When you think Tuscany, you think Florence, Siena and Pisa, but there is another side to the region. A seemingly endless expanse of wild terrain that’s home to tiny hilltop towns and hospitable locals known as the Maremmani.
It’s been my home for almost a decade, but I’m channelling my inner tourist and dragging my born-and-bred husband on a weekend road trip to (re)discover the Maremma’s highlights.
An early morning dip at Saturnia
We’re kicking off the weekend at the Saturnia hot springs. The Maremma is located deep in Southern Tuscany and these hot springs are about two hours from Rome. They’re the area’s most popular tourist attraction and it always pays to get in early, unless you enjoy elbowing German tourists in the face for space.
The pools are naturally carved travertine basins fed by a small waterfall known colloquially as the Cascate del Mulino. It’s close to 37°C at the source, but a much more temperate 35°C at the pools. Access is free and you can swim 24/7.
When I first visited, I described the hot springs as the most luxurious bath in the most luxurious setting you can imagine and it’s hard to shake that impression. You just don’t expect to find a hot spring in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, let alone one that has been around since the Roman Empire and is said to have a whole host of health benefits.
There’s just one drawback. It stinks. The same sulphur that makes the water good for your skin also makes it smell like rotten eggs. But don’t worry, you’ll be too busy snapping selfies to care.
Lunching in Montemerano
Suitably towelled off and smelling just a little, we head to Montemerano. A medieval hamlet,
Montemerano’s wisteria-covered walls hide a warren of cobblestone streets. We’re here for a stroll and an acquacotta lunch at Osteria Passaparola.
This former frantoio (olive oil mill) turned family-owned restaurant keeps the recipe simple, rustic slices of Tuscan bread covered in a seasonal vegetable soup and topped with a poached egg.
Mario, the owner, tells us that his grandmother’s recipe didn’t include the egg. They couldn’t afford the luxury, but it’s a welcome addition to the rich chard and tomato soup.
An evening in Pitigliano
Back in the car, Pitigliano takes your breath away before you even enter the town limits. Perched on a tufa rock cliff, it appears suspended in mid-air.
It’s less of an optical illusion and more one of clever construction. Pitigliano is built from the same tufa as its surroundings. From afar, the dark brown porous stone blends with the cliff, so you can’t tell where nature ends and manmade begins.
We make a mental note to return to this viewpoint at sunset and head for Pitigliano’s Jewish ghetto. Welcome to Piccola Gerusalemme (Little Jerusalem), a small, but satisfying underground
museum that provides a glimpse into the life of Jewish residents before WWII. At first, I’m confused as to why they would want to build their butcher, bakery and baths underground, but the guide soon explains that space was limited, not just in the ghetto, but everywhere in Pitigliano and that some of these cellars predate the Roman Empire.
On our way out, we stop at Forno del Ghetto to try Pitigliano’s most famous treat, lo sfratto. A thin biscuit baton wrapped around a chewy fig and nut filling. It’s perfumed with orange zest and perfect for dipping in amaretto, if only we had some.
Getting lost among the statues in Capalbio
The next morning, we head straight for the Giardino dei Tarocchi, just outside of Capalbio. The Maremma is fiercely proud of its peasant roots, but sometimes it will surprise you with a Gaudì-inspired statue garden that captures your imagination in a million tiny hand-cut mosaics.
Like so many expats, present company included, French artist Niki de Saint Phalle fell in love with the Maremma’s wild terrain and decided to make it the background to her life’s work.
The art park features all 22 tarot cards depicted in beautifully sculptured pieces, some of which double as playgrounds and water features. Tickets are €12, which I happily cough up because no matter how many times I visit, I always find something new to fawn over, whether it be a hidden work in the bushes or a missed inscription carved in the tiles.
Choose your own afternoon
There is so much to see in the Maremma that our final afternoon is marked by indecision. We could walk the parapet of nearby Capalbio and order a plate of cinghiale alla Maremma (wild boar in a rich tomato sauce) with a bottle of local Morellino di Scansano DOCG.
Or we could head towards the coast to explore the Strada Panoramica and the beaches between Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole before ordering way too much raw seafood at Vivo Restaurant and Bar.
But I’m travelling with a Maremmano who wants to “breathe in” his country roots, so we head to the Parco della Maremma instead. Little side note, said Maremmano is the son of bakers and has no country roots to speak of, but he still gets a kick out of seeing the Vacche Maremmane and their fierce guardians, the Butteri.
A dying tradition, the Butteri are the Maremma’s cowboys, and if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of them as they herd their majestically horned charges between pastures in full regalia, hat, boots and riding crops included.
Even if you don’t see them, the park’s pebble strewn beach is the perfect place to watch the sunset on a weekend well spent in the Tuscan Maremma.
Elisa Scarton Detti is an Australian journalist who came to Tuscany for a year, and, yes, fell in love and decided to stick around. Not one to keep amazing holiday destinations to herself, she now writes a blog and travel guide about the infinitely beautiful Maremma, Tuscany: www.maremma-tuscany.com
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