about tuscany coast and maremma
Information on the area of the Tuscany coast and Maremma
Think of the Maremma as an antidote for a busy life and big cities. One walks, takes long drives to admire the scenery and the sunflowers, eats copious meals, soaks in thermal springs and takes long siestas. The pace is somewhat different in the very south-western tip of the area, where an oddly-shaped peninsula juts out into the Mediterranean to form Tuscany's most famous coastal playground.
One of the curious things about the Maremma is that it has several endemic breeds of animals. There is a Maremmano horse, small and sturdy; a Maremma sheepdog, which looks like a shaggy and overgrown white Labrador Retriever, and the beautiful, long-horned Maremma cattle, also white. These latter were traditionally herded on horseback by a buttero, the Italian version of a cowboy; today their grandsons are doing the job on Honda ATVs. The north-western portion of the Maremma is known as the Colline Metallifere and in medieval times enjoyed tremendous wealth due to the presence of iron, copper, zinc, pyrites and silver. Montieri owes its pretty churches and substantial homes to that era, and maintains a network of walking trails through the various ruins and abandoned mines.
Massa Marittima, once the second city of the Sienese Republic, is the closest thing the Maremma has to a cultural centre. The ‘Marittima’ suffix is misleading, thanks to 19C drainage programmes which pushed the sea back almost 20km/12 miles, but it does serve to differentiate this ‘Massa’ from another in the north of Tuscany. The changed status, from harbour to high-and-dry, has left Massa an anomaly among Italian hill towns. Whereas most have evolved from the top down, as it were, with the oldest buildings at the highest point and more recent ones below, Massa’s Città Vecchia (old town) is at the base of the hill, where the waterfront once was, while the Città Nuova (new town) is above. The grandest of its buildings is the 12C Duomo, which sits at on a diagonal to the Piazza Garibaldi as though coyly showing off its best angles. Follow the street to the left of the Duomo to the Fonte dell’Abbondanza. This was not a fountain, as the name implies, but the city’s grain reserve, to which farmers had each to contribute a portion of their crop as communal insurance against famine. Massa has taken years to unveil the restored fresco in the Fonte’s arcade; a careful look at the fruit being harvested by the women will explain why.
About 20 minutes’ drive east of Massa is the medieval aerie of Roccatederighi, a village that sits on top, and has been carved out of, a 538m/1760-foot rocky pinnacle. There isn’t much up there beyond the view, but the climb is much more rewarding than a session at the gym. South of Roccatederighi, Montemassi looks very much like one of the Sienese hill towns and is crowned by a ruined castle.
South of Massa Marittima and the S1/E80 is the village of Gavorrano, mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy as the setting of a Maremma tragedy: Pia dei Tolomei was a Sienese countess who lived with her husband in the now ruined Castello di Pietra. That is until her unscrupulous husband threw her over (literally, he pushed her through a window) to make way for his mistress. The event is re-enacted each year with attendant, somewhat irrelevant, parades and flag-throwing demonstrations.
There are two substantial Etruscan sites in the Maremma, Vetulonia, once a large, walled Etruscan town, is arguably the more interesting, largely for its tombs. Roselle, north of Grosseto (an unattractive provincial capital, but with good food shops) has retained almost 4km/2.5 miles of walls made of huge, faceted boulders. The Romans later built their own town within them, of which there remains an amphitheatre, a number of cobbled streets and a ruined villa with a mosaic floor.
If Scansano has an air of prosperity about it, it’s thanks to the growing popularity of the delicious, slightly cherry-flavoured wine produced here, Morellino di Scansano. The demand for it has cloaked the adjacent hills with vineyards to the point that you’d almost think yourself in Chianti. The village sits 500m/1600 feet up, a largely medieval huddle with a caffè-ringed Piazza Garibaldi at the centre.
Magliano-in-Toscana (there are almost as many Maglianos in Italy as there are Piazza Garibaldis) is encircled by massive walls, a 15C gift from the Sienese Republic. You’ve now reached the tuffo area of the Maremma. ‘Tuffo’ is the very soft, porous volcanic rock that is overwhelmingly the favoured building material in these parts and, in fact, through much of this latitude in Italy.
The hill town of Saturnia, dedicated by its Roman builders to Saturn, is known for its sulphurous hot springs said to be particularly effective in treating respiratory, circulatory and dermatological problems (they do wonders for sore muscles, too). The hot water cascades near the town are lovely but often crowded, the main public spa somewhat less so, and if you're ready for a splurge, with golf, a massage or beauty treatments invest in a day pass to the five star Terme di Saturnia.
Montemerano, south of Saturnia, is largely walled and medieval and generally festooned with geraniums. Its treasure is the church of San Giorgio with 15C frescoes, paintings and wood carvings. One painting was evidently not always held in high esteem: the Madonna della Gattaiola (‘Madonna of the Cat Door’) once served as a door to a food storage area; the hole near the bottom was cut to allow cats to pass through.
One of the most dramatic sights in southern Tuscany, if Pitigliano were any closer to Florence you’d have to book a visit months in advance. The town sits on top of a long and very high tuffo ridge, with which it merges visually as the buildings are all made from the same material. Resist the temptation of driving down any of the navigable streets as they taper into alleyways with no possibility of turning around (stuck tourists are a constant source of entertainment for the locals). In the early Middle Ages the town had a flourishing Jewish community with, at its peak, a university and several synagogues; following the Renaissance, however, Jewish residents were forced into a ghetto area which remains one of the most interesting quarters. The hills and gorges in the area bounded by Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano are full of vie cave, the up to 20m/65-foot deep and 3m/10-foot wide roads cut into the tuffo by the Etruscans for unknown but much debated purposes. Some believe they were associated with a religious cult, others posit that they allowed villagers and livestock to travel from one spot to the other unseen. In any case, they make wonderful trails for walking and biking between villages and ruins. Sovana has a single street and the distinction of having been the birthplace of a pope (Gregory VII). There’s a nice church and a duomo, too, but the main attraction is the Necropoli di Sovana, a cluster of Etruscan tombs. The main reason for going to Sorano is the drive, both for the tombs and caves cut into the sides of the road and for the views along the way. The village is a lovely sight but a sad one, since many of the houses are empty and the craft workshops operating there seem a bit contrived. Predating the Etruscan relics are the Rupestre di Vitozza near the hamlet of San Quirico, a complex of some 200 caves occupied in prehistoric times.
Follonica marks the western boundary of the Maremma, a resort that caters primarily to Italian families summering on a tight budget. The opposite is true of Punta Ala, a purpose-built upmarket resort with a massive marina that’s popular with the international yachting set. Reaching inland, between Punta Ala and Castiglione della Pescaia, is the 1000ha/2500-acre Diaccia Botrona nature reserve, also known as the Palude di Castiglione, where marshes and cane thickets harbour a large population of water birds.
Castiglione della Pescaia
Castiglione della Pescaia, a coastal village-cum- resort to the east of Punta Ala, is mobbed in summer but can be quite fun. The town itself, which sits behind a band of modern hotels and apartment blocks, is walled and medieval, complete with a rocca. There are generally fishermen selling their catch next to the Bruna river, and canoes (kayaks, really) can be hired to paddle up the river into the Diaccia Botrona.
Parco naturale della Maremma
A few kilometres east of featureless Marina di Grosseto is the edge of the 100 square kilometre/38 square mile Parco Naturale della Maremma, arguably the most beautiful nature reserve in Italy. The nicest, wildest section lies to the south of the Ombrone River and includes a low mountain range known as the Monti dell’Uccellina and the 25km/15 miles of beaches that fringe it (alluringly described on the Parks Italy website as ‘An Impracticable and Wild Chain of Hills Descending towards the Sea with Sandy Beaches and Cliffs...’). There are walking, biking and horseback riding trails which lead to the 12C stone towers that defended the coast against Saracen pirates. At the southern end is Talamone, one of the nicer coastal villages simply because it hasn’t grown much.
A debate rages as to which of Monte Argentario’s two villages is the nicer. Almost all concede that Porto Ercole is prettier but that Porto Santo Stefano has the better shops and restaurants and the livelier passeggiata. Orbetello, in the lagoon between them, has a nice pedestrian shopping street and a good Saturday morning market. Geographically, Monte Argentario is unique. As its name implies, it is a single mountain, albeit a fairly low one, but it’s also, except for three very narrow causeways (locally known as tomboli) from the mainland, an island, or more correctly, a presqu’île. The causeways enclose a lagoon famous for its bird life. None of the villages look remotely Tuscan because they, and the fortresses that loom over them, were built by the Spanish, who governed the area between 16C and 19C. For the most part Monte Argentario’s 60 square kilometres/20-odd square miles are sparsely populated. Its steep hillsides, covered in macchia (Mediterranean scrub) and wild thyme, are scattered, loosely, with summer homes screened by cypresses and set at the end of long, gated drives; the gate and the cypresses being, generally, the only things one can actually see. The great temptation, when one first arrives, is to circumnavigate the island to enjoy the sea views and check out the yachting marinas on the far side. You’ll do it once and never again, for the road - there’s only one, really - is never level or straight for more than a few metres, and a long segment isn’t even paved. In terms of lifestyle, Monte Argentario reminds me of Saint-Tropez, in France.
Here, as there, the action in summer centres on a pinkish village (two, here) that curves around a marina stuffed with luxury yachts. Plenty of outdoor caffès and restaurants, the crowd a mix of the very chic and not-so-chic, small groups piling into boats for a blissful day on the water... But, like the Tropeziens, many of the people who come to Monte Argentario prefer their action in small, high-quality doses. They’ll come into town for an evening or two, and perhaps a little shopping. Otherwise they’re happier on their own terraces, behind the gates and the cypresses, watching tiny white sailboats move about on the dazzlingly blue sea. There are, however, a few things one really should do on Monte Argentario. One of them is to walk or bicycle along the Tombolo di Feniglia, the most southerly of the causeways. On the seaward side is one of the area’s best beaches; on the lagoon side is the bird sanctuary and, more often than not, flamingos; the path itself runs through forest. Another must is the passeggiata, or evening stroll, along the water at Porto Santo Stefano, ideally with a gelato in hand. For a splurge, head to the terrace at Il Pellicano or the Torre di Cala Piccola for a glass of prosecco before dinner. And there are quite a few options off the promontory as well.
Giannutri and Giglio
Adjacent to Monte Argentario are two little islands, Giannutri and Giglio. While the former is tiny and quite barren, Giglio has a lot to offer, even as a day’s excursion from Monte Argentario. Hire a moped (or if you’re very fit, a bicycle) in the main village, Giglio Porto, to visit Castello at the highest point of the island or the beach at its far end.
Capalbio is the prettiest of the villages on the mainland opposite Monte Argentario and, like many Italian coastal towns, has two distinct parts. Capalbio proper is a medieval village, complete with narrow streets and lovely views, perched on a hillside a winding 10km/6 miles from the shoreline. Its waterfront counterpart, Capalbio Stazione or Scalo, isn’t up to much but not far from it is one of the area’s main draws. The colourful and eccentric Giardino dei Tarocchi, the Tarot Garden, is composed of towering Gaudi-like sculptures designed by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1970s. There is a lovely walk along the beach from Ansedonia to a WWF-managed nature reserve at Lago di Burano, a long strip of dunes near the water’s edge with a shallow lagoon which shelters a great variety of bird species. If you’re really ambitious, walk or bicycle here along the Tombolo di Feniglia: on the way you’ll pass the Tagliata Etrusca (Etruscan Cut), an 80m/260+-foot drainage channel sliced through solid rock near the Torre della Tagliata, where Giacomo Puccini wrote most of his opera Turandot. In point of fact, it was the Romans, not the Etruscans, who built the channel, to prevent the harbour from silting up.
On top of the hill in Ansedonia are the remains of the Roman city of Cosa, established in 273BC, which, besides a beautiful view of the lagoon, includes a forum, an acropolis and a couple of temples. For a look into the area's archaeological past, a more rewarding experience lies an hour’s drive to the south at Tarquinia, in Lazio, where you'll find scores of Etruscan tombs and an excellent museum.