I was reading one of the better quality English newspapers some time ago when I came across a piece on the Maremma written by an architecture and design personality flown in specifically to write something witty and erudite. He certainly made himself look clever and very well connected, crammed full as it was with references to famous people, many of whom had little or no connection to the Maremma. But his condescension and pomposity were on full display when he called it heartbreaking that his "sweet young waiter had never left the province of Grosseto".
Given that he described his waiter as young I'm sure there's still time for him to do so, but a comment like that is to completely misunderstand rural Italy and as for myself, I would be anything but heartbroken if I were to be exiled within the confines of the Maremma for the rest of my life. The waiter should perhaps have retorted that self-indulgent and superficial globetrotting to write powder puff travel articles is no longer socially acceptable behaviour when there are plenty of Italian based freelance writers who can write more genuine and useful articles.
However, the writer's real crime in my eyes was to dismiss Massa Marittima as not being a worthwhile Maremma destination without even going there, saying that he had been warned against it by a friend in Bologna with a 'wagging finger'. The nationality of his friend was not disclosed but I can't for a moment believe that he was Italian because, as Elena reliably informs me, when it comes to Tuscan towns Italians have always preferred places like Massa Marittima and Anghiari in the summer months over tourist destinations like San Gimignano for example, just as we do. And if anyone fails to be impressed by Massa Marittima then this is definitely the wrong website for you.
I come across lots of travel articles and blogs on Italy by many different English language authors and far too many of them are poorly written and riddled with factual inaccuracies. The worst ones tend to be internet blogs of course which are obviously not subject to any editorial oversight and if everyone expects everything to be free these days then who has the time or incentive to be rigorous if you’re not getting paid and if your followers are not smart enough to notice? But it has become clear to me that social media and 'influencers' in particular have been responsible for a huge backward step in the quality, accuracy, ethics and independence of writing.
Now, back to this beautiful and fascinating town that was held in such low regard by the writer's finger-wagging friend in Bologna.
There are several ways to approach Massa Marittima and we’ve arrived from every direction over the years and can attest to the fact that they are all quite dramatic. There are many things to like about Massa Marittima, starting with the fact that this is another example of a Maremma town that is not overburdened with suburbs so at least a couple of the entrances to the town are largely unchanged from centuries past.
Most Italian towns throughout history sensibly chose the high ground where possible (except for Lucca it seems) and the historical importance of Massa Marittima is immediately apparent when you see it’s location and the towering walls protecting the centro storico. As is often the case in Italy you’ll have to park outside and enter the centro storico on foot.
The first time we stayed here five years ago our small apartment was in fact contained entirely within the actual city walls, probably an old guard house as it was near one of the gates, and the walls here are so thick that the apartment didn’t even stretch across the full width of the walls. A bit gloomy inside I remember, but certainly atmospheric.
Massa Marittima is a compact town with Etruscan and then Roman origins and there is a Roman sarcophagus in the cathedral that dates from the 3rd century. Despite being at an elevation of 1,250 feet it didn't escape malaria and in 1737 its population had dwindled to only 527 as a result of another outbreak of the disease.
You can walk around the town quite easily but there’s a fair amount of up and down if you want to visit the castle at the top and you really should because these are where the great views are. From there you get a sense of the commanding position of the town and its perfect defensive position with visibility as far as the eye can see to the west and south. Our photographs don’t really do it justice because they were taken in the middle of a summer’s day when the heat haze obscured the islands of Elba, Montecristo and Capraia. We’ll return with a camera on a winter's day in the morning when even Corsica should be visible.
There is one main piazza in this town, named Piazza Garibaldi unsurprisingly, and one long main street but small is beautiful here because the piazza is a real gem. It’s a different shape to Piazza San Michele in Lucca and not as large but just like the Lucca piazza the one here is dominated by a magnificent cathedral and this one is also mostly in the Romanico Pisano style, finished at the end of the 13th century. The outside may not be quite as highly adorned as the Lucca church but the inside is more attractive.
There is a good balance in this town between the demands of tourism and the need to retain authenticity because it is not overrun by bars and restaurants. There are enough of them, but they don’t completely fill the piazza and the adjoining streets, and you can experience the history and the atmosphere of Massa Marittima much more as a result. It still looks and feels like a medieval Italian town and that’s why we keep coming back here and to the Maremma in general.
When you keep your eyes peeled in an Italian town there are always interesting historical clues to history, or perhaps for me it’s more a case of traveling with an Italian who studied history at the University of Florence rather than being particularly observant myself. Anyhow, there is an old stone relief on one of the walls here of Romulus and Remus suckling on the she-wolf. That is obviously the symbol of Rome but as the Romans never had dominion here there is another explanation for its presence.
The mythology around Romulus and Remus is that after Romulus founded Rome and killed his brother Remus, the two sons of Remus, Senius and Aschius, fled north on black and white horses. Senius then founded Siena while Aschius founded the nearby town of Asciano. Siena subsequently chose black and white for its city colors and adopted the same Capitoline wolf symbol as Rome, visible today on many of the ancient buildings in Siena. When Siena acquired control of Massa Marittima in the 14th century this symbol was probably attached to the wall here. When the Florentine Medici usurped Siena 200 years later they surprisingly left this symbol in place because elsewhere they were often very diligent in attaching their own Marzocco lion symbol in prominent places like this wall near the cathedral.
One of the more interesting and more amusing things about Massa Marittima that (literally) came to light recently is the centuries old painting above la Fonte dell'Abbondanza, which is the ancient public fresh water spring in the center of town. In 1999 during an extensive restoration of the building they discovered a large fresco depicting a 'tree of fertility' decorated with erect male genitalia. It dates back to the 13th century and because it was covered up for such a long time many of the colors are still quite vibrant. Centuries ago the adjacent building used to be the grain storage and therefore central to the life of the town and another reason why the fresco was painted here.
There are 25 complete sets of manhood, for want of a better description, dangling from branches of the tree like Christmas decorations with women gathered below, one reaching up to a branch and two other slightly demonic looking women either fighting over them or just collecting them. Because you can’t physically get too close to this painting in Massa Marittima due to the water feature in front of it you don’t initially realize what are on the branches but when you enlarge the photo it’s pretty clear.
Also, birds at this time were often depicted as dangerous and evil, as they are here, because they ate the farmer’s seeds as he sowed them in the fields, thereby reducing his harvest and even his ability to survive the winter. Apparently underneath this building there is an ancient tunnel measuring over 250 meters long and not quite 2 meters high, the purpose of which was to collect water filtered through the rocks. I understand that it's open to the public for guided tours but a long, dark, narrow drippy tunnel was not something we fancied.
As is often the case in Italy, you find some of the better restaurants away from the busy thoroughfares and one such restaurant down a side alley here that we've enjoyed a few times is Il Gatto e La Volpe (above).
A couple of the classic Tuscan dishes that they do well here are Pici all'Aglione and Acquacotta (right) and true to form, even though our last visit to this restaurant was on an earlier trip, Elena can always dig out the relevant photo when required.
You don't have to know much Italian to understand that the literal translation of acquacotta is 'cooked water' and as such it's very much a cucina povera dish. In the Casentino it didn't amount to much by way of sustenance and as part of the centuries old transumanza to the Maremma from the Apennines along the via Francigena and other trails, this dish migrated to the Maremma with the seasonal workers. So over time it also became traditional Maremma food of the shepherds, farmers and charcoal burners. And like many of the cucina povera dishes of old Italy it's very tasty and very healthy but it doesn't look like sufficient nourishment to power a full day's physical labor.