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Grosseto and Maremma

Maremma amara - bitter Maremma. This is how a traditional Tuscan song describes the area in the province of Grosseto that makes up the southernmost part of the region. For centuries it was plagued by malaria and had a standard of living that was close to bare survival. In The Divine Comedy (Canto 13 of the Inferno), Dante wrote: "Non han si aspri sterpi né si folti quelle fiere selvagge che in odio hanno tra Cecina e Corneto i luoghi colti". This can be paraphrased as follows: the wild beasts that find no home in the cultivated fields between Cecina and Corneto find refuge in the thick, harsh bush of the Maremma. But this is perhaps what makes the area so uniquely beautiful.

Wind, sea, mountains, and sun seem to combine to give this zone a real sense of wildness. The Maremma is one of the least populated areas of Italy, with large stretches of land left undisturbed for the flora and fauna, which seem, even beyond its boundaries, to be a natural extension of the Parco dell'Uccellina. Although the land has undergone massive reclamation, which has transformed what was once putrid and unhealthy marshland, there is a singular harmony between nature and the work of man. Although the reclamation work was started by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the 18th century, it was only finally completed in the post-war period.
It was not, however, just the climate and the environment that gave the area such a bad reputation. In a land where neither agriculture or any other form of development was possible for centuries, banditry was one of the few means of survival; it was rife and the area was unsafe, with the result that it tended to be avoided. Away from all the main routes, it was effectively cut off from the rest of the region. This is a further reason, if one were required, to admire the tenacity of the inhabitants, who have refused to abandon the area, but have fought since Etruscan times to tame it.
There have been many Etruscan finds of great cultural and historical significance in the Maremma, making it an ideal destination for a trip. These historical riches, together with the beauty of the countryside, the folk culture, and the food and wine, have all contributed to the great development of the area in recent years. It is in fact experiencing something of a new age, providing high standards of accommodation and hospitality without falling into the trap of encouraging mass tourism, which is something of a deterrent for anyone looking for a quiet peaceful holiday.

The provincial capital, Grosseto, is a relatively youthful city that developed in the medieval period on a site where Etruscan boats used to pass through the marshes. It provided accommodation for the workers in the salt pans, and developed slowly until eventually it was fortified by the Medici.
And indeed it's invariably the views rather than the towns and villages that are the strongpoint of the area.
The settlements on the coast, at Cala Martina, Cala Violina, Punta Ala, and above all at Castiglione della Pescaia are inseparable from the beauty of the sea that beats against the hills running down to the coast, and the unspoilt countryside that is a mix of Mediterranean bush vegetation and pine woods. For a wonderful walk all you have to do is climb to Monte d'Alma or Poggio Ballone which provide height and protection for small villages and rugged castles.

Indeed, places like Scarlino, Gavorrano, Ravi, and Buriano seem to take you all the way back to the Dark Ages. These villages look out over the so-called Costa Brava of the Alta Maremma, which has been inhabited since the Etruscans. They founded one of their most beautiful cities here, Vetulonia, which together with Roselle reveal some of the most visible traces of their presence in this region. In its time, Vetulonia was extremely prosperous because it was able to exploit the nearby mines at Massa Marittima, and it also had a thriving maritime trade. The small medieval city of Massa Marittima developed as a mining settlement and besides the Duomo and other artistic treasures there is also the Museo della Miniera.

If you're visiting the Alta Maremma, a trip to Punta Ala is a must; it lies across from the tower of Jacopo d'Appiano, which shows just how difficult life was for the early inhabitants, who were drawn to the beauty of the area but were under constant threat from raids by Saracen pirates.
Further south on the coast, is the small tourist resort of Follonica, which offers plenty of entertainment, particularly in summer, and has woods behind it.
The main town in the Alta Maremma is Castiglione della Pescaia, which is protected from the full force of the wind and sea by Elba. Besides offering a wide variety of services, this small town has also maintained its appearance as an old fishing village; it was established at the foot of the splendid Rocca Aragonese, the much fought-over castle from which it takes its name. Nearby there are the marshlands of Diaccia and Botrona, which are very important for their bird life.

To round off a trip to the Alta Maremma, a visit to the Rocca di Scarlino is also highly recommended. It's the last outcrop of the colline metallifere, the metal-bearing hills, and the vegetation surrounding it is extremely beautiful, in particular the change from cork trees and Mediterranean bush to the centuries-old chestnut trees of Tirli, which are an ideal spot for long walks and excursions.
If there's one place above all in the Maremma that deserves visiting for its natural beauty, it's the Parco Naturale della Maremma, otherwise known as the Parco dell'Uccellina after the name of the hills that comprise a large part of the park area. The two entrances to the park at Talamone and Alberese are gateways to another, almost unreal world, just a short distance away from the trappings of modern existence.
The park stretches inland from the gentle banks of the mouth of the river Ombrone, where it's still not uncommon to come across the traditional Maremman herdsmen called butteri. Apart from cattle (which produce very high quality milk and meat), as you move inland you start to come across wild boar, roe deer, fallow deer, badgers, and foxes, and it's also common to see ducks and coots, predators such as buzzards, kestrels, and peregrines, or, during the night, tawny and barn owls. The area is a permanent habitat for some birds, but is also a stopping-off point for many birds on their long seasonal migrations. The park flora is also very interesting, with palmets, bush plants that grow in sand, lentisk, and daphne, besides pines, which grow spontaneously but have also been transplanted there in order to protect the environment from land slippage or a tendency to become marshy.

The work and construction of man should not be neglected either, and it can be seen at Fonteblanda, Talamone, and Alberese, the high point of which is the beautiful abbey church of San Rabano, built by the Benedictines and subsequently taken over by the Cistercians.
A visit to Maremma should also be organised to include several days in the Argentario, a kind of island clinging onto the land, where the beauty of the promontory combines with that of the lagoon, where new buildings blend in perfectly with a carefully preserved natural environment, making it one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in Tuscany and a showpiece of the Maremma.

Not even the worst periods of malaria quite put paid to Orbetello, which lies at a singular meeting of land and water. The lagoon is enclosed by two strips of land, and can best be appreciated by a trip to Punta Telegrafo, where you get an extensive view inland and on a clear day you can see Elba.

Near Orbetello, and very close to the boundary with Lazio, there's the small hill village of Capalbio, which, surrounded by arbutus bush, evokes the atmosphere of rich courts and a quiet life. In Roman times, the area was a favourite spot for emperors, who came to spend their summers here away from the heat of Rome.

The fourth and final area of the Maremma is the inland area, famous for its Etruscan past and characteristic tuff rock. The villages here are basically a series of open-air museums and seem to grow out of the friable calcareous rock. Manciano, Vulci, Sovana, and the surprising Saturnia are all worth visiting. In the midst of these villages clinging to spurs of tuff, there is Vitozza, with extraordinary caves hidden in the bush vegetation.
Saturnia perhaps makes a fitting conclusion to a journey through the Maremma, with a quiet bathe in the hot sulphurous waters of the thermal baths. The temperature is a constant 37 degrees centigrade, and they can also be enjoyed, free of charge, in nearby Gorello, where there's a beautiful steam and spray-filled basin.

On the way to Monte Amiata is Pitigliano, surrounded by vineyards and built on the edge of a cliff, which gives it the appearance of a fortified town. It has extremely ancient origins and was ruled by many different powers until it finally became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1608. For many centuries there was also a large and active Jewish community here.

The culinary specialities of the Maremma include acquacotta (a full-flavoured soup made with onion, vegetables, oil, tomato, egg, and toasted bread), local sheep's cheese, fresh milk, and wild boar in a variety of delicious forms, all of which can be washed down with Morellino di Scansano, the excellent local red wine. A fitting accompaniment to an extraordinary area which hides behind the rather sombre name of Maremma amara.

Picture by Sandro Santioli

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Press registration n. 5528 10/11/2006 - Editor Polimedia - P.IVA 06790950486