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[TRAVEL] Tuscany’s Maremma: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Camilla Bath discovers what it’s really like to get off the beaten track in Italy’s oversubscribed Tuscany.

The town of Pitigliano in Tuscany's Maremma region. Picture: Shutterstock.

As Pitigliano rises unexpectedly out of the thick forest, it can be hard to spot where the vertical tufa rock-face ends and the tightly-packed houses begin. Towards sunset, cliff-face and medieval brickwork alike turn a pocked ruddy brown. Slip into a cobbled alley here and you can find everything you would expect in Tuscany’s fabled hilltop towns: bright flower boxes flanking arched stone doorways, curling lanes that tug you around the next corner, the occasional glimpse of a church tower.

And yet, visited by only 25,000-odd tourists a year, Pitigliano remains quiet, unpretentious and magical.

Pitigliano offers sweeping views of the Maremma's Fiora Valley. Picture: Camilla Bath

Sunset in Pitigliano, which commands sweeping views of the Maremma's Fiora Valley. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Its perch, in the far-flung and wild Maremma region, is hardly on top of any international tourist’s ‘must see’ list. It certainly wasn’t on mine when I first came to Italy on a package tour back in 2006, a lovelorn 20-something who was far more interested in finding a cheap beer in a big city than the mythical ‘authentic Italian experience’.

Now more than a decade later, on honeymoon with my South African-Italian husband, we are quite literally going out of our way to avoid the tourist centres. Instead, we’ve driven 300km south of Bologna on the wrong side of impossibly narrow roads that wind through a patchwork of forests, olive groves, golden wheat fields and vineyards, with hilltop villages and tall cypresses on the horizons – here, to Pitigliano, a medieval town that few Italians have heard of and whose name even fewer tourists can pronounce (the ‘g’, by the way, is silent).

From atop a precipitous volcanic spur of tufa, Pitigliano surveys the Maremma’s Fiora Valley - a wild and proud region that defies the domesticated Tuscan stereotype. The relentless waves of tourism that have eroded so much of Tuscany’s authenticity over the years appear somehow to have washed around the Maremma. Dotted with ancient tombs and crumbling towers, thick with chestnut forests (and, unfortunately, mosquito swarms), it has long been overlooked. Twenty years ago the Maremma was being touted as Tuscany’s next best thing; the same remains true today. It is still seen as a shabby alternative to its more glamorous cousins of Florence, San Gimignano, Pisa and Siena - destined somehow to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Strolling through Pitigliano’s narrow streets, filled with tumbling greenery and crisscrossed by laundry lines strung high overhead, it’s hard to understand why.

Pitigliano's quiet alleyways offer unexpected glimpses of the surrounding forest. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the region hasn’t been able to shrug off its bad historical rep. Until a concerted swamp drainage project by the Medici family in the 1800s, the Maremma had little more to offer visitors than malaria-ridden marshlands, marauding bandits and the occasional Saracen pirate. 14th century poet Dante Alighieri disparaged the area in his Divine Comedy. So maligned was the Maremma that the name itself remains a swearword in some parts of Tuscany. But over the centuries the swamps were reclaimed, the pirates fought off and the blight of malaria finally eradicated. Only in the 1950s, when the last of the marshes were drained, did local tourists begin to venture back into the area. Since then international visitors have been slow to follow.

From below, the town appears to rise up out of the scruffy forest. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Pitigliano’s skyline has the power to stop me in my tracks long before I reach it. A glimpse of the steep tufa walls from the road below is enough to galvanise even the wariest of motorists for the series of tight switchbacks that lie ahead, weaving up and out of the forest floor and into the ancient little village in the sky.

We ditch the car at one of the parking lots dotted about the ‘modern’ part of Pitigliano and follow the sounds of revelry up to a cluster of cafes overlooking the old town’s main entrance on the Piazza della Repubblica. In the shadow of the elegant Palazzo Orsini, it’s a perfect spot for us rattled motorists to gulp down a glass of the excellent local white wine, Bianco di Pitigliano.

The imposing fortress was built around a monastery that dates as far back as the 11th century; these days it’s a museum that houses archaeological finds, artworks and a medieval torture chamber.

The piazza is flanked by the remains of a 16th century Medici aqueduct that runs along the side of the town. I decide to follow it deeper into the centre amid a swirl of birdsong on the ancient walls, savouring the simple pleasure of being able to explore the village _vicolos _without having to fight for elbow room.

One of Pitigliano's main pedestrian streets. Picture: Camilla Bath.

My husband opts out of the walk to join the small but lively crowd of football fans glued to a wide-screen TV set up outside the popular Bar Centrale. I leave him nursing a beer and spend a few hours dipping in and out of artisan shops that line the two main pedestrian streets, mumbling my broken Italian to bemused locals. It is evening and one by one, store owners begin to shut their doors - drawn away to watch the big football match by the cheers and shouts that bounce down the alleyways.

Here, the supermarket culture has not yet completely driven out locally-owned speciality shops, several of which offer produce that is un po’ particolare (a bit special). On display are fresh local breads, seasonal organic vegetables and tennis ball-sized eggs with violently orange yolks - all refreshingly reasonably priced. Several Pitiglianese butchers specialise in cinghiale, the indigenous wild boar hunted in the surrounding forests. Slabs of fresh steak, sausages, salamis and cured hams are displayed alongside bristlingly indignant mounted boar heads, enough to make Obelix’s toes curl with pleasure.

A cool medieval cellar dug deep into the tufa rock is the perfect place to enjoy a selection of local wine, cheese and cured meat. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Lunchtime is the perfect opportunity to try some of the ultra-local fare that is unique to the Maremma. Pitigliano’s restaurants and cafes are rarely crowded, but they’re never empty either. Menus are dominated by the ubiquitous cinghiale, but if game meat isn’t your thing then to be recommended is the equally traditional pici, strings of thick hand-rolled pasta often served with a rich porcini mushroom sauce.

For dessert, it’s mandatory to try one of Pitigliano’s sweetest treats, which has a poignant Jewish origin. _Sfratti _are stick-shaped, nut-filled cookies made with honey, walnuts, orange peel and spices and wrapped in dough or short crust pastry. The name comes from the Italian word sfratto, which can mean both ‘stick’ and ‘eviction’ – a nod to a time long past when Medici landlords were allowed to chase away unwanted Jewish tenants with a rod. These crunchy delights are best enjoyed with a glass of vin santo, a traditional Tuscan sweet wine.

A traditional delicacy: sliced sfratti served with sweet dessert wine. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Pitigliano is still widely referred to as ‘Little Jerusalem’ in Italy, even though few, if any, Jewish residents remain. For several hundred years the town was home to a flourishing Semitic population, mainly descendant from people who had fled the Roman Inquisition during the bloody Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 1500s. Today the old Jewish quarter still stands, replete with a lovingly restored 16th century synagogue (and patrolled by guards toting automatic rifles). There’s a bread oven, a kosher butcher and a space for ritual bathing to be seen - as well as the remains of the old ghetto that once revolved around the synagogue.

While you’re walking off your lunch, there are also a number of Christian churches and cathedrals to visit in Pitigliano. The oldest, Chiesa di San Rocco, dates from the 12th century. The nearby Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Paolo is lavishly clad in marble and gold leaf, and boasts a serene altar and an impressive clock tower.

At night, the town becomes even more mysterious. From afar Pitigliano glows like an enormous golden arrowhead as it sails over the blackened landscape. Mist rises up from the forest floor and cloaks the palazzo as spotlights illuminate its grand archways and turrets from below. Street lamps in brackets flicker to life in the piazza and cast a deep orange light down the alleys that radiate from it.

Palazzo Orsini, now a museum, dominates the Piazza della Repubblica at the main entrance to Pitigliano. Picture: Camilla Bath.

More cinghiale, marinated in local wine and roasted on the spit, is on the menu for dinner at the reasonably-priced and aptly named Trattoria La Chiave del Paradiso (the Keys to Paradise Restaurant). The trattoria is one of several excellent establishments off the town’s main walkways that offer local fare like pheasant stew, _aquacotta _(a hot soup made with toasted bread, topped with a poached egg) and the region’s famed Maremmana beef. This protected cattle breed, with its curved horns and white hide, has grazed the local countryside for centuries.

One of the town's traditional restaurants, on Piazza San Grigorio VII. Picture: Camilla Bath.

It is possible and quite affordable to rent one of the grand refurbished apartments built into Pitigliano’s cliff-face, so stay the night after sampling more of the region’s lush wines and you’ll wake up to the sun rising over an expansive view of the countryside. Some of the homes on offer boast cave-like cellars carved into the hillside, where a cardboard skeleton or two might tickle your toes as you walk by.

A refurbished 'home among the arches' for rent in medieval Pitigliano. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Radiating out from the old town lie the mysterious, ethereal and often deserted pathways of the vie cave, age-old Etruscan superhighways that are dug deep into the Maremma’s soft volcanic tufa. These sinuous sunken paths follow the traces of the region’s ancient past, extending back as far as 2,500 years.

No one is quite sure why the vie cave were excavated by the wealthy Etruscans, an influential civilisation that pre-dated the Roman Empire by several centuries. Perhaps the channels were carved deep into the rock to funnel livestock between villages or move troops undetected; they may also have started out as water channels, later worn into the tufa by thousands of years of relentless foot and hoof traffic. Whatever their original purpose, the ancient roadways remained the main routes connecting the villages of the Fiora Valley until as late as the 1950s, when asphalt roads finally came to the area.

Via Cava di San Sebastiano, Sorano. Picture: Camilla Bath.

These days only the occasional hiker seeks out the vie cave’s quiet dappled shade, which offers a welcome respite from the summer heat. The pathways have developed their own unique microclimate and are thick with ferns, mosses and lichen found nowhere else in the region. We spend a day wandering the sunken corridors and gazing at tree roots growing high above our heads, disturbed only by an occasional waft of butterflies and mosquitos. If you look carefully, it’s possible to spot traces of history carved into the walls that stretch all the way back to the Etruscans - including niches, swastikas and shrines. Several sacred Christian images were placed along the vie cave in the Middle Ages to ward off evil and are still visible today.

Via Cava di San Giuseppe. Picture: Camilla Bath.

Avid history buffs can plunge even deeper into the past at the magnificent Etruscan Necropolis outside the neighbouring village of Sovana, home to one of the most important monuments in Etruscan Italy: the Ildebranda Tomb. The complex dates from as early as 300 BC and is split into two distinct parts, a burial chamber and a funerary monument.

The nearby medieval towns of Sorano and Saturnia offer their own unique take on the Maremma landscape and its Etruscan roots. Picnic spots are easy to find in the area, so pack a basket of local white wine and _pizza con pezzetti di ciccioli _(a type of flatbread baked with crispy pork rinds and coated in sugar that tastes way better than it sounds) and engage in this most quintessential of Italian countryside pursuits.

The Ildebranda Tomb in the Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo near Sovana. Picture: Camilla Bath.

The varied landscape of the Maremma also serves up piping hot natural thermal baths, overnight horseback tours between castles, and gloriously pristine beaches – all within an hour’s drive from Pitigliano.

In the remarkable Parco Naturale della Maremma, stretching north along the west coast from the port town of Talamone, towers and fortresses cling to the rocky cliffs above long stretches of white beach. Wild Maremman horses and cattle graze hills that are criss-crossed with walking trails. In summer the reserve is hugely popular among Italian holiday-makers, so be prepared to wait a bit for a parking space near the park’s most popular beach, Marina di Alberese.

Just south of the park, twin mirror-flat lagoons join the popular seaside resort area of Monte Argentario to the mainland. The promontory used to be an island, but these days is connected to the mainland and the seaside town of Orbetello by three tomboli, stretches of land created by sea and river currents.

A visit here would be incomplete without a walk through the weird and wacky Tarot Garden at Capalbio, inspired by Barcelona’s famed Parc Güell. The 14-acre complex houses enormous concrete statues of the 22 Major Arcana clad in colourful mosaic, mirror and glass. The garden captures the vibrancy and whimsy of the region, its defiant playfulness and its refusal to cop to clichéd Tuscan tradition.

And yet, despite the Maremma’s sweeping landscapes, its immaculate towns and its thriving gastronomic scene, the tourists still don’t come.

Appreciated by a few in-the-know travellers and ignored by the rest, the Maremma’s potential remains as yet unfulfilled – but that is undeniably part of its allure. It’s a place to escape the tourist hordes that have descended on so many other once-vibrant corners of Tuscany and instead embrace a sense of discovery of hidden treasures. We loved the simplicity, the community, the vistas and the freedom. It’s a delicate tension though - those who live here know they need an uptick in tourism to survive, but the foot traffic they desire also threatens to trample the area’s age-old authenticity.

IF YOU GO

Be warned, public transport isn’t really an option here. It’s hard to reach the Maremma if you don’t have a car and even harder to get around without one once you arrive. Driving on the narrow roads may be a challenge, but the reward is worth it!

WHERE TO STAY

La Casa Degli Archi (the Home in the Arches) is an upmarket option in Pitigliano that offers several self-catering apartments dotted around the town, many of which have exceptional views out over the Maremma. The fresh breakfast baskets delivered to your door every morning are an absolute delight. There are several more budget but no less charming guesthouses and apartments available. Just be sure you’re fit enough to lug your suitcases to wherever you choose to stay, as no cars are allowed in the narrow stone and cobbled walkways of the old town.

DON’T MISS

If you find yourself in Pitigliano in March, make sure you catch the town’s annual Torciata festival to celebrate the start of spring. It has a distinctly pagan feel and includes a parade by costumed locals to the piazza, where a massive straw effigy is set alight to represent the end of winter. Ashes from the bonfire are collected and preserved by local women as a token of good fortune.

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