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The forgotten corner of Tuscany with mountains, beaches and empty villages

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While nowhere in modern Italy could be described as incognito, this corner of Tuscany attracts far fewer tourists than the rest of the region
While nowhere in modern Italy could be described as incognito, this corner of Tuscany attracts far fewer tourists than the rest of the region Credit: GETTY
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As a rule, tested over the years, I think it is good advice to follow the Etruscans... at least, over TripAdvisor. Long ago they settled in the loveliest parts of Italy. And our inheritance from them is made the more enigmatic and beautiful because we know so very little about what they thought. Their urns, altarpieces and burial chambers have to do the speaking on their behalf.

I was in the Maremma, the coastal plain of southern Tuscany stretching from Cecina to Civitavecchia, which remains scattered with Etruscan relics. At Vetulonia, the Mura dell’Arce, (or cyclopean walls) are still ruggedly in place; mute, but so redolent of disappeared power and purpose. Once, this marshy plain was the source of mal’aria, a disease thought to be caused by the evil breath of African serpents that overwhelmed the modest exhalations of local Christians. The “bad air” was complemented by local bandits, a combination which, understandably, led to the Maremma becoming reasonably deserted.

That was until the marshes were drained by Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany in the early 19th century. As the mosquitoes disappeared, so too did fears of African serpents’ breath and tranquil farming returned. The Maremma remains little unchanged today.

While nowhere in modern Italy could be described as incognito, this corner of the country is much less frequentatissima than Versilia to the north, with its busy resorts and beach clubs and world-weary luxury shops. The Italians who make play in Versilia’s Forte dei Marmi and do the weekly shop at Prada may find the Maremma a little rustic. And this, of course, is what makes it so appealing – there are few concessions to organised tourism.

Ninety minutes from Pisa’s Galileo airport, along the Roman via Aurelia, sits Castiglione della Pescaia. While this is not the capital of the Maremma – that honour belongs to Grosseto with its Etruscan-flavoured Museo Archeologico e d’Arte della Maremma – The Big Castle of the Fishes is a synecdoche of the area. Here, there is a beach club of sorts, the sand is grey, and there is a boatyard of generally industrial aspect.

Castiglione della Pescaia Credit: getty

It also has the best restaurant I have ever been to in Italy. The tiny Posto Pubblico has just eight covers inside with room for a few more outside if sunny and the cooking has a simple clarity revealing absolute confidence in the sourcing and execution. The Cech brothers who run it say they only do business with suppliers they respect. Accordingly, the green salad has “spontaneous” herbs while the bread was made with a starter originating in Bermondsey’s Maltby Street.

But geography is more a Maremma characteristic than the cooking. Another way of defining the Maremma is – broadly – the territory between two notable mountains. First, Monte Amiata, Italy’s highest extinct volcano, overlooks the beautifully barren Val d’Orcia which Iris Origo made famous in her elegant books. Second, Monte Argentario, overlooks Porto Ercole where the painter Caravaggio died of a fit on the dockside, escaping pursuers intent on arresting him for a murder committed in Rome.

Monte Amiata Credit: GETTY

From the coast here you can see the Tuscan archipelago of Giglio and Giannutri with Elba in the far distance. You can visit the Pellicano, one of the world’s great hotels, a late expression of la dolce vita, founded in the 1970s by a couple from Surrey, of all places. I may have been hallucinating, but I am sure I saw in the bar a photograph of Teddy Kennedy wearing aviator shades and grasping a bottle of Mateus Rose. But for all the Pellicano’s fabulousness, Maremma is closer to the Etruscans.

Cycling is in ascendant here and EasyBike in Castiglione della Pescaia offers guided e-bike tours for those absolutely determined on collective activities. Preferring privacy, we hired a guide to show us around the most navigable Strade Bianche dissestate and least punitive for the backside. We also used conventional mountain bikes with pedal power. Even with suspension, the white roads are hard work, but this is ideal cycling territory: you see no-one, the white roads are completely deserted, the black-tops are only lightly trafficked, and the terrain is generally flat, with enough occasional hills to justify a decent-sized lunch.

The Val d’Orcia Credit: GETTY

Having scoped the possibilities with Emiliano, our genial guide who spoke to us in a collision between American and what he called Doytch, we went off independently the following day with a picnic assembled from the Co-op in Grosseto – bread, cheese, ham and a bottle of Vermentino from Monteverro at Capalbio. The day had begun with violent squalls shaking the umbrella pines and cypresses that line the roads. By about 11 it had calmed down enough to head out, but at the point-of-no-return on a notably rough white road, it had become worryingly cold and the sky had turned purple-black.

So we headed uphill to the new Antinori winery at Le Mortelle, a building which looks as though it has been grafted onto the hill by a late James Stirling. As we puffed to a halt, a hesitant sun emerged. We parked in a loading bay, hauled a wooden pallet into a sheltered spot and watched violent hail shake the vines which would eventually produce Antinori’s Poggio alle Nane. There was strong sunshine before the thunder spots reappeared, but we were protected by Post Modern architecture. For 90 minutes we were completely alone in a sort of perfection.

Maremma cows Credit: GETTY

Grosseto itself has a slightly run-down air. The city grew after the Second World War so the centre is now outside the magnificent Medician walls. We began our evening with an aperitivo at Gustangolo, a splendid wine bar. We had booked into Il Canapone restaurant (a word which suggests “hemp” in reference to the colour of the Grand Duke’s beard), an institution from 1949, but it looked as though nobody had dined there since 1949, so we diverted to its cadet branch, a simple enoteca next door, and ate superbly; lingua salsa verde and lampredotto, a challenging dish of tripe.

An admirable centre for further exploration was L’Andana, a fine house on the Badiola wine estate. The name is untranslatable into British English, but Americans say “windrow”, in reference to the protective trees that line the roadside; in this case, alternating cypresses and umbrella pines along a spectacular approach up a white road perhaps a kilometre long, lined with Pliny’s cows. The house, once the summer residence of the Grand Duke himself, is now an elegant and pleasantly idiosyncratic hotel.

L’Andana

Alain Ducasse once ran the restaurant here, but no longer, for reasons undisclosed to the public. The Trattoria of L’Andana is now in the name of Enrico Bartolini, the Gordon Ramsay of Italy, who with properties in Milan, Bergamo, Venice, Monferrato, Borgo San Felice, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it’s reasonable to suspect he may not actually be over the stove cooking your own dinner. But he has had time to creep around the hotel leaving branded jars of nuts in the bedrooms.

Something appeared on a spoon. A knob of chicken liver mousse was made to look like an olive. The duck ham with potato spaghetti was decorated with pheasant feathers. You experience a moment’s hesitation about whether to eat the decoration. Even the crackers appeared in what looked like resin-bonded aggregate. This silliness may have won it a Michelin star but the signature dish is a visually spectacular and sensationally delicious risotto bright red with cima di rape and speckled with pungent gorgonzola. “Like Pollock,” the waiter said, referring to the drip painter. Gorgonzola? It is from Milan. Alas, Michelin does not acknowledge terroir and fears simplicity, so Bartolini serves no vegetables.

Eating on a rusted iron table on the lawn watching brown liveried staff storing cushions in the undercroft of the sweet little chapel where a generator hummed was much more pleasant. A simple spaghetti in fresh tomato sauce and stracciatella was followed by vitello cotto adagio, salsa tonnata e sedano croccante and carpaccio tuna. Each was perfect. Delightfully, the pasta tasted exactly like the Heinz tinned spaghetti of my childhood. And the tuna came with a dollop of citrus which gave me a Proustian rush of lemon curd while the Badiola wines were happily uncomplicated: the choice simply red, pink or white. Nicely, they are called Acqua Giusta, or “Honest Water”, a nod to the historic sanitary activities of the Grand Duke in the marshes.

Our enormous room was a comfortable delight: I presume, on account of its size, it had been the Grand Duke’s, although the furniture was amusingly ghoulish retro fakery. Service everywhere was amiable, relaxed and efficient in an unshowy way, but it was impossible not to see a slightly harrowing miniature of modern Italy in L’Andana. Russians ordering pink champagne at breakfast, noisy Americans in Lycra on e-bikes gathering outside. A sweet young waiter spoke to us in gently perfect English and explained, heartbreakingly, he had never left the province of Grosseto.

The village of Roccatederighi Credit: GETTY

Of niggles there were few, but L’Andana’s admirable remoteness meant that every excursion was a deterrent €120 taxi ride. What did we miss in the Maremma? I was sorry not to see the ancient Jewish quarter in Pitigliano. Massa Marittima? But we had been warned against it by a friend in Bologna with a wagging finger. Perhaps Follonica because the tired seaside is fascinating. Scansano? A longer excursion to the Val d’Orcia to revisit Radicofani, a perfect Tuscan hill town?

But there will be other opportunities because we will return. And what I have learnt is that the sure sign of quality in travel, hotels and in restaurants is whether you want to go back. The Etruscans were right. Alla prossima, as they say.

Getting there

BA (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com), jet2 (jet2.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly direct from the UK to Pisa from a range of airports.

Staying there

L’Andana at Localita Badiola (58043 Castiglione della Pescaia) has doubles from £245. 

Hotel Il Pellicano at Localita Sbarcatello (58019 Porto Ercole) has doubles from £353. 

Getting around

Bike rental from Easybike (maremmainbicicletta.com).

Eating and drinking

Posto Pubblico, via dell’Amore 1, 58043 Castiglione della Pescaia

Gustangolo, via San Martino 10, 58100 Grosseto (00 39 564 28105)

Enoteca Canapino, Piazza Dante 3-6, 58100 Grosseto (00 39 564 24546)

Fattoria Le Mortelle, Localita Ampio, 58043 Castiglione della Pescaia (lemortelle.it)