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Culture

It’s an easy drive out of Rome onto the “Aurelia”, the road that heads up the coast following the route of the old Roman road. Very quickly you are out of an urban environment and bowling through productive-looking vegetable growing areas, bordered by roadside verges vibrant with the colour of wildflowers. Turning off the main route after about an hour and a half’s drive, you reach the promontory of Monte Argentario.

On the peninsula, there are constant reminders of more belligerent times, particularly the series of “Castelle” or look-out towers that stud the coastline. At Porto Ercole, one of the two main towns on Argentario, the fortresses of La Rocca, Filippo, Santa Carolina and Stella dominate the hillsides above the perfect little natural harbour. Now that Porto Ercole is a place more associated with pleasure, good food, boats and relaxation the profusion of these fortifications rather takes one by surprise but adds another interesting angle to this incredibly picturesque little port. The other town on Argentario is Santo Stefano, a lively bustling port where you can catch the ferry to the neighbouring islands of Giglio and Giannutri. 

Arguably the most beautiful region of Italy and certainly one of its most cultural, here are just a few highlights and points of reference when navigating across the rolling Tuscan Hills in search of some hidden cultural wonders.

 
 
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I Giardino Dei Tarocchi by Niki de Saint Phalle

Something of a Bohemian Rhapsody, De Saint Phalle’s Giardino dei Tarocchi can be found in all its whimsical glory, a stone throw from the mediaeval town of Capalbio. With a nod to the likes of greats such as Gaudi or Pollock, I Giardino dei Tarocchi, was somewhat a labour of love for De Saint Phalle, which she privately funded and opened in 1998. The sculpture garden set in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, is made up of 22 elaborate houses, each based on a card taken from a deck of Tarot cards. Each house is comprised of a kitchen, a living room and a meditation space. “Life is a game of cards whose rules we do not know” is the central message that De Saint Phalle ascribed to her eccentric sculptures, that receive hundreds of visitors every year. 

Address: Località Garavicchio, 58011 Pescia Fiorentina, Capalbio GR, Italy

 
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Castello di Romitorio

If you are looking to savour some of the finest wine whilst being surrounded by the most beautiful works of art, produced by the esteemed contemporary artist Sandro Chia, then look no further than spending a day in the enchanting fortress of Montalcino. The somewhat imposing 12-century fortress and surrounding estate boasts 11 hectares of  bountiful vineyard.  Acquired by the great artist in 1984, Chia has since lovingly restored the estate to its former glory, which is now a showcase for his many masterpieces as well as hosting some of the most amazing selection of wines, grappa and olive oil. The winery has been producing wine for the past 20 years which is nothing short of exceptional, already receiving many accolades worldwide. Most recently Chia has established an impressive 3000 square meter cantina located within the castle. An ode both to the wine which it produces but of course the fine art which can be found there, the marriage of the two creates a stunning and most fascinating setting which is truly unique not to mention enriching for all the senses. Chia famously says that the wine produced is meant to embody the owner’s dedication and strive to artistic perfection. Castello di Romitorio’s wines include: Brunello di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Romito del Romitorio, Rosso di Montalcino, Ghiaccio Forte, Morellino di Scansano, Chianti Colli Senesi, and their white wine Costanza. Read More

Address: Loc. Romitorio 279, 53024 Montalcino SI, Italy

 
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Antica Fattoria, La Parrina

Tenuta la Parrina is one of the oldest historic farms that lies between the low hills of the Tuscan Maremma in a spectacular landscape with olive trees, wine yards and fields of grain. This Agriturismo is beautifully kept and not only offers guests a place to stay with 12 rooms and 4 apartments, but also a chance to visit the vineyard, dairy and nursery, as well as offering cooking lessons or indeed savouring the local produce in their Farm shop or Restaurant. There is little you can't do here, even if it's just to come away with a pot of honey, to savour the warmth and hospitality that can be felt at this renowned establishment, hence the reason that many flock here throughout the year.

Address: Strada vicinale della Parrina, 58010 Albinia GR, Italy

 
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Il Convento dei Passionisti

Immersed in the green woodland and perched up high in the hills of Monte Argentario, is the Convento degli Passionisti, a truly serene and inspiring spot for those who love nature, history or indeed good food - there is so much to be discovered in this secluded peaceful spot. Following the road which links Orbetello with Porto Santo Stefano one can find the route leading up to the Passionisti. Constructed in 1737 by S. Paolo della Croce, after a miraculous vision, in which the Virgin Mary indicated the exact parameter in which the Convent should be constructed. A beautiful building not to mention the splendid panoramic views of Orbetello and the Laguna in the far distance. I originally was taken here by family friends who have had a villa on the west coast of Monte Argentario for many years. In fact it was just after a Polo Match one late summer evening that we were all left rather ravenous, having undergone the strenuous task of sipping some potent sangria and watching the match unravel, languidly in the sun. It was decided that I Passionisti was the place to go to satisfy our empty stomachs. We reached the winding road up to the Monastery which opened out onto a main square. It was there that we were taken to a rather unassuming self service restaurant run by the monastery. With the initial mild disdain we filled up our paper plates with porcini crostini, polenta and wild boar, and sat down to the most delicious and wholesome meal, that I still remember to this day! A truly off the beaten track gem of a place, which is rustic, charming and the perfect way to spend an easygoing summer's evening amongst foodie friends!

Address: Strada Passionisti, Monte Argentario, GR 58019, 58019 Convento Padri Passionisti GR, Italy

 
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Forte Stella

Forte Stella is a handsome watchtower built just above Porto Ercole by the Spanish, amid the 16th century. Whilst there were many towers erected at this time there are few that are open to visitors and as spectacular as this. The fort is made up of two interlocking towers which give the impressive building its name "Forte Stella"  The inner fort is star shaped with towering walls and a sentry walk that protect a large open terrace below. To give one an idea of its history, the main entrance was once guarded by a wooden drawbridge and is instead today crowned by an archway with two large crests. Forte Stella is open to the public to explore throughout the year. The interiors are handsome and alone worth the visit, but really the views are what will leave you bewitched.

Also worth noting down, are the many exhibits and myriad of events and garden parties that pop up throughout the summer months.

Address: Loc. Forte Stella, 58019 Monte Argentario GR, Italy

 
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Palio di Siena

The Palio horse race in Siena, which takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, is one of the most colourful and historic events in Italy, dating back to 1281.

The bareback race attracts a huge crowd to the magnificent Piazza del Campo in the centre of the city and consists of over an hour of colourful pageantry and costumed processions as well as the race itself, which is over relatively quickly. The race is between 10 of the city’s “contrade” or districts with each contrade having its own racing colours. Only 10 out of 17 contrade participate in the race due to space restrictions.

If you ever attend the Palio you'll never forget the excitement of the night before the race. The streets are bathed with soft golden light from hundreds of torches and lanterns. Groups of noisy Geese, Panthers and Tortoises flock by on their way to dinner for thousands: each contrada lays out rows and rows of 50-foot-long tables in its largest square, and local restaurateurs serve up huge bowls of pasta, gigantic platters of meat and vegetables. Approximately 25,000 Sienese will eat in the streets that night - so close and yet so far away from each other.

On the day of the race, the church bell in the Mangio Tower sounds at 8am, as jockeys attend Mass with the Archbishop of Siena. Later the horses will be blessed in their contrade too. It is a great honour for the jockey to wear the colours of his contrade, but it is the horse that is the real star – unlike other horse races, the horse can even win without a jockey. The prize for the winner is ‘il Palio’, a secretly created silk banner.

Address: 53100 Siena, Province of Siena, Italy

 
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La Sagra

The Sagra is a proud celebrating of local food, traditions and community. It’s often run by a local association over a short period, a weekend or two, and it’s a whole family (from nonna to grandchild) and neighbour effort. Food is the main theme, be it a local ingredient (cherried, bonito, wild boar, porcini mushrooms, chestnuts) or a special dish (polenta, zuppadi funghi, tortilli maremmani). Quite often there’s live music or other entertainment, too. 

Capalbio has a Sagra di Cingarle, held in September every year. It’s one of the best known around and is over fifty years old. Wild boar is the main feature and you’ll find specialities such as ammazzafegati (‘liver killers’ - charmingly named spicy, wild boar and liver sausages), wild boar all cacciatore, polenta with wild boar stew, and aquacotta. Read more

 
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Bottarga di Orbetello

Approaching Orbetello from Monte Argentario, the southern Tuscan town seems to rise straight out of the lagoon, a little reminiscent of Venice. it’s a unique sight in Tuscany. 

The lagoon characterises and defines the city, and its created by two sand bars, the beautiful, long, soft sanded beaches of Feniglia and Gianella, which connect Monte Argentario to the Tuscan mainland. The historical centre of Orbetello is finger-shaped and juts out into the lagoon so that the town is surrounded almost completely by water. Being in Orbetello, you live and breath. 

Bottarga comes from the an Arabic word, botarikh, for cured fish eggs, a technique of preserving introduced to the lagoon town by the Spanish, who ruled Orbetello more than 500 years ago. Its is still made today by the fisherman’s cooperative of Orbetello. Traditionally, during the months of August and September, grey mulleys are carrying eggs, the fish are caught during their natural migration at the mouth of the lagoon, then worked entire by hand - egg sacs are removed carefully so as not to break them, cleaned, then placed under salt for brief curing, after which the egg sacs are rinsed and dried. 

Bottarga di Orbetello is different from that of Sardinia and other places. It’s stronger in flavour and softer in texture, so you can slice it and eat it with just a squeeze of lemon and a splash of olive oil on crostini. The longer you keep it, the darker and drier it gets until you need to grate it. 

Address: Via Giacomo Leopardi, 9, 58015 Orbetello GR, Italy