The ‘road trip’ is an American thing and after living in the US for 26 years I made my fair share of epic cross country road trips that took several days and always produced interesting surprises, probably because all of them were done using maps rather than cellphone navigation systems. To enjoy a road trip you need an adventurous spirit, a relaxed itinerary, an open road and of course beautiful scenery and interesting stops, some of which should be spur-of-the-moment decisions otherwise where’s the fun? It goes without saying that driving hundreds of miles solely on a freeway or autostrada doesn't really qualify as a proper road trip.
Italy may be a lot smaller than the US but it has plenty of quiet roads and all the other ingredients that make can touring pleasurable and you don’t have to actually spend too much time in the car. The US is such a homogenous and well connected country that you always need to drive a long way before accents, customs and food change (actually the food never really changes much) but the mountainous nature of much of Italy means that very often the next valley over is completely different in every respect to the one you’re in because of centuries of inaccessibility.
We’ve mentioned elsewhere how much we like the Maremma, which takes up the whole of south west Tuscany and also extends a little way into Lazio. It’s a vast, sparsely populated area with no towns of any size once you leave the coastline. There are no hard and fast boundaries to exactly define the Maremma but for most people it starts at Cecina and ends in Lazio somewhere south of Tarquinia, a distance of about 120 miles. It stretches inland not quite to Siena in the north and then you can draw a line south-east through Monte Amiata to Lago di Bolsena and down to Viterbo.
The largest chunk of it lies within the province of Grosseto and around the town of the same name near the coast you see why this was an area that spawned both an expletive still in use in Tuscany Maremma maiala! and a sad lament ‘Maremma amara’ (bitter Maremma), not sung anymore but still remembered. There are natural wetlands here that were once a large basin known as lake Prile together with marshy swamps and for centuries these provided an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. Malaria was rife and the genesis of this word, mal aria, (literally ‘bad air’) is because not until well into the 19th century were mosquitos finally recognized as the real source of this deadly disease.
The same engineer, Leonardo Ximenes, who built the Lucca to Modena road over Abetone made the first real progress in draining the marshes and channeling the water and his legacy can be seen just outside Castiglione della Pescaia in the Diaccia Botrona nature reserve where his original 18th century pumping station still stands.
But the malaria persisted and the Maremma was a place where seasonal workers came to work the land for absentee landlords and many didn’t return, hence both the expletive and the song. As late as 1862 it’s estimated that 40% of the population of Grosseto was infected with malaria. Quinine wasn’t prescribed until 1900 and full eradication had to wait until the 1950s with the use of DDT.
But even with malaria eradicated the flooding potential of much of this area has not diminished when there are exceptionally heavy rains as happened in 2012 in November (always a big rain month in Italy). There were devastating floods across 200 square miles around Grosseto and also in Sorano, Saturnia and Capalbio including many of the Etruscan archeological sites all around this area.
So why do we like the Maremma so much, particularly the central and southern Maremma? Several reasons. The most obvious being the way that history has shaped this area, or perhaps better stated as the way that history has left the Maremma alone. There is plenty of ancient history here, because the Maremma has many of the most important Etruscan archeological sites in Italy and there’s a good amount of medieval history too, but there was very little development through all of the malarial centuries that followed. Although the coastal towns experienced growth after the war, especially with tourism, the interior of the Maremma saw only an expansion of agriculture rather than much physical development. Grosseto remains by far the most populous Maremma town with only about 82,000 inhabitants today.
The result is that you come across small medieval towns, often with relatively intact defensive walls, that look like they did 500 years ago. They have no little or no suburbs outside the walls and are surrounded by pristine countryside. This is what amazes me as you travel around this part of the Maremma because usually in Italy you have to fight your way through an ugly periferia before you arrive at a well preserved centro storico. At least in Lucca the wide greensward around the walls allows you to imagine how it would have looked centuries ago, but in many towns in the Maremma no imagination is required.
As you approach some of these towns while passing open fields and olive groves you see them almost exactly as Caravaggio would have done in 1610 before his death in the Maremma seaside town of Porto Ercole.
Another reason to love the Maremma on a road trip is that the scenery is easy on the eye, the countryside is gently undulating unlike the steep Chianti hills so there are views that stretch all the way to the sea or to Monte Amiata looking east.
The topography is so pleasant here and the roads so quiet that it's a popular destination for many bike touring companies that cater to cyclists who want some exercise with their holiday rather than the serious cyclists and professionals who love the big mountains around Lucca. I've been on numerous bike tours across most of the middle and north of Italy and I think the Maremma is potentially as good as any of them, if only because of the lack of traffic.
The lack of mountains in the core of the Maremma and the fact that the sea is never too far away gives this area the best climate in Italy in our opinion. Florida may be officially known as the Sunshine State and California the Golden State but the Maremma gets as much actual sunshine as either of them during the six months from April to October with clear skies and not much rain. And once the two wetter months of November and December have passed there are plenty of sunny skies and mild temperatures through the rest of the winter.
It’s also a very fertile region today that is exploited to the full with the entire panoply of Mediterranean crops including vines, olives and sunflowers; the famous but actually relatively new wine district of Bolgheri is firmly within the northern part of the Maremma and the wine potential of much of the central area has yet to be fully explored.
We've been looking for some good value wineries to profile in the central Maremma but there are a lot of overpriced wines produced here and it's not an easy task.
The Maremma became famous for its cowboys in the 19th century with their herds of cattle and tradition of taming wild horses. The emptiness and much of the countryside here resembled the American west (in fact the climate and terrain are very similar to the Central Coast of California around Paso Robles) and were ideal for the tough Maremma breed of cattle.
Know as butteri, the Italian cowboys' skills were recognized more widely in Italy when Buffalo Bill brought his traveling show to Rome in 1890 and challenged Augusto Imperiali to tame an American foal, a contest that the Italian buttero duly won. The working butteri today are almost all gone but a few still exist on the Maremma Regional Park lands south of Grosseto and if you have experience with horses you can even book a full morning's ride with the butteri at Tenuta di Alberese which maintains a herd of over 500 cattle.
You would think that with all of this the Maremma would attract more visitors, especially given the fact that no part of it is more than a two hour drive from either Pisa airport or Rome airport and it has by far the best and most deserted coastline in Tuscany. Notwithstanding our affection for Pietrasanta and Viareggio out of season, I don’t know why anyone would prefer the Versilia shoreline over the Maremma coast in summer unless swarthy middle aged men wearing gold chains with too many shirt buttons undone is your thing.
Even the lovely Val d’Orcia, being more famous, is always more crowded, much more expensive and completely lacks access to the sea. The Maremma is certainly more rustic, harder to get to know well and perhaps suffers from the lack of a signature city to anchor it in people's minds. But whatever the reason, the Maremma remains largely undiscovered and is never congested and that’s another big point in its favor in the summer months.
In Part 2 of this article we carve out a reasonably compact section of our favorite part of the central Maremma and describe an easy and enjoyable itinerary for a road trip and then in separate articles later we'll expand on four of our preferred towns in this area.
At a later stage we'll cover the eastern section of the Maremma where there are lots of interesting towns along the border with Lazio and then after that the northern part, which we know very well, that includes Suvereto, Campiglia Marittima and Castagneto Carducci.