Grosseto Maremma - Tuscany
Visiting this part of Tuscany, with its lush vegetation and wildness in certain aspects, it’s still an adventurous and exhilarating experience.
The Etruscans of the past combine with the cowboys of the present in addition to the strong flavours and fragrances of years gone by.
Between Tuscany and Lazio, between the Tyrrhenian coast and the Preappennine features of the Volsinii mountains, the hilly Maremma stretches out. As wild as it is beautiful, the backdrop to this area is the crystal clear Fiora River which from the Amiata massif flows through the central valley of Saturnia (GR) and flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea, bringing with it history and legend.
Geologically ancient, the Maremma area is characterised by the classic Tuscan hills, sometimes abruptly interrupted by the volcanic gorges formed millions of years ago as a consequence of the pyroclastic explosion of a volcano, later to become the present day Lake Bolsena. The rivers of lava of an incredibly powerful eruption cooled and solidified , creating long narrow tufaceous plains, among which lie deep chasms even as deep as tens of metres.
The cliffs of tuff witnesses the creation of the first human settlements, built to control the various rivers that, in fact in the underlying gorges, flow with resounding vitality. One civilisation which more than others has left its traces in this area made fertile by the combination of natural resources and its geology is that of the Etruscans. Three Etruscan settlements are now considered Italian landscape gems and together they form a sort of "golden triangle" or "Etruscan triangle": Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana, just a few minutes from each other.
The village of Pitigliano clings to a tuffaceous spur with which it blends, making it impossible to know where one ends and the other begins: houses on the rocks or set into the rocks? At sunset everything is a flame across a wild expanse of greenery which for thousands of years has attempted in vain to find its way back to meet the elevated red walls of the hill. Four other natural balconies look out across the river bed of the Meleta below crossing the river Lente and surrounding the town in a timeless embrace .
An elevated position, the abundance of water and the evident rough terrain yet rich in resources and able to provide - to those who know the secret - double or triple crops: these are the reasons that have made it possible for one of the twelve primitive Etruscan cities to be established here, probably called Statonia. Famous for its scenery, Pitigliano is also the capital of the Italian Jews, to whom the first refuge was given at the time of the Christian persecutions. Its Ghetto is rich in evidence of the Jewish presence, such as the Synagogue of the fourteenth century and Forno delle Azzime. Along the cliff that leads to the beds of the two rivers, the modern Pitigliano reveals the ancient Etruscan tombs, "opened" before by the Romans and then by the medieval inhabitants to use them as cellars and warehouses. Today some of them are privately owned, often linked to the front gardens, which colour the country also known for the "flower embellishment" of Corpus Christi. On that occasion, hundreds of metres of road were covered with flowers of every type for the event of the Christian calendar enriched by a procession in front of the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie.
The village of Sovana stands on another hill and the only two streets that cross it in longitudinally join two worlds: the handcraft one - represented by open and creative shops - and the more spiritual one, that contains in its Cathedral one of the highest examples of medieval religious architecture. The portal of the cathedral of Sovana is a masterpiece full of symbolism and history, which hides a mystic interior, typical of Tuscan churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries when religious buildings were the result of a pagan religion not yet vanished. Dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle, the temple is a rare example of the Romanesque-Gothic age, built perhaps in the ninth century, above which was the Etruscan acropolis.
Sorano, dedicated to the ancient god Suri, is more complex than Sovana and more intricate than Pitigliano, but like the first two towns it also has its secrets and the winding cobbled streets that lead to the top of Leopoldo rock offer encounters with the real locals of the place: cats. They are everywhere, on windows, on balconies, among the remains of those houses that overlook the ravine, as if they knew the secret of escape. And the atmosphere of this town is also feline, recognised by many foreigners as a second homeland: you can find many travelers who live here - especially the French, British and American - that between one trip and another or between one creation and another (some of the residents are artists) give themselves a tasty dish of Tuscan soup.
Among these three centres most of the fifty "vie cave" (inland quarries) or "cut roads" wind, ideal paths to move from one gorge to another and to enter into the nature that, especially in the summer months is as dense as in the forest. The vie cave or inland quarries are deep and colossal paths carved into the tuff, enigmatic works unique in the world, attributed to the Etruscans and built by excavating the rock from hills to the valley, where there are the beds of rivers. 25 meters high, 600 metres long and around 4 metres wide, these inland quarries were probably sacred paths which are used for the processions and rituals of an ancient era. Even today one of the most picturesque vie cave, that of St. Joseph, hosts the "Torciata" every vernal equinox (19 March): dozens of young people with flaming torches on their shoulders run from the top of the hill down to the river and then up towards the countryside. It’s an unmissable event also because it is strongly attended by the local community that recognises in it the origins and, in part, its own "Etruscan" identity.
The territory continues to remember this identity with its far away origins such as in the small town of San Quirico di Sorano, from whose square it is possible to reach the rocky promontory of Vitozza. After the Sassi of Matera, this is the second largest settlement excavated in the rock of Italy. Pre-Etruscan, Etruscan, but above all Medieval (from the twelfth century), this fascinating archaeological site immersed in the countryside was inhabited until the last century. Almost 180 caves carved into the rock, arranged in multiple layers and multiple rooms, with luxurious details such as capitals and engravings, to which are added the Etruscan and Roman "colombari" (dovecots).
The Maremma land is rough and dangerous, that witnessed, around the year one thousand, the creation of several rock hermitages, thanks to the initiative of monks seeking a meeting with the animal herds, away from the clamours of the world. Beautiful hermitages, preserved in their original and wild natural habitat, requiring only patience to be reached, such as that of St. Colombano (VT), in nearby Tuscia, or that of the "cavone" or of Sovana, that overlooks the most impressive Etruscan road cut in the tuff.
Along the Fiora river these are different corners of paradise in the rock. The river is very pleasant during summer time to find somewhere cool or to meet herds of "Maremmane", led by the famous cowboys, the Italian cowboys who defeated even those "original" cowboys of Buffalo Bill, when the animated American visited Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Of course, the volcanic nature of the Maremma offers spa areas, such as the not distant Saturnia spa, one of many: for a short period the Sorano spa was open to the public: it boasts an open air thermal lake. A true moment of relaxation is also possible in the spas with completely free access to the "Bagnaccio" or "Bullicame", bordering the Tuscia. The underground water is also one of the reservoirs of the beautiful Lake of Bolsena which has no affluent or defluent and whose temperature never drops below 17° C. The southern shore is entirely dedicated to olive groves while the northern one accommodates thick vegetation and industrial landfills are no longer permitted: diving into this body of water full of fish is a panacea for the body and for the soul.
The local food and wine are unmissable qualities here: a land of wild boars and of good wine, the Maremma cuisine never disappoints! In this area the wine of the Corsortium of Pitignano dominates, with an invitation to taste local wines produced by many small producers, not to mention the famous Morellino di Scansano. The medieval-inspired soups, such as the aforementioned Tuscan soup, are complemented by delicious homemade pasta topped with sauces typical of the place. Just think of the garlic picci (home-made pasta) or, indeed, the wild boar ragout. Not to mention the great animal of the Maremma woods, lamb has a place of honour on the menu here. The influences from Lazio are obvious. The Etruscan tombs and Roman cellars hold pit cheeses, such as the pecorino ones or the famous one of Manciano, well matured. For desserts worthy of mention are the "sfratto" of Pitigliano: a preparation of Pitigliano of Jewish origins reminiscent of the time when in the seventeenth century the messengers of Cosimo de' Medici forced the Jews of the area to move to the Ghetto. In fact the sfratto, with its elongated shape, recalls just a stick.
Land of hiking and horseback riding, the Maremma is a place to be discovered day by day to lose oneself and to find oneself again, forgetting time, immersing oneself in nature and in ancient history. The Maremma tours offer relaxing moments away from the usual busy streets for a weekend that also allows you to breathe adventure and discovery.
Grosseto: history beneath your feet
It is said that Grosseto is a town that defends its past: this is witnessed by its walls, completely intact which is only the case in three other Italian cities. But the mere presence of these same walls is not in fact a guarantee that you will find intact the historical and archaeological heritage. Despite the classic routes through the city leading you to visit some of the masterpieces of religious and private art, such as the Cathedral of San Lorenzo or the palace of the Aldobrandeschi or even the beautiful church of San Francesco, we prefer to suggest a different route around the city. We call it the "itinerary of wells" which should be interpreted with a different approach: downwards, towards that underground world that was so dear to the Etruscans, the most famous inhabitants of this area of land. The first well is that of the Spedale, in Piazza San Francesco, to the rear of the Church on the right. It dates back to the fifteenth century and here all the inhabitants of the houses in the north of the city collected water. At the centre of the Cloister of San Francesco there is instead the Pozzo della Bufala, reserved for the monks and nuns of the convent and built by the powerful Medici family. Moving towards Piazza d'Armi, in the inner part of the bastion, there is the Well of Fortezza, that a century later - in the sixteenth century - supplied water to the guards who defended the city. But since we are close to the boundary of Grosseto, we shall be leaving the centre for a few kilometres and heading for another place where we will have to look down: the archaeological site of the Etruscan city of Roselle. This was one of the twelve major cities of the ancient Etruria, the famous dodecapoli (twelve cities) and was founded in the seventh century BC despite the Villanovians already having lived here since the tenth century. Upon your arrival the surrounding walls are waiting for you, polygonal and clearly of megalithic mold. Together with the other polygonal walls of central Italy these walls remain an enigma and several scholars are prepared to admit that they cannot be Roman (Roselle must then be Roman) or Etruscan. The city overlooked a lake – that has now almost disappeared - and from the hill it dominated the territory and the underlying Ombrone river. Walk through the archaeological site always looking down and be enticed by the hall of graves or by the only mound grave. You are in the Etruscan necropolis: the world of the afterlife was as important as the land, both for the Etruscans and for the Romans. In fact, the same magnificence as a building for daily use or the bright amphitheatre of Roselle. With its elliptical shape, this theatre accommodated up to 1,200 spectators and the rooms in which the wild beasts were held before going onto the stage are still visible. Imagine this arena covered with sheeting erected to shelter guests from the sun and rain: if you again look downwards, at the edge of the arena, you will find the holes where the poles were attached for the covering. Roselle, in the area of the Roman Forum, also offers one of the few types of flooring with original travertine slabs: look down and see!
(di Massimo Frera)
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