Visit Tuscany just for the Saturnia mud baths. When most people think of Tuscany they imagine medieval cities, great food and red wine. However the region also has a lot of naturally occurring thermal activity and the highlight of my holiday was soaking in the free and spectacular Saturnia mud baths and Bagno di Vignoni springs. The Etruscan archaeology and gastronomic delights also left a deep impression on me.
Piazza dei Miracoli
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Dantes Divine Comedy
Terme di Saturnia
Saturnia Mud Baths
Zuppa di Inglese gelato
Castiglione della Pescaia
Bagno di Vignoni
DAY 1: IS PISA REALLY BORING?
I arrived in Pisa on a sunny morning in June. Pisa airport is small and the staff are friendly, and within no time at all I was equipped with city maps, Euros and directions on how to get to the city centre. Most travel blogs will tell you to take a train however this is unnecessary as the trains are expensive and infrequent. As soon as you walk outside there is a bus stop and every bus will stop at both Pisa Centrale and the Piazza dei Miracoli.
I soon found myself in the Piazza dei Miracoli. Many people describe Pisa as boring and touristy. Whilst the piazza was filled with tourists from all over the world, I found it to be a beautiful and interesting place. It was also immaculately organised and all the buildings looked scrubbed white, the grass was freshly cut, and there was not a single piece or rubbish – not even a cigarette butt – on the carefully polished tiles.
The piazza was originally a medieval town, built from the money gained by pillaging the nearby town of Palermo. It consists of four buildings: the Cathedral, the Tower, a Baptistry and the Cemetery. Each of the buildings were purposely designed to sit in harmony together, with the Cathedral in the centre so from any point of the piazza you can see it.
I first visited the Cemetery. Its name in Italian is Campo Santo, which means Holy Field, because it was constructed on sacred soil that was shipped from Golgotha (the hill where Jesus was crucified) by the Fourth Crusade. They first began building this Cemetery in the early thirteenth century and it was only completed 180 years later in 1464. The most famous person buried here is Leonardo Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician from Pisa who died during the middle ages. He was best known for spreading the decimal system (Hindu-Arabic numeral system) throughout Europe. Most of the tombs were giant slabs on the floor, with names and dates carved on the stone.
My favourite part of this building was the back room, which was covered in murals representing themes of life and death and greatly influenced by Dantes’ Divine Comedy. During WW2 a grenade was thrown into the cemetery starting a fire and many images were destroyed. A very quick job at fixing the murals was made using the cheap materials they had on hand, which further led to its degradation. Today the utmost care is taken to preserve what is left of the images. Two significant scenes remain in good condition. The first shows a contrast between the people who are damned and the people who are blessed, and the type of life each will lead on earth and in the afterlife. Here we see the vulgar image of several damned men contained in a pit, with pained faces who cry in terror. Those who are blessed are playing fun games with the angels. The second mural depicts a scene from Dantes’ Divine Comedy: the enactment of man’s sins of greed, arrogance and self confidence. There are the martyrs, who are miserable in giving up their lives for all the wrong reasons. Then there is the group of upper class peoples, who are dressed richly and enjoying the pleasures of music and dance. Death is represented by an old woman with a sythe, and we can see the cherubs and demons fight over wrenching the souls out of the dead bodies. Both murals are pretty dark, but they tell interesting stories.
After enjoying lunch near Pisa Centrale I took a fast train from the main station to Grosseto, which took 80 minutes. Grosetto is one of the biggest cities in the Maremma and it is still protected by Medicean Walls. The city revolves around the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence, who is the patron saint of Grosseto, and houses several works of art and 15th century stained glass windows. Besides it is the Piazza Dante, which has a statue of Leopold II in the middle, the previous monarch of Tuscany. After a pleasant afternoon strolling the city, I was collected by car by my hosts.
I used the site House Trip to find accommodation at a villa in Semproniano owned by Luisa and Carl-Magnus, who collected me from Grosseto by car for 35 Euros. It was approximately a 90 minute drive. The house is on the edge of a hill and has a charming garden with tables and chairs, from which you see a sprawling view of the Tuscan countryside as well as the Isle di Giglio. The owners lived on the top level of the house and I had the entire ground floor to myself.
That evening I enjoyed a refreshing glass of wine compliments of my hosts, which went down smoothly. It is only in recent times that the quality of the Maremma region wine has been recognised as traditionally it was referred to as table wine. The Tuscan regulatory councils refused to recognise them because the wine is made from foreign grapes that are not Italian, such as Sangiovese, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Winemakers who were confident in their winemaking continued to make wines without the Tuscan quality seal and by the 1990s they became favourites with wine journalists and drinkers alike. These wines are now referred to as the Super Tuscans. They are easy to drink because they don’t contain a metallic or acidic taste prominent in cheap house wines, and they are free from many additives and preservatives that normally give you a headache when you drink too much.
DAY 2: DISCOVERING SEMPRONIANO ON FOOT
I had a good sleep but awoke to a grey day outside. My first task was to have breakfast. My hosts had left some ground coffee for me and I prepared a pot using the Italian coffee maker and ate a plate of mozzarella, prosciutto and focaccia bread. I then put on my walking shoes and headed to the heart of Semproniano.
Semproniano is a small village with a population of 200 people divided in two sections. First there is the new part, which has a post office, bank, one charming restaurant called Novecentro, a combined bar & gelateria with outdoor seating, a tabaccheri, a little grocery store, a small bakery that emits divine smells, and a pretty little flower shop, all of which are all located along the main road. Then there is the ancient part, which is more interesting. I walked up a steep set of steps to the top of the hill, weaving in and out of stone houses and old crumbly buildings, in which I could hear the signs of life but still felt like I was in another world. At the top I came to the Chiesa di Santa Croce, a 12th century church. The Semproniano parish priest tends to the pretty flowers that adorn the outside. From the outside it looks like another village house, but inside it is beautiful. There is a medieval wooden crucifix, neo-Gothic patterned black and white marble adorns the walls, and an expressive depiction of La Pieta from the Renaissance. I enjoyed the view from outside immensely, as I could see a massive Tuscan countryside with patches of green and gold farms, picturesque houses, shining blue lakes, and a never-ending skyline.
A bit further down is the Chiesa dei Santissimi Vincenzo e Anastasio, which is a 13th century church and one of the few examples of unaltered medieval design that exists today. The church has only ever been restored once, in early 16th century, which atone for some of its Gothic aspects. The church has many decorative elements, and I really appreciated the medieval panels inside.
I noticed clouds appearing in the sky and feared it might rain so I dashed down the hill to find shelter. I got as far as the post office when it began pelting down. Fortunately I observed some people running to their car, which was parked near me. I stopped them and asked in Italian: Puoi partarmi in macchina per cinque minuti? However they were actually from Germany so we could converse in English and they kindly gave me a lift.
Back home, I changed into dry clothes and made a comforting hot chocolate. I sat by the window and read my book until I fell into a light afternoon nap. When I woke up the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. I risked another trip to the village centre, confident that there would be no more rain for the day. I went to the bar & gelateria for a cappuccino, which I drank at a small table outside. Almost all the tables were full and I watched the locals drinking wine and snacking on bread and tomato dip in the late afternoon sun.
Italy is well signposted and there are brown signs everywhere that indicate historical sites. I followed some signs pointing up hill to enjoy spectacular views of the countryside. I also passed a sentimental grave by the road of young man that had fought in WW2 but died in Italy from his injuries. It was freshly decorated with flowers and included a framed picture of the deceased.
For dinner I went to the only restaurant of Semproniano named Novecentro, located on 4 via Toscana 58055. I took a seat in the back room, from which I could view the setting sun. They specialise in homemade pasta and had some unique dishes on the menu that incorporated the fresh ingredients of the season including wild boar ragu, and fettuccini with asparagus. I opted for the gnocchi which was served with a pistachio and gorgonzola sauce. It was without a doubt the best gnocchi I have ever had and they were so delicate and soft, they melted in my mouth.
DAY 3: POSH TERME DI SATURNIA SPA VERSUS FREE SATURNIA MUD BATHS
The main purpose of my trip was to reenergise. The nearby area of Saturnia is known for its natural thermal activity that is believed to have healing properties. We drove fifteen minutes to the Saturnia mud baths and checked into the posh Terme di Saturnia spa resort. It costs approximately 60 Euros per person for the experience, which is worth it if you intend to spend the day here. We changed into our swimsuits and donned the luxurious dressing gowns that were provided. The resort consists of several pools and waterfalls of varying temperatures. In the centre is the main pool of medium warmth, which has several canals branching out from it, from which hot water flows from its natural source. We felt spoilt as we lounged around in all the various pools and indulged in a strawberry cream cake.
After a lazy morning we went to check out the Saturnia mud baths around the corner. As these were free natural baths, we were not expecting much however to our surprise the place was stunning. The baths formed in a series of cup shapes, which cascaded down like a waterfall with a greater aquamarine swimming area below. The water was very warm and it was easy to find a cosy nook to enjoy the sensation of warm water spilling over your body. Under the surface of the water of the main pool, there is thick, black thermal mud that has health properties. You need to rub this mud all over your face and body and let it dry in the sun. Afterwards, you wash it off in the warm water using circular motions with your fingers. The mud has deep cleansing, exfoliating and moisturising properties, and it is good to repeat the above steps several times to achieve glowing skin. It is particularly effective for people with skin diseases such as cirrhosis or cellulite. We lathered ourselves in the mud like two little piglets and we weren’t the only ones. The place was alive with Italians enjoying the summer sun.
In the afternoon after the Saturnia mud baths we headed to Pitigliano, otherwise known as the Little Jerusalem. Pitigliano was home to the Jewish community in Italy from the late 15th century. In the mid 19th century, prior to the emancipation of the Jews, more than one third of Pitigliano residents were Jewish. Many of them left for the big cities and by the mid 1900s there were none left. Today there remains a restored Synagogue from 1598, a kosher butchery and bakery, and a museum in the Jewish Quarter.
Pitigliano is cut out of a rock face, so it is an exquisite site from a distance. However inside the rock face is even more beautiful. At the entrance to the town is the Piazza della Republica in which you will see the wonderful Fontana delle Sette Cannelle, meaning Fountain of Seven Spouts, against a backdrop of Tuscan hills. The fountain was originally built in 1545 and it has seven taps that flow constantly with cool clean water. From here you enter into the main street where there are shops selling various Italian delicacies and treats. We purchased several packets of dry pasta and a jar of porcini mushroom paste. However there many other wonderful things to buy including smoked prosciutto, cheeses, olive oils, red and white wines, biscotti and sweets. There were also several artists selling original paintings and sculpture, high quality jewellery and designer scarves.
At the sight of all these lovely things we felt like a small snack, so we went to a wine bar near the Piazza della Republica. We ordered a charcuterie and cheese board to share and two glasses of Prosecco, which was served with amazingly bright green olives.
Following a quick refuel, we continued our exploration of this ancient city. We came across a beautiful painting framed by white flowers that captured our imagination with ideas of knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress. We also visited the Church of Santa Maria and San Rocco, a Renaissance style building with the typical flat facade and two small alleys on either side.
As chance would have it, a concert was being held in the centre of Pitigliano that night. A lively band with violins, guitars, tambourines and singers began to setup. We found a small homely restaurant along a small alley for a quick plate of ravioli, and by the time we were finished the band were in full swing. We spent the rest of the evening dancing away under the stars, joined by many others both young and old.
DAY 4: THE LITTLE VILLAGES OF TUSCANY
On our fourth day we wanted to visit the villages in the area. Our first destination was Santa Fiora, a former medieval centre. We parked at the bottom of the hill by a small garden lake that was once used for fishing by noble families. There was a modern lift to take us to the top of the hill and the heart of the area. It was Sunday morning and the streets were quiet as everyone was in Church. We walked along the outskirts of town admiring the mountainous views and down the Via Carolina, a narrow street which was once lined with craftsmen’s shops, until we came to the beautiful Church of the Suffragio from the 18th century. There are many old monuments inside, however we did not want to disrupt the mass. The church bells began to ring and slowly the town came to life with the people drifting out. At the main Piazza Garibaldi we saw the ruins of fortified structures and the Palace of Count Sforza (now converted to the Town Hall), and enjoyed a delicious Zuppa Inglese gelato.
We drove on to Monte Amiata, which is famous for the large iron cross atop the volcano summit. It was a hike to walk up it but the view at the top was fantastic and we could see the Tyrrhenian sea, Mount Argentario, Mount Uccellina, the mountains of Elba and Giglio Island. The cross was built in 1910 in honour of Pope Leone XIII, who wanted monumental crosses to be erected on the twenty highest tops of Italy. Monte Amiata was the ninth to be built and stands 22 metres high on a 8×8 metre base. It would have cost about 30,000 lira at the time to build, and is the result of many generous benefactors.
Monte Amiata is a great place for hiking and we enjoyed a rigorous walk among the rocks and bush beyond the cross. The trekking trails lead to the base of l’Agnello della Montagana, and 15km on are the natural hot springs called Bagno San Filippo, very similar to the Saturnia mud baths. The area is also famous for its Etruscan remains.
For a delicious seafood lunch, we visited the small fishing town of Castiglione della Pescaia, which is a lively hub of boats, restaurants, cafes and shops.
We found a popular restaurant a little away from the main marina that had many tables sprawling outside onto the walk path and enjoyed our most amazing meal yet! For starters we began with warm Italian bread served with three small plates of fresh anchovies with olive oil and rocket, seafood salad marinated in herbs and vinaigrette, and seafood tomato marinara that included a delicious chunk of fresh white fish. For second course we shared a bowl of black squid ink spaghetti with large king prawns, mussels and tomato. To accompany the meal we had some local light prossecco followed by two small espresso coffees topped with just a spoonful of milk cream, otherwise known as due machiatti. We walked lunch off down the sun drenched marina.
We hit the road again and as we were driving along we saw a small solitary park, with a sign indicating Etruscan remains. We stopped to have a look and found a not-very-well preserved tomb. It was a good chance for us to stretch our legs, and from the park stemmed a long walking trial leading up to the top of a solitary hill, where we had a snooze.
The final village we wanted to see that day was Massa Maritima. I recommend watching the sunset here, which artists describe as like watching the sun caressing the mountains and monuments of the area. However when we arrived it was still early. The town was first built during the 12th century in pre-Romanesque style however the majority of building were erected later in the 14th century. The town is protected by medieval walls that remain almost completely intact. We began a steep descent down the central stairs that lead us to the main piazza, where there is the Cathedral of Saint Cerbonius. Its facade reveals varying artistic influences from Pisan Romanesque to that of the Sienese. Surrounding the church is an impressive set of stairs, which the locals seem to enjoy hanging about on, kind of like the Spanish Stairs in Rome. Inside the church are stained glass windows and a mixture of 13th all the way up to 17th century art. The most valuable item is the urn of Saint Cerbonius by artist Goro di Gregorio, dated 1324 and with panels illustrating the saint’s life and feats.
Saint Cerbonius is the patron staint of Massa Maritima who was famed for his love of animals. He would feed milk to baby deers, tame wild bears and walk with the geese. He was born in North Africa to Christian parents. From a young age he had a calling towards his faith and in early adulthood was ordained a Bishop. When the Christians were persecuted by Vandals Aryan he fled on boat. After much time at sea, a dangerous storm began to brew that crashed his boat onto the shores of Tuscany, where he lived a hermits life. His most famous miracle was when he made the sign of the cross upon a herd of wild geese, who instantly became tame and rose up into the air to fly away.
Around the corner from the church we saw a building with the most interesting artwork of a large sprawling tree with suggestive yellow fruit. We really enjoyed the scene but couldn’t understand what the picture was about.
There were many shops and monuments to see, but it was starting to get late and we wanted to find the perfect spot to enjoy the sunset. We found a pizzeria on the outskirts of town that was built into the hillside and from which we could see the beautiful Tuscan landscape. We ordered a carafe of house white wine and a bianco pizza to share, which was a pizza base cooked without any tomato sauce, just mozzarella and porcini mushrooms, and topped with prosciutto, rocket and a drizzle of balsamic cream. As we munched away we watch an orange sun blob sink so quickly into the romantic hillside and it became dark so suddenly.
This village is lively at night and when we returned to the main square it was full of people. We could not escape the lure of a gelateria, where we sampled coffee, hazelnut and lemon sorbet flavours.
DAY 5: ETRUSCAN HISTORY
It was our last day in Tuscany and we had to be in Pisa by 9pm for our flight back to London. With so little time and still so much to see, we decided to focus on the rich Etruscan history of the area. The Etruscan’s were an ancient Italian civilization that lived in the Tuscan region around 700BC. They had a unique language and culture but architecture was influenced by their Greek neighbours. Overtime they lost significant territory to Celtic and Roman tribes and by the 3rd century BC they were conquered by Rome.
There is evidence of Etruscan settlements around most of Tuscany, but one of the best places to explore this history is at the Parco Archeologico “Citta del Tufo” in Sovana. It is the most important Etruscan necropolis to the north of the Calesine stream, which sits amid natural woodland and offers a shaded and pleasant walk as well. Here we saw old pillared tombs, which housed interred aristocratic families. My favourite was the tomb of the “Demoni Alati” which was discovered in 2004 and had very impressive artwork etched into the stone depicting two female winged demons, and a remaining sculpture of a lion. The level of creativity and artwork from so long ago was remarkable.
The most well known and largest tomb is Hildebrand Tomb from the 3rd century BC, which was discovered in 1924. Two stone staircases lead to a high podium, burial chamber and rooms connected by corridors, decorated with a cofferred ceiling. Visitors are able to walk up close among the ruins and climb the stairs as well.
The Cavone was the highlight of the archaeological park, an impressive narrow corridor between two very tall cliff faces, that connects various Etruscan settlements. It is still not understood whether the passage was man-made or whether it was a natural wonder that the Etruscan chose to build around.
Nearby is the ancient village of Sorano, which like many other Tuscany centres is carved out of a tuft of rock upon a hill and it literally hangs off the Lente river. We parked at the top and journeyed downwards along narrow walkways and steep cobblestone steps. It is believed this was originally an Etruscan city from the 3rd century BC. After the fall of this civilization, it disappeared from historic records for some time, until being founded again by Emperor Louis II, under the domain of the Aldobrandeschi family. Overtime, the city was greatly developed by the Osini counts.
The Osini castle is of great historical importance and the best example of Renaissance military architecture. It includes a large cenral keep and the two angled bastions of San Marco and San Pietro, which are connected by fortified walls and a series of underground passages. There is a museum in the centre of the castle. The architecture of the town is stunning. The Masso Leopoidino is a foritified, panoramic terrace that offers the best view. It is a relatively modern edition in comparison, commissioned by Duke Leopold of Lorraine during the 18th century, to strengthen the cities defences. The point was to enable guards to watch over the entire city in case of attack. There is a military style clock tower here. Just don’t get too close to the edge, as it is a very long drop down. Of everything here, I loved the Porta dei Merli walkway the most. It is on a winding road leading down, which has the face of medusa looking upon all who pass underneath.
It was midday, the sun was shining brightly and we were getting very hot. We wanted to relax one last time in a natural warm spring. We were heading in a northward direction, and wanted to stop at the Bagno di Vignoni. Here they have a luxurious spa resort, however we only wanted a quick dip in the free natural spring, but it was difficult to find. We pulled up at the main car park where there is a very old irrigation system created by the Romans and which still facilitates the movement of the warm water. We watched people soaking their feet here and walking towards the cliffs edge we saw a small waterfall that was steaming with the hot temperature. We finally stumbled across a rough staircase leading down to the base of the waterfall. Here we discovered a secluded pool. The water was a perfect warm temperature and the base was thick with pale coloured mud that we layered onto our skin. The setting was romantic, set in a rock face with a fantastic view ahead of us. Because it was so difficult to find, there were not many people here and we were so chilled out and relaxed we started to snooze.
We had just enough time to stop for an early dinner before our flight. The food in Tuscany had been amazing so far and we wanted our last meal to be something very special so we headed to San Gimignano. The legend goes that the town was founded in 63 BC by two brothers, Muzio and Silvio, who were fleeing Rome after implicated in a conspiracy. They built the Castle of Mucchio and the Castle of Silvia, which developed into present day San Gimignano. During the fourteenth century, the town was under the influence of Florence. Wealthy families built towers to show their economic power, and of the original 72 there are still 13 that remain. Today it is a vibrant and bustling town. There were lots of interesting shops, from old fashioned butcheries with fantastic displays, to stores selling Italian Venetian masks and other necessary carnivale accessories. We wished we had more time to spend browsing the museums, shops and sights within these cities walls. We found a nice restaurant a couple of blocks away from the main piazza, which had beautiful crisp white table cloths and attentive waiters that could speak some English. I ordered a carafe of table wine. To eat, we ordered tomato bruschetta to start, followed by four cheese filled Ravioli, served with a very light cream sauce. Next to our table was a small open window, looking out onto the golden landscape that was slowly becoming dark. We reflected upon all the nice food and beautiful sights we had enjoyed over the last five days, and realised that a few more days here would have been nice.
We thoroughly enjoyed our Tuscan holiday, especially the Saturnia mud baths and look forward to visiting Italy again!