Ich spreche Italiano
By John Geluardi
14 Sep, 2005, 20:58
I love you Maremma
You finish where you marry
The sea in a
Gown of sunsets
Anonymous engraving in the castle watchtower at Mancian
It might come as a surprise to some, but there is still a little known Tuscan valley that has beautiful landscapes, natural hot springs and excellent local cuisine.
I discovered the Albegna Valley in the province of Maremma last fall. After several trips to Italy, I decided to improve my language skills and began looking for a two-week immersion course.
My previous trips to Italy seemed like a whirlwind of towns and museums so I wanted to find for a school in a small town where I could get to know the locals a bit and experience Italian culture in a way the typical jam packed travel itinerary doesn’t allow.
I chose the Cultura Italiana, a language school in the hilltop town of Manciano, because I had heard whispers that the Albegna Valley is one of the last undiscovered treasures in Tuscany.
Until early in the 20th Century, the remote Albegna Valley was difficult to access from the larger towns near the Tyrrhenian Sea because of the marshy Maremman plains (the bogs were finally drained in the 1950s) and the rugged slopes of the Fiora Hills. The valley was a natural stronghold for bandits who plundered the large ranches in the Maremman lowlands and then fled into the Fiora Hills where poor farmers were glad to harbor them.
The brigand Domenico Tiburzi, often referred to as the Italian Robin Hood, was the region’s most infamous and beloved desperado. Finally, after 25 years of unchecked marauding, the Italian government grew tired of the Maremman land barons complaints and in 1896 an elite team of state police from all over the country was formed to track him down and kill him.
They caught up with Tiburzi on small farm where he had been hiding and after a short gunfight, he was killed. But to this day Tiburzi enjoys a warm place in valley folklore and his framed picture can be seen hanging on the walls of farmhouses, trattorias and cafés
There is no train service in the valley so at Grosseto, I boarded a bus and began the scenic trip across the broad Maremman plains and up into the rolling farmlands and forests of the Fiora Hills.
Manciano has a confusing grid of narrow streets and walkways that twist and loop up to the 700-year-old castle at the hill’s cornice. However, the town is small enough that you find what you’re looking for sooner rather than later. Locals are well aware of this and when asked for directions, they smile and gesture upwards with a flat hand that wiggles like a large fish swimming up a shallow stream.
I checked in at the three-room school and was given the daily class schedule and study materials. Classes were held for three hours in the morning and after class there were another two or three hours of study. The work was intense, but there was plenty of time for exploring the vineyards, hot springs and small medieval villages that surround the valley.
The school had made arrangements for me to stay at the Fattoria Pianetti, a farm about five miles outside town. The farm’s owner, Roberto Guzzetti, showed me to a small, but comfortable room in the old stone farmhouse where I would stay for two weeks. He was also kind enough to let me use an old mountain bike to get around on.
Like many farmers in the valley, Roberto was building an upscale agriturismo ¬— a sort of bed and breakfast on a working farm. The agriturismi have become popular in recent years with stressed urban dwellers who enjoy the slower, more natural rhythms of farm life as well as dining on the fresh produce, meats and cheeses.
I ate most of my meals at the Fattoria Pianetti. Nearly all of the ingredients the cook used were produced on the farm. Roberto was especially proud of the farm’s olive oil, which came from trees that have been producing olives for over 500 years. Restaurants in the Albegna Valley also pride themselves on using the freshest ingredients and preparing them according to traditional standards of Tuscan cooking.
The regional specialty is le carni di cinghiale, or wild boar meat, which has been a staple in the Maremma for hundreds of years. Wild boar finds its way onto valley tables in pasta sauces, stews, sausage, salami and prosciuttos. The flavor of wild boar is distinct from ham and is sometimes described as “sweet” or “nutty.” Wild boar is also much leaner and lower in cholesterol and calories than its ham cousin.
The Maremma is slowly gaining an international reputation for its wines. Especially the rich Morellino Di Scansano, which is made from a strain of the Sangiovese grape used in Chianti.
One of the best times to visit the Albegna Valley is in mid-September when local farmers, vintners and artists display their products and wares at the Festa delle Cantine in Manciano. 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 olive oils, cheeses and wild boar prosciuttos.
After dark, each of the Manciano’s many wine cellars open their doors so the public can sample the wines that have been aging in oak casks in the cool underground cellars. All night the town teems with people who go from one cellar to the next drinking wine and dancing to the live music outside each cellar. The festival is capped off each night with a stunning fireworks display that can seen from all over the valley.
The roads in the Albegna Valley are ideal for bicycling and when I had free time after class, I took afternoon trips to explore the local villages. Each town is unique but typically they radiate outward from a fortress or castle keep. They are easily explored on foot and each offers its own stunning views of the valley and from some it’s possible to see across the plains to the Tuscan coastline.Pitigliano makes the best first impression if visited at night. The town appears to have been carved out of a massive rock plateau. The sheer rock wall and stone buildings on top it are bathed in light for an impressive effect. For hundreds of years, Pigigliano had a large Jewish population and in a section of town formerly known as Little Jerusalem, there is a beautifully restored 16th century synagogue, a Jewish cemetery and the remains of the Forno dellle Azzime, a kosher bakery.
The village of Semproniano is a great place to see views of the valley at their most dramatic. From the battlements the abandon castle it is possible to see the sprawling oak forests and a deep river gorge sided by sheer granite walls. In addition, Semproniano has one of the best restaurants in Tuscany. Il Mullino is a small place with only eight tables. It’s situated in a series of old grain silos, which oddly had high, vaulted ceilings that are quite elegant. It’s run by Chef Maria Giuseppina Baldazzi (known throughout the region as “Pina”) and her husband Giampolo. Pina, an aficionado of Tuscan and Roman cuisines, regards food preparation as a religious calling rather than a career. There are no menus at Il Mulino, and Pina herself recites the daily menu to her patrons. For a real treat, ask Pina for a small glass of her special homemade “kissing grappa,” which she claims inspires affection and warmth among her customers who are otherwise strangers.
The most charming village in the valley is Rocchetta di Fazzio, which has changed very little since the 14th century. Walking into Rocchetta di Fazzio is like stepping into a fairy tale. 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 afterwards it was abandoned. Now there is a café, small restaurant and about 40 residents who live in old stone houses and converted castle.
After long bike rides, I would stop for a relaxing soak at the natural hot springs next to the old mill near the town of Saturnia, which is very close to where I was staying at the Fattoria Pianetti. The 98.5-degree water flows out from the hillside and down a series of scalloped shaped pools that serve as large tubs.
For those looking for more rigorous thermal pampering, the nearby Terme di Saturnia is an exclusive spa that has long been a hideout for European and American celebrities. Former San Franciscan Kirk Lemley, one of the few ex-patriots that live in the Valley, is the general manager of the spa, which has 140 rooms and hundreds of restorative services that include thermal rejuvenation, beauty treatments and diet services.
The Italian classes at Cultura Italiana helped my Italian a great deal, although I still can’t, in good consciousness, upgrade my resume to fluent. But I was able to chat in Italian about local events with the woman who I bought fruit from each morning and elderly gentleman at the Café Centrale near the school who made me an espresso each afternoon after class. As simple as those and other exchanges were, they made feel as though I had penetrated a layer of Italy that I never had before during my earlier trips. And that made the trip worthwhile.
When I told the Cultura Italiana’s director, Stella Anna Maria Papaluea that I was going to miss Manciano and the Albegna 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.”
If you go:
The Albegna Valley is a little more than two hours north from the airport in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. By car head along the coast on the Via Aurellia and turn eastward on highway 74 to Manciano. There is no train service into the Albegna Valley, but you can catch a bus from the provincial capital of Grossetto.
Fattoria Pianetti: is a bed and breakfast set in the middle of a large farm. The newly built agritourismo is ideally located in the center of the valley and is a good starting point for day trips and bicycle excursions. Excellent food, good service and very quiet. Doubles range from $175 to $286. Tel. 0564 625116 or for more information go to www.fattoriapianetti.it
Locanda La Pieve: A traditional eight-room albergo in the center of Semproniano. Doubles range from $90 to $125. Very comfortable and the owners are very knowledgeable of local food and wines. Via Societa Operaia, #3, Semproniano. Tel. 0564 987252, or for more information go to www.laltramaremma.it/locanda_la_pieve.
Terme di Saturnia: The cost of rooms at the spa vary depending on which of the programs you’re interested. However, it’s hard to beat the services they offer. Doubles range from $220 to $260. Weekly rates are also available. Tel. 0564 600111, or for more information go to www.termedisaturnia.com.
Where To Eat:
Il Mulino: One of the best dining experiences in all of Tuscany. Open three days a week and seven days a week during August. Via Roma 112, Semproniano. Tel. 0564 987117.
Lacanda La Pieve: The hotel has an excellent restaurant that is one of the few in that region that has been approved by the Italian Slow Food Association. Depending on the time of year, the hotel owners offer cooking classes. Via Societa Operaia, #3, Semproniano. Tel. 0564 987252, or for more information go to www.laltramaremma.it/locanda_la_pieve.
Trattoria da Paulino: Seasonal local cuisine in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Several of the tables have stunning views of the Maremman plains. Via Marsala 41, Manciano. 0564 629388.
Enoteca Bacco a Cerere: A good place to sample a full range of Maremman wines, olive oils, cheeses and dried meats. Via Mazzini, #4 Saturnia. Ph. 0564 6011235
Immersion school: Cultura Italiana, www.culturaitaliana.it/ go to the Maremma section.
To Learn More
Ufficio Turistica Manciano, Via Marsala 72, Manciano. Tel. 0564 620532.
© Copyright 2005 John Geluardi