It may be one of the more interesting paradoxes of being human: in order to feel most human, in order to feel grace and goodness and be ready to accept being part of a race that is errant and imperfect and striving, it’s best to get away from all others. It isn’t always easy to attain solitude, but it is possible, and there are some magical places that reliably quiet our minds. In a crowded city, it can be as simple as walking into a darkened, silent theater or wandering through the halls of a great museum early in the morning. It’s as sobering as entering a silent wood.
Solitude can’t actually only be about being alone, because there are places that aren’t fully empty but that remove us from time effectively enough that we feel only the present; where the sudden arrival of another person serves only as a ripple in our peacefulness, and our solitude returns fully to surround us as soon as they disappear from sight.
Surely solitude is hastened by contrast - stepping out of a noisy street into the sanctuary of a quiet, chilled room. Or, in the case of the Giara, climbing the side of a golden hilltop with the vastest of views to enter into a secret forest of hidden pathways and furtive mini-meadows. Everything changes: the temperature cools and a breeze blows, the light slants, and the earth turns dusty and nut-brown. There are shallow lakes here, dusted with flowers, and the twisting branches of cork trees.
The truth is that the Giara is spectacular in many ways: it is a strange volcanic elevation that is almost completely flat and more than 9000 acres wide. The soil averages a depth of 50 centimeters and yet it was once home to a thick forest. There are wild horses that live on the Giara. They are a breed thought to have been introduced by the Phoenicians, one of only two groups of wild horses left in Europe. There is a small crustacean that lives in the pools of water that form after it rains that has remained unchanged for 200 million years. But all of that is merely interesting.
And the Giara is not just interesting, it’s breathtaking and alienating. It isn’t a question of beauty, either, since the endless golden fields and the smooth, sudden rise of the hills of Marmilla have their own magic. But there is some stillness in the Giara, some sense that the forest is at once wild and tamed. The cork trees’ bared bellies are one more reminder that you are not alone, that this is a place that has been lived in and worked and cared for. Most of the Giara is tenderly guarded by the same families that once herded sheep, goats and cows here. Today it feels lovingly abandoned to its own magic, like a place we have gained special permission to visit.