Picture a land of butterflies and bees, wild flowers and every type of bird and animal, imagine great forests, mountains cut through by rivers (complete with rock pools), mediaeval hilltop towns, olive groves, vineyards and sheep pasture, unspoiled coastline – sounds like Walt Disney? No, this Garden of Eden is the Maremma, Italy’s best-kept secret.
This was once the heartland of the Etruscans, but a look at a map will show fewer place names and smaller roads compared to the rest of Tuscany. Still, surprisingly off the tourist trail, the Maremma has some of the most outstanding coastlines in Italy.
Quite a lot has already been written about this in recent years, but virtually unknown is the vast inland area rich in biodiversity where the plain gives way to undulating hills all the way to the top of Tuscany’s second highest mountain, Monte Amiata. Perhaps you’ve already tasted its most famous wine, Morellino di Scansano.
Let’s have a look round:
The Maremma starts near Cecina in the province of Livorno and extends down to Civitavecchia in Lazio, but I want to concentrate on the heart (and soul) of it, the province of Grosseto, which encompasses coastline, plain and mountains. Grosseto itself has an enchanting 15th/16th century city centre, with the Renaissance walls virtually intact. You could compare it to a mini Lucca and spend a delightful afternoon wandering around the shops and eating outside one of the restaurants in the Piazza Del Duomo, gazing at the Romanesque cathedral.
Or perhaps you’re dying to get your feet wet – here you have a choice between “equipped” beaches and an impressive selection of wild, protected coastline. The Parco dell’Uccellina hosts boar, deer, porcupine, and much more – and some fantastic beaches.
Or go down the coast to stylish Monte Argentario, a former island joined to the mainland by two long sand-spits with many places to swim.
From Porto Santo Stefano you can get a ferry to the island of Giglio. Both Porto Santo Stefano and nearby Porto Ercole, while still being fishing ports, host many great places to eat and, of course, shop, and Porto Ercole’s Hotel Pelicano offers the height of luxury. Although the “island” has been developed since the 1950s it still retains an interior thickly wooded with holm-oak and scrub, cut through by tiny roads many of which are untarred, and from where you get a peep of the sea towards Giglio, Elba, and far-away Corsica.
But perhaps you want something a little more secluded, so let’s head inland. From Grosseto, we’ll head to Scansano, again with a mainly 16th Century city centre, and the home of Morellino wine. Well worth stocking up, either from the Cantina Sociale on top of the hill or from the large Enoteca in town. By now we’re some 500 metres above sea level so the air’s a little fresher.
Head on to Saturnia – not to be missed if you love hot springs – and immerse yourselves in hot, sulphurous water, either at the Spa or the cascades, where you pay to park but the water’s free. There’s also a fine eco-friendly golf-course where you can play a few holes with wildlife for company.
Heading uphill and into the wild, one of the most mouthwatering of all the little hilltop towns that characterize the Maremma is Roccalbegna,
backing into the rock faces at 522 metres. It’s tiny but manages to boast a 12th century and a 13th-century church, as well as providing everything necessary for life on terra firma, including an excellent butcher. The Albegna river cuts a steep gorge through the mountain on its way to Saturnia and the sea. The landscape is still Mediaeval, so rather than huge vineyards or olive groves you’ll see much smaller ones, which, together with sheep pastures, break up the huge forest.
Here you’ll find biodiversity and wildlife spared the ravages of modern farming: boar, deer, porcupine, hare, the odd wolf, and many rare and interesting birds – Roccalbegna and the river below are a designated Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). There are numerous “agriturismi” or, if you want something more private, “case vacanze”, such as Podere Bellavista, where I’ll be delighted to accommodate you!
The journey doesn’t stop here, though. Continuing uphill you’ll find the mountains of Monte Labbro and its big brother Monte Amiata. Monte Amiata is actually a ski-resort, and in summer the thick beechwoods provide wonderful escape from the heat. Here’s another great area for mountain-biking or perhaps the adventure playground at Indiana Park will tempt you.
If it’s an amazing view you want then make your way (the roads are terrible, be warned) to the top of Monte Labbro. Here in the 19th Century populist leader Davide Lazzaretti founded a community and built a hermitage before being “accidentally” shot by a soldier in Arcidosso.
Climb up to the hermitage on a clear day and you can see Corsica in the distance on one side and the Gran Sasso of Abruzzo on the other. There’s also a nature park hosting (among other animals) rare wild sheep and the odd (fenced) wolf.
A change of scene and a trip downhill via Semproniano (take in Rocchette di Fazio on its doorstep, breathtaking views of the Albegna gorge meeting its tributary the Rigo) to Pitigliano (the little Jerusalem), Sorano and Sovana. These 3 towns have beautiful city centres (Sovana being barely more than a tiny village) and important Etruscan sites. Well worth seeing. Pitigliano hosted an important Jewish community dating from the 16th Century, as the town gave refuge to Jews fleeing the Counterreformation. During WWII many were hidden by the locals in their houses and Etruscan caves, protected from the Nazis, and to this day their descendants visit the descendants of the people who kept them safe during that awful time.
The Maremma has been lucky and has escaped the ravages of mass tourism, despite its beauty. In an age of environmental degradation, we’re in danger of forgetting what biodiversity and ecological health actually look like. The Maremma still provides an important example.
I hope you will come to know and love it as I do – please tread delicately and stop and listen to … the silence.