happy to be once again following the cows. Now we made our way up narrow rocky paths and over hills covered in wildflowers, looking down into valleys shrouded in clouds of fog. At 10 a.m. we stopped at a town called Torella del Sannio, the ancient seat of the Samnites. An enormous copper pot of water boiled over a fire as three aproned women rolled out fresh pasta dough on a table. There was an immense frittata and bowls of zuppa di vino — bread soaking in wine — and scattone, just-cooked pasta swimming in wine.

Fortified, we pressed on. The mood among the riders and walkers was turning pensive as the tratturi passed through remote, serene landscapes, with hilltop medieval towns appearing here and there in the distance. We walked through terrain thick with bushes of small pink wild roses and tall yellow Scotch broom. The cowbells still echoed in the cool mountain air, but the cowboys’ whoops had gotten scarcer — the cows must have known how close they were to home.

It was strange to realize all this would soon be over and everyday life would recommence, but for me the thought of arriving in Frosolone came with its own sweetness. My grandfather, a knifemaker, had emigrated to the United States from the town in the 1920s with my grandmother and uncle, just before my father was born. My family had lost touch with relatives there, but I’d recently gone back a few times and fallen in love with the place I’d heard so much about as a child.

Now, nearing the end of the transumanza, I understood better how the interlocking culture of a town like Frosolone works, the devotion both to making things and to the agrarian traditions. I looked forward to reconnecting with my new friends there.

Before the final stretch of road I jumped off Messico and handed the reins to Carmelina. I would do this last part on foot, and she would ride Messico into the blocked-off center of her hometown, where a crowd would cheer as the mayor reached up to hand her a bouquet of roses. Then, once the cows were settled in their mountain pasture, and the horses were relaxing in the shade, the travelers would sit down one final time for a meal together — lasagne, steak, roast potatoes and salad — this time inside a spacious hall. We’d listen to speeches about the journey we’d just made and share the hope that the Colantuono transumanza will initiate a surge of interest in tourism to Molise, lifting some economic misery. Many of us would shed tears too complicated to explain.

In the meantime, walking that final mile, I must have been exhausted. But as I looked up to see the medieval buildings and church spires of Frosolone rising on top of the mountain, all I felt was wonder and gratitude.


The Colantuono family and others in Molise recently launched Popoli e Territori, a foundation devoted to protecting and promoting the transumanza in the region. They organize daylong excursions and longer overnight trips. Contact Nicola Di Niro, +39 331-792900 for information (a website is under construction).



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