Thursday, May 11, 2006

Under the Tuscan radar: Hill towns, hot springs, no crowds

By John Geluardi
Bathe In Beauty: Vistors to the hot springs near Saturnia can relax in 98.6 degree water.
Jpjm Geluardi/Times
Bathe In Beauty: Vistors to the hot springs near Saturnia can relax in 98.6 degree water.

AS I WAS RIDING my bicycle past medieval watchtowers, lion-colored wheat fields and vast vineyards, a question kept popping into my head.

This is Tuscany; where are all the tourists?

The beautiful Fiora Valley in the hills of the Maremma province has managed to stay off most tourist itineraries because in the 19th century it had a bad reputation.

Authors such as D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forester and Henry James fixed the popular tourist destinations that exist today by writing about their travels to romantic Tuscan locations. They never visited the Fiora Valley, however, because in the late 1800s, it was a place to avoid.

In those days, travelers first had to cross a malaria-ridden bog before winding their way along the dodgy roads of the rugged Fiora hills. Then there were the locals -- typically isolated, very poor and mistrustful of the outside world -- who were widely known for discouraging visitors. Oh, did I mention the bandits?

But that was in the past. The bogs were drained in the 1950s, the locals now eagerly welcome visitors, and the bandits have long since ridden into the golden Tuscan sunset. But the valley has managed to remain a secret despite its stunning landscapes, classic regional cuisine and natural hot springs.

I discovered the Fiora Valley when a friend recommended the Cultura Italiana language school at Manciano. I wanted to settle into an Italian community and experience the rhythms of local culture in a way that is impossible with a busy travel itinerary.

It turned out to be one of the best travel choices I ever made. The teachers at the Cultura Italiana were not only good language instructors, but part of the course work is to introduce students to the valley's local culture and unique history, which dates back to antiquity. The region is known for some of the most extensive Etruscan archaeological sites in Italy. (In fact, one of the instructors at Cultura Italiana is noted archaeologist and author Erika Maderna, who lives in the valley.)

Even if you chose not to sharpen your language skills, the Fiora Valley is a great place to spend a week or take a two-day respite from a hectic travel schedule.

The valley is perhaps best-known for its natural hot springs. When the Roman Empire was busy with that whole world domination thing, wounded Roman soldiers were sent to the Fiora Valley to recover in the healing waters and pastoral settings. Today clients of the world-class spa, Terme di Saturnia, are almost exclusively well-to-do Italians, with a smattering of American and British movie stars who appreciate the valley's seclusion.

The spa is built on the location where hot springs gurgle up from the earth at a cozy 98.6 degrees. The spa offers hundreds of pampering treatments that include massage and beauty and thermal treatments. To broaden the spa's attraction to American tourists, a driving range was added, and an 18-hole course is nearing completion.

If you just want to take a quick dip in the rejuvenating waters, there is a public falls complete with scalloped bathing pools, just down the road. It's a perfect place to stop after a long bicycle ride.

Reach John Geluardi at or 510-262-2787.