Thursday, May 11, 2006
Life & Culture  

Eat, drink and learn Italian in Fiora Valley

By John Geluardi

THE BROAD EXPANSES of farmlands, rolling hills and ancient oak forests in the Fiora Valley are punctuated by medieval villages that invite exploration.

When I wasn't in Italian class in the hilltop town of Manciano, or studying at a nearby cafe, I was touring one of the valley's stone-pathed villages.

Each village is unique, though they typically radiate downward in all directions from a castle and watchtower. The towns, within a bicycle ride of each other, are easily explored on foot.

Because high ground was more defensible 700 years ago, each village has its own stunning view of the valley.

Visit Pitigliano for the first time at night. The town appears to have been carved out of a massive tufa plateau. The sheer rock wall and stone buildings on top it are bathed in light, which creates a stunning effect.

From the 15th century through the 1930s, Pitigliano had a large Jewish population. In a section of town formerly known as Little Jerusalem, there is a beautifully restored 16th century synagogue, a Jewish cemetery and the vestiges of the Forno delle Azzime, a kosher bakery.

Dramatic view

The village of Semproniano has the most dramatic views of the valley. From the battlements of the abandoned castle, the sprawling oak forests and a deep Albegna River gorge sided by sheer granite walls are breathtaking.

And if you visit Semproniano, don't miss a chance to have dinner at Il Mullino, one of the best restaurants in Tuscany. The dining area is small, only about eight tables, which are set up under the vaulted ceilings of a 600-year-old grain silo.

Chef Maria Giuseppina Baldazzi runs the restaurant with her husband, Giampolo. For Baldazzi, known as "Pina" throughout the region, food preparation is a high art. She is an aficionado of both Tuscan and Roman cooking traditions; and regional cookbooks, some more than 150 years old, are placed in honored niches in the dining areas. There are no menus. Pina prefers to recite the daily dishes. And don't ask the prices in advance or she'll be insulted.

For a real after-dinner treat, ask Pina for a small glass of her special homemade "kissing grappa," which she distills from rare wildflowers she forages in the nearby forests. She claims it inspires affection among her customers.

Villages to savor

• Rocchetta di Fazzio is a small village that has changed little in the past 700 years. Once a fortress, it was built into a steep rock outcropping that overlooks the Albegna River. The Spanish overtook the small but formidable fortress in 1536 and for many years after it was abandoned. Now there is a cafe, small restaurant and about 40 residents who live in old stone houses and a converted castle.

• The best time to visit the town of Manciano is during the mid-September harvest celebration when local farmers, vintners and artists display their products and wares at the Festa delle Cantine.

For three days and nights, the town shuts down and the streets swell with people who come from miles around to sample the region's wines, olive oils, cheeses and wild boar prosciutto.

Each night, the narrow streets are thronged with locals and visitors who go from one underground wine cellar to the next, listening to live music, dancing and sampling the new vintage of the region's hearty Morellino Di Scansano. Morellino, a kissing cousin of Chianti, are beginning to develop an international reputation.

One of the interesting things about the Fiora Valley is its American-styled wild West history. The area was known for its cowboys (or butteri in Italian) who were skillful riders. So skillful in fact, that locals won't miss an opportunity to tell you how the butteri beat the American riders of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, in a series of horsemanship competitions during a 1911 competition in Rome.

The Maremma was also known for its colorful bandits. During the 19th century the rugged Fiora Hills were a natural stronghold for outlaws who plundered the ranches of wealthy land barons in the Maremman lowlands and fled into the Fiora Valley, where the impoverished farmers treated them like heroes.

The most famous and beloved brigand was Domenico Tiburzi, widely known as the Italian Robin Hood. The charismatic Tiburzi was able to avoid the authorities for more than 25 years, until lawmen tracked him to a small farmhouse in 1896. Old and lame, he was killed after a short gun battle. Eager to make an example of the dead bandit, lawmen tied his body to a tree and placed his shotgun in his gnarled hand as if he were alive. However, the photo backfired because it reminded the poor, and very Catholic, local farmers of the Crucifixion, making Tiburzi a martyr and symbol of the Fiora Valley's independent spirit.

That photo of Tiburzi can still be seen on the walls of the valley's cafes, restaurants and farmhouses.

After my Italian-language course was completed, I told the Cultura Italiana's director, Stella Anna Maria Papaluea, that I was going to miss the Fiora Valley. She told me not to worry.

"Our little school may not have the most students in Italy, but we have the most students who return," she said. "So I am sure we will see you again."

Reach John Geluardi at or 510-262-2787.