Rome, where I was working 20 years ago, was hectic, stressful and polluted. I desperately wanted a place to relax and breathe. A small advertisement in a local English magazine attracted my attention to a small apartment in the historic centre of Pitigliano in the province of Grosseto.
My first impression of Pitigliano took my breath away. I rounded the bend in the road and beyond the lush green valley was Pitigliano. Approached from the coast road going inland, the town is spectacular, hanging on a 'tuff' (compacted volcanic ash) outcrop, its ancient medieval disorderly houses clinging together.
When seen at night, and lit up, it is just incredible.
The Medici aqueduct dominates the scene with its perfect arches high
above and when in the main square (Piazza della Reppublica) there is
a panoramic view of the valley below.
When I first walked the streets I was charmed by the old buildings and the tiny vicoli (alleyways) which lead off the main street. Liberatori di Siena is one of them which has always made me think of an opera stage set. All those years ago some of those houses, dank and dark, looked positively evil, but since then the town has had a important buying spree in summer holiday homes, many have now been renovated to what could only be described at semi-luxury level compared to their original state.
Originally, the town was inhabited by peasants who worked the land and took their donkeys with them to the fields. Chickens and other animals lived on the ground floor of the houses; this must have been very smelly. The only donkey to be seen these days is in the Piazza; he and his owner are made of bronze. Some of those little houses - though it seems unbelievable - housed as many as six or seven in less than 50 sq. metres. Just behind Vicolo della Battiglia, which has a charming picturesque fountain with an abundance of plants, and a favourite with tourists, is Vicolo Vittoria, where I bought a tiny apartment.
I remember so well climbing those ghastly broken, steep stairs, up through the arch. The apartment was in a terrible state but the wooden beams were just what I had dreamed about. One beam even dated back the year 1,000, so I was told. It did have a large M sculpted onto it. The floor dipped so badly you might have been excused for feeling seasick, this however was later reinforced with netting and concrete and then covered with terra cotta tiles to ease the pressure on my neighbours’ old beams. My neighbours, however, had a disastrous experience when their bedroom caved in with the bed hanging dangerously on a broken beam over the fortunately empty storeroom below. The beam had been gnawed away by termites. The whole episode was actually quite funny but no-one laughed at the time, especially not the Germans who owned the storeroom below and who suffered virulent verbal abuse plus having to pay out a pile of money.
Looking out of the apartment window that day, I was admiring the big shiny oblique drops of rain coming down faster and faster. The soft sound of pattering rain, the golden glow of a street lamp and the almost deafening silence struck me. Then to my amazement, I heard the sound of horses’ hooves. Luna, as I later learnt her name was, had taken shelter under a balcony with her owner. She used to answer to her name from her field below the town if you called her, I discovered later. That clinched it, and in ten minutes I bought the apartment and then spent months restoring it. At that time there was a character called Emma who lived above the apartment in Via Vittoria. She was the most raucous woman I have ever known and slightly frightening, but I nevertheless had a soft spot for her. She used to sing opera and local ballads with her gramophone turned up to full volume and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She gone now, poor soul and there were pitifully few people at her funeral. The local old folk tend to hold grudges and even to this day violent feuds exist, usually over land. Two brothers, who lived 200 meters apart on the same road, have not spoken to each other for 25 years! Their wives used to go to the communal washhouse to scrub their husbands’ work clothes without ever exchanging a word. Alas, the washhouse is now closed and can only be seen through an iron grill.
Everything is changing as the older generation gradually pass away and younger people move in. Old Mario still lives down there (he’s 84), and if anyone is interested, he brings out his little wooden box with all the love letters from his English girlfriends he received on returning to Italy. He had been a prisoner of war in England and to my horror and amusement, still remembers swear words. He would sometimes say as I passed ‘Bloody, (then the ‘f’ word) weather’ and then laugh at the effect he had produced, showing the few brown, broken teeth he has left. I miss him and am always afraid that I will read a black banded announcement one of these day saying that he is no longer with us.
I lived in the old town over 20 years ago but I now live in the more convenient new part of town. Parking is one of the great inconveniences of living in the old town. There is limited parking in the main square so most tourists have to leave their cars out of town, which means that they have to be prepared to walk short distances on the nearby up and down roads.
In Via Zuccarelli, there is synagogue which was rebuilt between 1980 and 1990. The Jewish community in Pitigliano before the war numbered 60 people, now unfortunately there are only three. The area around the synagogue is still called the ghetto. Attached to the synagogue is a tiny museum with items of Jewish culture and which is looked after by Elena Servi. The Jewish community established itself in Pitigliano around the late 1500s, when Count Nicolas Orsini engaged David Depomis a Jewish doctor. Later, the doctor’s family and friends established themselves in Pitigliano and because many of them were artisans the town flourished. The Jewish cemetery is just outside the town and can be visited on request, at the Orsini museum.
Outside the town, for those who like to walk, are the Etruscan roads. One of these roads (7 km) links the old town of Sovana to Pitigliano. I have to confess that I have not walked it but those who have, tell me it is wonderful. Apparently on the side of one of the roads is a Swastika, which in Etruscan times signified the sun. I wish I could have found it but never have.
Sovana itself is well worth visiting and belongs to what I term the 'tuff triangle'. That is Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano. When I first used to come to Pitigliano, I got lost one night and landed up on the road that leads from Pitigliano to Sorano. I remember that despite being slightly worried as to where I was, I was impressed by what I cheerfully now call “Grand Canyon.” The rock rises high on either side of the road, hence my name for it.
For the casual visitor, and for the dedicated one, there is plenty to see and do. “Pitigliano Estate” starts in early August and finishes about the 9th September. It usually offers a mix of music, rock and classical, artisan work, and wine tasting - a must - in an area which is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards; there is even a fashion show with recycled material.
The farm holiday business is booming, with old renovated structures flowering overnight. Many of these are in panoramic areas with their own private swimming pools for guests, and with ever increasing temperatures, this can been real advantage for families with children. The apartments are delightful and are fully equipped, usually with a kitchen unit so that you can do your own thing, and some of them have the added attraction of having BBQs. There are also some which are pet friendly, allowing you to go on holiday with your four-legged friend. Pets coming from abroad however, need a passport and are often not allowed on beaches or in some restaurants.
Driving out of Tuscany into Latium (Lazio), there is Lake Bolsena which is only 30 km from Pitigliano. The drive down is often a real pleasure for the senses. Listen to the chicalas rubbing their wings in summer song, appreciate the vines heavy with grapes, smell the newly mown hay now rolled into barrels, and admire the colours and patterns in the fields. You arrive at places which have beaches where you can get your precious tan and some little free beaches where you can take doggie and then have lunch in one of the lakeside restaurants where is the food is surprisingly good.
The town of Bolsena is well worth visiting in itself. There is a pretty port from which it is possible to take a boat trip around the lake and to the island in the middle. Bolsena, I believe, is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. On the festival of “Corpus Christie” visit Bolsena and see the pictures made with flower petals. These pictures last only a few days, which is a pity, since they are real works of art.
Strategically placed, Pitigliano is ideal as a central point for visiting the area outside the confines of the Tuscan Maremma. If you like thermal baths there is Saturnia, one of the oldest in Italy, with its outside cascades (free) and hotel with internal pools of all types, open to the public. There is also the little thermal baths of Sorano. Going further there is Orvieto (Umbria) 50 km, with its famous cathedral and Luca Signorelli frescoes. I love the smell of this town with its aroma of coffee and it array of elegant bars. Want the sea? Then there Port Santo Stefano or Porto Ercole, attractive seaside resorts considered to be the playground for a wealthy clientele from Rome. There are boat trips to the islands. Too hot? Want something cooler? Drive up to Monte Amiata with cool green woods and where in the winter you could even go skiing if and when there is any snow.
At this point I must mention food and wine, if even briefly. Italian food is well-known throughout the world and this region has its own specialities, such as “Buglione”, a sort of stew with wild boar or the simpler “Acqua cotta” which translated is “cooked water.” The former is tasty, if rather wholesome for hot days, while the latter is basically cooked vegetables. Most restaurants serve the same type of food which can get boring, but there are a couple of top restaurants where you can have a gastronomic meal with a gastronomic price! “Bianco di Pitigliano” is quite well known as a light white wine and very pleasant to drink on those very hot, torrid days. The reds are very pleasant too. If you are into wine culture then go to Montalcino, quite a long way away, but well worth it as you are then in “Brunello” wine country. This wine is now in the major league and doing very well against its more famous cousins in France.
Have I given you a taste of the pleasures of this region? I do hope you will be interested in visiting the Tuscan Maremma and enjoying it to the full. Further information can be found on my English translation pages of the website 'comune.pitigliano.gr.it' covering The History and The Little Jerusalem.
‘Chiao, a presto!’
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