An Italian Petra?

The Parco Del tufo, opened as recently as 1998, is on the way to Sovana and contains some of the most spectacular examples of the mysterious Etruscan civilization’s cities of the dead. The Ildebrando tomb is the largest and, although considerably eroded, strangely reminded us of the Essenes tombs we’d visited a couple of years ago at Jordan’s Petra. We also saw the tomb of the coiled serpent and the typhoon, among others.

What was most intriguing to me, however, were the sacred ways carved into the tufa and with tombs excavated into their almost vertical sides. These routes would have led to a ritual Acropolis, the remains of which have still to be discovered.

We walked a couple of these carved sacred ways and felt the presence of the spirits of the departed Etruscans all around us. It was all so wonderful to have the place to ourselves! Arriving at the top of the sacred ways the landscape opened out into a profusion of vines and blackberries. I would not have at all been surprised to have met Etruscan shepherds with their double flutes and damsels in flowing robes!

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…

***

We returned home via Sovana. Sovana must surely be one of the most attractive small towns in Tuscany. As yet largely unspoilt by tourism it has the remains of the Aldobrandini castle, a lovely duomo with an elaborately carved portal and as peaceful an atmosphere one could possible get. It’s truly a dream settlement built out of tufo blocks which lend it a very homogeneous character. Perhaps I shouldn’t give it away so easily and just let the crowds carry on visiting such places as San Gimignano….

We met a Tufa carver in town too. His beautiful objects could quite easily be trasported as tufa is remarkably light as a stone:

Sunset was spectacular as we found our way back to our place near Manciano. We’d also intended to see Sorano but that other ‘tufo’ town will have to wait for another visit to this special part of a very special region of Italy – a place that has found a very distinct place in our hearts.

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Imposing Pitigliano with its ‘Little Jerusalem’

Pitigliano keeps its first vision a secret until the very last bend of the road from Manciano and it is a truly spectacular one: a cliff top rather than a hilltop town of considerable length built on a crest of that particular volcanic rock called tufo which characterises so much of southern Tuscany.

 

For long a lonely and largely unknown place Pitigliano has become increasingly popular with visitors now that (together with such places as Barga) it is designated  as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy  but it still retains its identity as one of the oldest settlements of La Maremma. Part of the town is actually excavated into the tufo and if you don’t want to go all the way down south to Lucania to see that doyen of cave cities, Matera, then Pitigliano is where you should be.

We parked our car near one of the garages excavated in the volcanic tufa which once may have been used as wine cellars and entered the imposing gateway into the city.

 


We enjoyed the local life in the main square dominated by the Orsini palace and truly felt the inhabitants still owned their town rather than being swamped (like regrettably so many others) by hordes of tourists.

The Orsini palace, dating back to the 11th century but restructured by Sangallo the younger in the 16th century, has nothing of exceptional interest except a wooden statue sculpted by someone who is very familiar in the Lucchesia and San Cassiano: Iacopo della Quercia:

 

It’s very pleasant to walk around the twenty-odd rooms and delight in the interior decorations and secret galleries and enjoy the views from them onto this truly golden city.

At the far end of town are the monolithic remains of the Etruscan walls, for this settlement dates at least that far back.

 

We returned and took a look at the baroque cathedral before descending into one of the most interesting aspects of Pitigliano – its Jewish heritage. From the Medici onwards and until the horrific deportations of World War Two there was a sizeable Jewish population. Now of the old guard only three remain.

We were issued with a skull-cap for respect (normal hats can be worn if one has one at the time) and visited an interesting museum of Jewish religious reliquaries, the ritual bath excavated in the tuft, other underground chambers and then ascended into the beautifully kept synagogue itself. In the ghetto there was also a shop selling kosher food (including wine), matzo unleavened bread and the characteristic Pitigliano sweet called sfratto. The only sad note were the couple of Mauser machine-gun wielding soldiers in their protective bullet-proof shelters outside – a reminder of the constant threat of terrorist attacks even in such a seemingly out-of-the-way and safe-sounding place as Pitigliano.

 

We had lunch in a characteristic trattoria where we feasted on a typical Maremman poor person’s dish, ‘acqua cotta’, literally cooked water, a delicious  soup made out of traditionally stale bread, various vegetables and an egg. With our ‘pici’ the previous day we felt we had touched the heart of the cuisine of this area.

 

This was one of the most delicious soups we have ever tasted and fully justifies those famous lines from ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Here’s a recipe for the soup if you have tasted it and are languishing for it in some place far from Italy:

Ingredients

  • 1 large red onion or 1 leek, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 pound Swiss chard, cleaned and torn in half, or 1/2 oz. porcini mushrooms, soaked and drained
  • Half of a pepperoncino or any hot red pepper, fresh or dried
  • 1/2 cup tomato pulp (seeded, juiced, and chopped if fresh or drained and diced if canned)
  • 3 cups simmering water
  • sea salt
  • 2 eggs (preferably organic)
  • 2 slices rustic, country-style bread, lightly toasted
  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Tuscan pecorino cheese

Preparation:

    1. Place the toasted bread in two soup bowls.
    2. Place the onion and celery in a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed, pot. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and stir to coat. Cook over a medium-low heat, or until the onion is translucent but not brown. Add Swiss chard (or porcini mushrooms) and stir briefly. Add hot pepper, tomatoes, and simmering water. Season lightly with salt and simmer over a low heat (for 20 minutes, until vegetables are very soft.
    3. As vegetables are cooking, bring about an inch of water and a half teaspoon of salt to a boil in a deep skillet. At the end of the vegetables’ cooking time, turn the skillet heat down to a gentle simmer. Add the parsley to the soup.
    4. Break the eggs into a small bowl, one at a time, and slide them into the simmering water. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the whites are set, but the yellow is still runny. When done, use a large slotted spoon to place one egg on each toast slice in bowls. Ladle broth and vegetables over each egg and top with a generous sprinkling of the cheese.

Pitigliano deserves a full day and more to fully savour its delights. The surrounding country is also great for walking and is filled with mysterious Etruscan sites. We decided we should head for one of the more spectacular ones.

 

 

The Southern Limits of Tuscany

Tuscany may not look very big on a world map but its size is deceptive. Mountain roads lengthen journeys and the only real way to visit many parts of perhaps Italy’s most beautiful, and certainly most varied, region is to locate a base and stay there for some days.

We found Manciano fitted the bill perfectly. Equidistant from the mysterious ‘tufo’ towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano, the natural beauties of the lagoon of Burano and the wild beaches beyond it is located among the rolling hills of southern Tuscany – a region perhaps as neglected by the impatient tourist as our part of northern Tuscany once was.

We chose an agriturismo a little distance outside Manciano with a very good price and a friendly ambience. This morning, for example, we had breakfast in the garden which overlooks a deer park, part of the animals kept here which also include chicken and goats. It was lovely to see the deer, with some prized horned specimens having their breakfast too.

Our room was well-appointed and it was amazingly booked just a few days before the mad rush of Ferragosto, the Italian Bank holiday, when it’s impossible to find anything decent, especially if it’s near the sea.

After a standard drive down the Via Aurelia we branched inland at Albinia and reached our base after a journey of around four hours. Traffic was light and the countryside of La Maremma quite glorious with irs rolling hills, vast panoramas, umbrella pines and golden fields. It was difficult to believe that this area was once considered ‘maledetta’, cursed, because of the lack of proper drainage and the high incidence of malaria.

Yesterday we started off with an excellent continental breakfast of home-made ricotta, peach jam, cake, yogurt and caffé-latte served in the delighful early morning sunshine of the farmhouse’s garden.

We then set off to Manciano’s centro storico. The steep narrow streets led us to the main church and, near the top, to an excellent museum which gave us an insight into the history of the area. There has been a settlement here since the Old Stone Age and Manciano became an important centre under the Etruscans and Romans.

The castle keep (cassero) at the top is the home of the town council and it was very windy on the terrace surrounding it, giving us splendidly clear views of the surrounding country.

There was an interesting art exhibition nearby.

We proceeded to Capalbio, an even more spectacular southern Tuscan hill town with its ultra-steep streets and charming corners.

The Romanesque parish church has some beautiful old frescoes and the views from the town extended towards a truly blue Mediterranean.

There was a great walk around the town walls. I wonder if Capalbio was ever captured with such strong defences which included an outer wall as well?

The climax of the day, however, was yet to come!

Volcanic Baths in Saturn(ia) and Go-Karts in Civitella

Next day’s itinerary took us first to Scansano, famous for its Morellino wine. The hilltop town is also very attractive and we enjoyed a welcome break here.

There is an interesting museum with a collection of Etruscan items and a section on wine-making.

I’d seen a picture of the cascatelle of Saturnia (little waterfalls) and was determined we should include this on our itinerary. The cascatelle are fed by hot thermal springs and emanate a smell of bad eggs. They are very curative for a variety of ailments (mainly back-ache) and also very relaxing

The “little waterfalls” were gushing and despite the number of people enjoying the warm waters we too found a place and for about half an hour I had the pleasure of a hot waterfall pouring over me.

The waterfalls are free which is not the case with Saturnia terme, an exclusive hotel and golf course complex we skirted on our way to the actual town of Saturnia, which is quiet and attractive.

The borgo of Saturnia should not be missed – it has a good section of Roman road – part of the Via Clodia – going through its Etruscan-era gate:

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Near Saturnia is a jewel of a hilltop town, Montemerano, happily free from those busloads of tourists that infect those other attractions of Tuscany like San Gemignano.

The parish church is quite beautiful and contains a number of valuable pictures including a Lorenzetti.

The church also has a quaint Madonna called the Madonna della gattaiola or the cat-flap Madonna. The story goes that a priest needing a new door for his house found a plank of wood with a discarded portrait of the Madonna on it. Being also a cat owner the priest decided to use the panel with one small modification, – a round hole in the bottom right of the painting which one can still observe today to serve as a cat-flap. This is surely a prime example of a picture that is admired for something that is missing from it!

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Our journey now took us towards the coast. We wanted to experience the fun of crossing the two tomboli that have roads on them out of the three that connect Monte Argentario to the Italian mainland. In one of the two lagoons a windmill had been built.

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Orbetello is a fine old town and famous for the pioneers of Italian flying boats.

Monte Argentario is a beautiful place. Once an island, it now hosts marinas and a surfeit of time shares and parking is a real problem….it’s not quite our place we decided.

Before returning to our hotel we looked into Civitella Marittima (marittima means that the place is in the Maremma, not that it’s near the sea), a nearby hill town. Here the inhabitants were celebrating the Palio of the carretti – or hand-made, non-motorised go-karts This is another example of the inventiveness of Italian palios.

I realise that the idea of the Palio is also to release tension between the various parts of a town and avoid such shameful phenomenas as Britain’s (and the USA’s) regular inner city riots. Setting off steam in this way is a great way also to attract visitors and turn the different elements of the town into a real community.

We wandered around looking at the stalls and eating Donzelle. These are not maidens but a variety of delicious fried bread.

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There were the usual artisan stalls and some less usual fashions displayed.

Returning to our base we realised that this was to be the last night in this area before proceeding next morning to Florence.

Of Castles and Abbeys

The following morning was overcast so it was an ideal day to visit museums and monuments. We headed out for Montalcino which has the reputation of producing the best wine in Italy – the Brunello. It was a place I’d last seen in 1997 when I’d reached it on my Honda Transalp on my first major motorbike trip across Europe. I was glad to revisit it and for Sandra to see this proud little hill town for the first time.

We parked our fiat Cinquina near the main museum and were just in time to enter it when threatening thunder surrounded Montalcino and it began to rain.

 

The museum was very well laid out and contained, among other treasures, some paintings by Lorenzetti, one of the greats of the Senese school of painting.

It takes no art  critic to realise that there are major differences between Senese and Florentine paintings even if the two cities are so close to each other. Whereas, in the fifteenth century Florence entered fully into the renaissance and developed perspective and new ways of presenting familiar religious subjects Siena continued with its post-byzantine style which eschewed perspective and used stylised poses and gold backgrounds. It developed this exquisite hieratic style to perfection culminating in the works of Simone Martini and Lorenzetti.

I was particularly intrigued by these pottery vases which date back to the thirteenth century and featured strange animals including ferocious felines and exotic birds.

We had intended to continue our journey sooner but the weather was still very rainy and when we were invited to a lunch at a nearby palazzo we took up the offer. It was organized for a Festa dell’unità (or political party related Festa) and featured antipasto, two pasta courses (penne and local thick spaghetti called pici) meat and veg course, finished by delicious water melon and cake, washed down by excellent local wines.

At our long table were a party of Italians from north of the Apennines and we enjoyed their company especially as they appeared to be well-versed in their musical subjects.

It wasn’t until three that we managed to leave our table, rather later that expected, and headed for the castle which produced great views but little else apart from its splendid battlements and towers.

After lunch we headed to Sant’Antimo, the exquisite Benedictine monastery just outside Montalcino and set in a beautiful valley. This too I’d visited on my two-wheel escapade back in 1997 and was keen that Sandra saw this fine building .

Constructed in a French-influenced Cluniac-style of architecture, the abbey is striking both in its exterior and interior with some wonderful carved column capitals. The monks worship here seven times in twenty-four hours and sing fine plainchant. Unfortunately, we could not wait for the vespers as this would have made us return home too late and instead we headed past the slopes of Monte Amiata.

This mountain is all that remains of a once active volcano and has thickly wooded slopes. Apparently, there is still some geo-thermic activity, as this ENEL plant we passed showed ,with its naturally caught geodesic vapours.

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Our last stop was a mediaeval Festa at Cana, a sweet little village south west of Arcidosso which boasts an extraordinary position among pinnacles and gorges.

Here we met Dante reciting the last Canto of his “Paradiso”.

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We enjoyed sauntering along the picturesque streets of this semi-forgotten village and delighted in a languid sunset stretching out onto the Maremman plain.

Southern Tuscany is sometimes neglected, especially by those of us centred in Northern Tuscany. It is just a little too far for a day trip. It’s not that the distances are excessive but that the roads are so twisty that it takes so much longer get to places.

We shall certainly back to explore those places we missed this time and, perhaps, even get to the top of that extinct volcano which for the whole day was swathed in clouds.

Abandoned Cities and Empty Beaches

 

Roselle is an abandoned city between Paganico and Grosseto. Within its confines are Etruscan walls, a Roman amphitheatre and forum, villas with beautiful mosaics and marble intarsioed floors and much else.

We had the site virtually to ourselves. We walked for about a mile around the cyclopean walls only to discover that we’d only covered a fifth of their circuit. It’s not surprising that, once, people used to think that these walls were built by giants!

The statuary in the forum area seemed at first to be part of a modernist exhibition, so clean and white it was. Then we discovered that these were the original statues of the Bassi family who were top people in the city around 100 AD.

The site of Roselle was spectacular with extensive views all around to the Maremman mountains and the broad valley of the area’s main river the Ombrone.

Cicadas racketed, wild flowers bloomed and the sun did not shine so fiercely.

At the top of the hill were two Roman cisterns and an artisan area with remains of pottery kilns.

We found out that Roselle was founded in pre-Etruscan times and that there are remains dating back to the prehistoric Villafrancan period (the same era that produced the steles we saw at Pontremoli). Roselle survived well into mediaeval times when it was finally abandoned because of encroaching malaria from the plains surrounding it: the old Roman irrigation system had broken down and the anopheles mosquito started to breed ever more furiously. Strangely, we didn’t come across any remains later than Roman. Perhaps they are still to be discovered beneath all that undergrowth.

The sea now awaited us: the unspoilt coast of the regional park of the Maremma with its miles and miles of umbrella pine-fringed natural beaches. We had intended to reach Marina di Alberese but the car park there was full, so one of the girls directing motorists suggested that we head towards Fonteblanda and a special secret beach whose name translates as “enjoy yourself”.

With its mixture of rocks and sand it was the perfect haven to relax after our morning’s archaeological walk. The views stretched to Monte Argentario, the Isola del Giglio and Talamone.

We had a quick look at Talamone which, apart from its choc-a-block full marina, still presents the appearance of an old fishing village dominated by the castle and its walls.

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Then we headed back to Marina di Alberese. On the way we met up with some docile long-horned cattle characteristic of this part of the world:

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Continuing along a dirt track we came across this:

If only more of Tuscany’s (and Italy’s coastline) were like this! The umbrella pines almost came from a lost world and formed a wonderfully cool natural canopy under which to walk. The beach stretched for miles: it wasn’t at all crowded, even in this holiday period, and romantic strolls into the sunset could truly be taken on it.

The au naturel  feel stretched to the bivvies beach combers had built. We felt transported to some exotic island in a Pacific Ocean and not the usually crowded summer Mediterranean coastline.

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To Southern Tuscany with Cheeky

Paganico is not a town that immediately springs to mind when one is on a short holiday in southern Tuscany. We only chose it because that’s where our hotel was, For 55 euros we were guaranteed a  room with double bed and en suite bathroom, TV air condition, Wi-Fi and breakfast included. What was also included was permission to bring Cheeky with us into the hotel since, at only six weeks she was much too young to be left at home. In fact, the hotel owners turned out to be avid cat-lovers!

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We left Longoio a little after midday and took the standard via Aurelia route (statale no. 1 the Italian equivalent of the A1). Just before Grosseto we turned off on a minor road which took us past a piggery housing the ancient breed of Cinta Senese pigs with their distinctive colouring. This breed, despite the fact that it requires much more grazing land than a standard pig, is making a considerable come-back:

The road was lined with impressive umbrella pines – the tree of the Maremma, the once malaria-infested region we were now entering.

We then entered a forest of cork trees, with stunning bark-less red trunks and descended into the Ombrone valley where Paganico is situated.

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We chose the hotel mainly for its economic price rather than its looks which were definately 1970’s vintage.

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Our original choice had been for an agriturismo but that, at double the price, did not even have a TV in the room and no swimming pool. Together with some unflattering comments pasted by previous customer to it we were glad we gave it a miss.

Agriturismi, or farm holidays, are all the rage in Italy but, unlike hotel ratings, standards are very uneven and they should always be checked up on “Trip advisor”. Moreover, the location of an Agriturismo, although often stunning, can have its drawbacks. Town centres and shopping may be distant and often it’s difficult to tear oneself away from the activities these places may offer and, instead, tour the area, which, in my opinion, is the main point of being there.

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The hotel we stayed at was also well placed for visiting the more remote places of southern Tuscany and for enjoying an afternoon on the beach.

Shortly after we arrived we decided we’d do some shopping in Paganico. Expecting an undistinguished town we were very pleasantly surprised to find a mediaeval walled borgo with at least one splendid entrance gate:

 

The parish church had some fascinating fourteenth century frescoes attributed to Biago di Goro Ghezzi and illustrating stories about St Michael the Archangel (to whom the church is dedicated).

The streets were picturesque and the locals very hospitable. Some of the shops were quite quaint:

Yet, such are the riches of Italy’s heritage that Paganico is not even mentioned in the Automobile club d’Italia guidebook, let alone the Rough Guide.

We came home with some vino sfuso (wine from the barrel) expecting that, too, to be undistinguished. Instead it turned out to be an excellent tipple. After all, Scansano with its Morellino wine isn’t far distant from here.

Entertainment was offered in the form of a “Sagra del Granocchio” but, as fans of “The Wind in the Willows” we didn’t fancy eating toad, even if it wasn’t the one from the Hall:

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The night was pleasantly warm and we had to put on the ventilator. Needless to say, Cheeky alternated between playing with us and sleeping profoundly.

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