If Tuscany were a family dynasty, Maremma would be the non-ruling cousin nobody has ever heard of, who lives very pleasantly and richly while minding his own business. Although its beaches are packed in the summer (mainly by Italians), its inland areas are very much to be discovered, and if there are tourists during the rest of the year, they’re so spread out you wouldn’t notice them. Just as the entire region of Tuscany likes to boast that it has everything – sea, mountain, valleys and towns – the vast extension of the area called Maremma has it all in a microcosm. The long summer – from May through October – is the best time to visit and take in a sampling of all Maremma has to offer. I have been doing so regularly for years, finally buying a home in a small inland town in order to be closer to an area that we find relaxing and beautiful.
Castiglione della Pescaia, a beach a few miles north of the town of Grosseto, is no hidden secret, but its sandy beach and pristine water are almost unrivaled in the whole of central Italy. It is frequented by Tuscans, Romans, and a few lucky Germans in-the-know, and boasts the coveted ‘Blue Flag’ award every year for its cleanliness and good services. You can walk the entire length of a 6 kilometer (3.5 miles) bay that is mostly dotted with orderly umbrellas and sun beds, rented on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis, that are part of ‘bagni’ that offer bars, restaurants, and washrooms. Val Bona is one such establishment that is known for its good fish restaurant at lunch. There are two free beach areas in this bay; get there early for a spot in the paid parking lot. The Riva del Sole resort takes up a long stretch of this beach and offers the most services of the whole area; see below ‘Where to Stay.’ It also has a windsurfing school.
The more adventurous should head to Fiumara beach, which is accessed by a sandy road through the woods off the coastal road between Castiglione della Pescaia and Marina di Grosseto (ask for directions). The sandy beach here is deeper than at Riva del Sole, the wind blows harder, and the people look sportier. In the late afternoon, the sky here becomes dotted with the colourful sails of kite-surfers who whip along the water – a sight to see! It’s all free beach here except for the small but posh bathing establishment of the same name, which at sundown becomes an upscale fish restaurant; see below ‘Where to Eat.’
Maremma prides itself on its attention to sustainability: it has 40,000 hectares of natural reserves, many of which are the lowlands that, until after the last world war, were uninhabitable swamps. Drained only in recent memory, this geography is what lends the area an untouched feeling. Hikers and birders will find themselves in paradise in the reserves, information about which is available on the official website www.maremmariservadinatura.it (only in Italian).
25 kilometers of coast and contingent hillside is allocated to the Parco Regionale della Maremma, where it really feels like you have stepped back in time (and perhaps outside of Italy)! If you’re into plants you’re in for a treat, for the various areas of the park (forest and hill versus sandy coast) present an impressive variety of species. Animals also abound, from the wild Maremman horses to hares, hedgehogs and wild boar (beware of the latter – don’t get close!). In the sky above the woods you’ll see skylarks and barn owls, while in the rocky areas you might see a majestically swooping peregrine falcon. To access the park, you must leave your car in the parking area at Marina di Alberese, where there is an information booth and shuttle service into the park. While it is open year round, service is reduced from December to March and the trails are very isolated. In the Spring you can still park right at the beach and go for a walk along it – see photo above. Get full information at www.parco-maremma.it.
Further south, the WWF Oasis near Orbetello (Via del Ceriolo, Km 148 on the SS Aurelia road, tel (39) 0564/870198) is one of the access points to a natural reserve that offers three main hiking routes. The birding route (open September through April) is a classic favourite; an easy walk with nine huts for resting and optimum observation of wildlife.
In the past 25 years or so, the open views and good air of Maremma, as well as the low cost of property in some parts, has attracted contemporary artists who, in a few cases, have blessed us with art parks. The most famous is certainly Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden at the southernmost part of Maremma near the town of Capalbio. I have written about this park, where Tommaso and I had our first date! The eccentric French artist, who was married to Jean Tinguely, created a fairytale, Gaudi-esque world on a large wooded property. Massive mosaic-covered structures you can walk into and on top of dominate the landscape, while, in the woods, you come across smaller colourful pieces in metal and resin. Open April through October, 2:30-7:30pm, tickets cost 12 euros but are worth every cent.
Fewer people know of a private park by a living artist, Rodolfo Lacquaniti’s Giardino Viaggio di Ritorno. Rodolfo’s sustainable living quarters and rental apartments are on an farm property near Castiglione della Pescaia that now appears to grow large, very interesting abstract sculptures with an underlying philosophy. He receives no funding and takes two hours of his own time to show you around, so offers visits about once a month, by reservation (phone or write the artist, who does not speak English, at (39) 0564/948904, email@example.com).
Anywhere you dig in Maremma you’re likely to run into an Etruscan artifact. Take any back road and you’ll see plenty of brown signs pointing to ruins in various states of, well, ruin! Most are now fenced off and some are seldom open. Two of the best preserved Etruscan habitations are Roselle and Populonia, though Vetulonia (closest to the beach at Castiglione) is also very good. Visits to these areas require a lot of walking, so wear sturdy shoes, sunscreen and a hat, and carry water; avoid the hottest times of the day or go in the Spring.
The visitor services and information at Roselle is some of the best I’ve seen; you are given a map and there are informative boards that explain each item along the path, from public baths to once-luxurious private villas. In the summer, plays and tango dance nights are held in the area’s oval ampitheatre.
Populonia is the only Etruscan habitation on the seaside (they knew a good thing when they found it). This very large archaeological area has a necropolis at sea level and an acropolis with amazing views on the hillside overlooking the water, next to the current town of Populonia Alta where tired visitors can happily dine.
Where to stay
The area offers an ample range of accommodation from 5-star resorts to comfortable B&Bs and numerous nice agriturismi. You can search for what you need on the official site http://grosseto.toscanaeturismo.net.
Riva del Sole
Loc. Riva del Sole, Castiglione della Pescaia (GR)
The convenience of having it all at this 4-star village. Room price or weekly apartment comes with reserved spot on the beach. Spa, supermarket and restaurants on the property.
Agriturismo La Rombaia
Loc. La Rombaia, Castiglione della Pescaia (GR)
With about a dozen apartments decorated in the Tuscan style, a pool, free bikes and other services, this is a good home base for a week’s stay.
Where to eat
Locanda La Luna
Via del Podere, 8
Tirli (Castiglione della Pescaia, GR)
Fine linens and modern crystal ware create an upscale atmosphere at this restaurant in the small hill town of Tirli that serves a refined, local cuisine for rather reasonable prices. Try the cinghiale.
via Malenchini 38, Braccagni (GR)
Off the main street of a small town best known for its rail crossing sits an unassuming Slow Food restaurant with a brilliant sommelier and some of the most creative and delicious menus of the whole Maremma. Get the daily fish menu.
Bar Ristorante La Spiaggia
Loc. Fiumara, Marina di Grosseto
Leave the heels at home for this is dining on the sand. It feels like a secret only you know, perfect for a romantic dinner or a small wedding. Excellent fresh fish. Dinner only, reservation required.
This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of the Dream of Italy newsletter.