The Maremma is a part of southern Tuscany that is valued for its special natural environment. The Maremma National Park stretches from Talamone, a stunning medieval coastal town to Principina a Mare just to the south of Grosseto. It is regarded as the most varied and distinctive of the natural parks in Italy and incorporates the Uccellina hills, the Trappola marshes with their abundance of bird life and the flat plains at the mouth of the River Ombrone, where you find herds of Maremman horses and cattle with their distinctive lyre-shaped horns. Bizarrely the Maremma has its own brand of cowboy, the butteri, who famously challenged and defeated Buffalo Bill and his cowboys in 1905 to a horse-breaking and cattle-roping competition when William Cody’s “Wild West Show” was visiting Italy. The butteri continue practising their traditions and can be seen at village fairs or on the last remaining cattle ranches in the area.
The park also has miles of beautiful beaches, practically deserted because you are not allowed to drive into the park and so access is on foot. You amble through the aromatic Mediterranean scrub (known as macchia) perhaps visiting one of the Castelle or the splendid ruin of the San Rabano monastery on the way. Keep your eyes peeled for a sight of wild boar, the ingredient of many of the Maremma’s most famous dishes. The main entry point for the park is at Alberese where there is a visitors centre, from there you are taken into the park by bus and provided with a map of the different walks.
The name Maremma is derived from the Spanish word “marismas” meaning swamp and originates from the sixteenth century when the area came under Spanish influence. Though the area had, millennia before, been the centre of the Etruscans sphere of influence, it was subsequently neglected and became uninhabitable, mosquitoes thrived in the swampy conditions and brought pestilence in the form of malaria. “Cursed be the Maremma” are the words of an old woodsmen’s song. The vital drainage and terracing work undertaken by the Etruscans was neglected by the Romans and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a rigorous programme of land reclamation, facilitated by technical developments, made the area the productive, ecologically diverse place it is today.
Some of the most significant Etruscan remains in the area are found at Sorana which rises from a mound of sheer volcanic rock (tufa) overlooking the deep valley formed by the River Lente. Here you can see the “Vie Cave” an impressive labyrinth of pathways cut into the tufa stone that connected Sorano to the surrounding necropolises and to all the other important Etrurian towns. There is also a spectacular sixteenth century fortress in the town, worth seeing as a perfect example of Renaissance military architecture.
Nearby, the town of Pitigliano has an even more spectacular elevated position on a high bastion of tufa, punctured with the entrances to caves and tunnels burrowing into the rock. The Museo della Diocesi there is crammed with valuable Etruscan finds.
At Sovana, which completes this triangle of fascinating historic towns, we find tombs from the 7th century BC, the earliest period of Etruscan civilisation. The town became pivotal in the period of the Etruscan civilisation’s greatest splendour and again became important in the Middle Ages as is evident from the quality of its medieval buildings. The 11th century Duomo is an exceptional example of Romanesque architecture that was later modified and restored.
After absorbing all this culture a trip to the hot springs of Saturnia is the perfect tonic. The therapeutic qualities of its steaming springs have been appreciated since Roman times. There is a large public bathing area just outside the town on the road to Montemerano or you can visit the Hotel Terme di Saturnia, an exclusive spa resort which has pools and facilities for day visitors.
Alternatively a bit of wine tasting might be a good antidote to a surfeit of culture. A visit to La Parrina just north of Orbetello is different kind of aesthetic experience. This 18th century Tuscan estate produces not only wine but also vegetables, fruit, cheese, olive oil and honey. There is a wonderful farm shop there which people drive all the way from Rome to visit (despite the fact the estate has two shops there) where you can sample all the produce. Tours of the cheese making can be arranged – make sure to try the ubriaca or “drunk pecorino” which is left to mature in a wine barrel lined with grape skins.