Even if you’ve never been to Tuscany, you could probably describe its pine tree covered hills and antique villas in an instant. The central Italian region is familiar, loveable and just a little bit nostalgic. It has been the destination for intrepid travellers since the dawn of time, and has remained on many a holiday wish list.
But with so much to take in, it’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing only Tuscany’s biggest and most famous cities. Florence is beautiful, Siena is effortlessly romantic and Pisa is breathtaking, but there is a whole other side of this region that embodies a simpler time.
While tourists flock to the bright lights, Italians take their leave in the medieval towns and villages that are strewn across the Tuscan countryside. They explore the castles carved into rock by renaissance dukes, take a dip on the island where Napoleon Bonaparte spent his exile and enjoy a bite at a 100-years-old trattoria.
Leaving the cities and heading further south into the fertile Fiora Valley is an almost therapeutic experience. The towns here sit on leafy hills; cut off from the great spans of countryside by ancient stonewalls and completely removed from the hassles of metropolitan life. The territory is known as the Maremma and the beautiful scenery and calm disposition of its locals make it perfect for a romantic getaway.
TOP SIGHTS IN THE MAREMMA
The Fiora Valley
Manciano is the valley’s hub. A quaint little hilltop getaway, it takes advantage of its elevated position by having some of the best agriturismi in the territory. Part farm, part b&b, agriturismi are perfect for those looking to truly experience Tuscany and meet the people who call it home.
While in Manciano, a visit to its 13th century castle is a must. From the tallest battlements you can see the rolling tides off Corsica, admire the lush hills covered in olive groves in the valley and peer down at the rooftops and bell towers of the other medieval towns.
On a clear day, you can almost see Saturnia, 20 kilometres away. Less of a town and more of a living legend, Saturnia is, if you ask the locals, the mythical refuge of Saturn after he lost the throne of the Gods.
In Saturnia the marks of the Etruscans, romans, Aldobrandeschi, Orsini and Medici are still visible, not in museums, but in front of your eyes. In the town square lie the remains of a roman road, while a magnificent medieval castle looms over the streets, casting a shadow on the nearby stone-carved houses.
The hot springs that surround Saturnia draw thousands of couples to the town each year for the outdoor baths, where temperatures reach a toasty 37 degrees. The springs also boast curative properties thanks to sulphur, the main mineral found in the waters.
A short distance away, the Terme di Saturnia spa has swimming pools and artificial waterfalls that flow with warm water fresh from the source of the hot springs, conveniently located below them. A full day ticket costs about €25, but it’s worth it.
A trip to the Fiora Valley isn’t complete without a stop in Sovana. There are few towns in the Maremma that have maintained both their history and original splendour like Sovana. The sand-coloured streets; well worn, but characteristic buildings and unassuming old town centre are simply beautiful and completely gimmick-free.
Don’t miss nearby Montemerano either. The unassuming 15th century walls that surround this small town never betray the incredible charm that hides behind them.
The Argentario coast
When the Tuscan sun shines bright, the locals retreat to the seaside. Unknown to most, Tuscany has some of Italy’s best beaches and resorts, all located on the Argentario Coast, 45 kilometres from Manciano. Famous for its fishing and even more famous for its seafood, Porto Santo Stefano is the biggest port on the coastline.
The countryside that surrounds the city is dotted with fortresses and towers built by the Spanish to keep an eye on their enemies. Beautifully conserved, these 15th century relics can be visited almost all year round.
If you’re hankering for some island action on your holiday, take the very short ferry trip across to Giglio Island. Giglio might be only 20 kilometres from Porto Santo Stefano, but it’s a world of its own with a culture and lifestyle that differs entirely from the mainland.
After a quick meal at one of the cute cafes that line the port, hop on a bus or walk up to Giglio Castello. There you’ll find 28 kilometres of the most incredible beaches you’ll ever experience.
If you can, spend the night on Giglio Island. Then, in the morning, catch another ferry to Giannutri Island. No one has lived on Giannutri since the Romans abandoned it, and the island has been allowed to blossom into a nature reserve complete with pristine beaches and roman relics.
A holiday in Tuscany wouldn’t be the same without a stop at the beautiful Renaissance city Grosseto. The capital of the Maremma, Grosseto has spent centuries reconciling with its image as both the cultural playground of the Medici family and the last outpost of the quiet and laidback Tuscan countryside.
Its town centre is made up of one main street, lined with the most elegant-looking shops, many hidden inside medieval palazzos. At the end of this strip is Piazza Dante – Grosseto’s heart, where the true shopaholic can indulge.
Make sure you take a break at one of the indescribably good pizzerias that line the main street. With a thin crust and minimal toppings, these pizzas are nothing like the ones at home, especially the divine nutella and mascarpone dessert pizza.
And that’s only the beginning. Those who know little about Grosseto visit the city, savour the ancient buildings and modern, yet relaxed lifestyle of the Grossetani. But those who truly experience Grosseto don’t keep to the city centre, they visit the winding alleys where the locals mix with a surprisingly strong Asian com- munity and go further still, to the deserted beaches and oak- filled forests of the Parco Regionale della Maremma.
Stretched over limitless space, the Parco Regionale Della Maremma reserve is literally an oasis. Holidayers with a sense of adventure can spend hours exploring the park’s kilometres of walking tracks and the odd ruined medieval castle before finding themselves at the feet of a deserted and pebble-strewn beach.
From here the sun setting over the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea is breathtaking and, if you look far enough, you can just see the outline of Elba Island, where napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after his forced abdication in 1814.
For more info about the Maremma, check out our online travel guide.