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It was 1985, and I’d landed on my feet in Italy. The sun was low in the sky as I left Rome, driving with my Italian friend Marella Caracciolo. As we headed north, the city’s melancholy hinterland gave way to more pastoral and more beautiful surroundings. Cypresses and umbrella pines cast long shadows as the sun set over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our journey’s end was Garavicchio, the estate long owned by Marella’s family in the Maremma, a little-visited stretch along the coast of southwestern Tuscany.
We spent the next few days kicking around spots like the seaside town of Chiarone, not much more than a bar, a store, and miles of empty, idyllic beaches. A handful of families—Marella seemed to know them all—were down for the summer. We walked for hours, exploring the area’s unspoiled lakes and marshy grasslands brimming with cormorants and kingfishers; its maquis and juniper woodlands, home to deer and wild boar; and its pristine dunes, covered with the white, creamy-scented flowers of sea daffodils.
Now a quarter of a century has passed. My Italian sojourn ended some time ago, but Marella remains a friend and Garavicchio still a home away from home for her family. And the Maremma? The Maremma is changing.
These days Tuscany’s last frontier is filling with newcomers from Rome and beyond. In the town of Capalbio, the summer streets echo with the raised voices of a honey-tanned crowd spilling from Il Frantoio, a fashionable bar-gallery-boutique. Down at Chiarone, languid models float around Ultima Spiaggia, a chic little beach club. Erstwhile fishing villages such as Castiglione della Pescaia play host to hedge fund managers and Russian superyachts.
Elsewhere in the Maremma, stylish hotels are appearing and long-abandoned villas ring to the sound of the restorer’s hammer. Restaurants are opening and Michelin stars are being scattered like confetti. Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was said to have been eyeing a $25 million estate near Cinigiano. In the seaside town of Puntone, Leonardo Ferragamo, a scion of the Ferragamo fashion dynasty, created one of Italy’s most dazzling marinas. And in the hills near Gavorrano, architect Renzo Piano completed a showstopping $11 million winery at the Rocca di Frassinello vineyard, a partnership between the Rothschilds and Italian media mogul Paolo Panerai.
And the hotels are not just any hotels. The biggest new name in the Maremma is Alain Ducasse. The French hotelier and restaurateur has invested serious panache—and cash—in L’Andana, his five-star venture near Grosseto, the region’s capital. It is whispered that Bulgari is hot on his heels.
You could forgive the Maremma its belated arrival on center stage. Little in its past suggests it was destined for anything but obscurity. Maremma L’Amara—“Maremma the Bitter”—it was called, after its cruel, unforgiving land, where marshes bred malaria and misery. For centuries virtually the only inhabitants were shepherds, charcoal burners, and itinerant horsemen. Inland, these unhappy few were prey to bandits; on the mosquito-infested coast, Saracen pirates were the enemy. The region was a place of exile, death, and despair. In the 14th century Dante wrote of “the wild beasts that hate the cultivated fields in the Tuscan Maremma.”
While malaria may have been the region’s curse, it was also its salvation. Until the disease was eradicated, in the fifties, visitors didn’t come here. Even today, the roads, beaches, hotels, and restaurants are largely free of the crowds that blight the Tuscan heartland.
Nor does the Maremma have towns brimming with art. Only Massa Marittima, a medieval gem—all cobbled alleys, Romanesque churches, and majestic altarpieces—can really hold its own with Tuscany’s heavy hitters: the Pisas, Luccas, and Sienas. But this being Italy, every village has its treasures. Tiny Sovana, basically a single street, is home to the 12th- to 13th-century Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Tuscany’s loveliest churches. Spectacular, crag-topped Pitigliano is surrounded by miles of eerie Etruscan tombs. Magliano has its ruined abbey and Sorano its medieval fortress.
And of course there are the ravishing landscapes we associate with Tuscany: the classic vignettes of honey-stoned farmhouses, cypress-capped hills, and rippling wheat fields dappled with poppies. But there is more, and the clue is in the name Maremma, which comes from the Latin maritima, “of the sea.”
While staying at Ducasse’s L’Andana I asked him why he’d settled on the Maremma. “With country inns,” he said, “there is only one important issue: the soul of the place. And when you come to the Maremma you immediately feel that this is a place with soul.” He described how, so often in the Maremma, the view “slides gently across vineyards and olive groves and hills until, in the distance, your eyes get lost in a clear blue sea.” And there, I think, he’s close to the nub of things.
It was only when I was writing a book called Wild Italy several years ago that I saw this place at its sublime best—in the Parco Regionale della Maremma, just south of Grosseto. In this protected jewel, old abbeys and medieval watchtowers dot the hills. Trails meander through heath, dune, and forest, the paths a soft carpet of sand and pine needles. Trees are alive with birdsong, and unseen boars scuttle in the undergrowth. Ancient olive groves fringe a virgin beach of breathtaking beauty. Those are among the loveliest things I’ve seen anywhere in Italy.
Around the park is also where you’re most likely to encounter the region’s famous butteri, hard-living horsemen who for centuries have tended the Maremma’s half-feral horses and white cattle, a special breed imported from Asia for its resilience to the rigorous climate and terrain. For most of the year the butteri ride with the herds on the Maremman grasslands, but in the spring, when calves and foals are rounded up and branded, they can be seen galloping spectacularly through lake and marsh. Their ranks also provide riders for perhaps the world’s most demanding horse race: the Palio, held twice each summer in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.
If the butteri embody the Maremma’s traditional values, the region’s winemakers have been among its chief agents of change. It’s no accident that Renzo Piano came to design a winery. And he isn’t the only big-name architect hired by area vintners—Mario Botta did a winery for Petra, and Gae Aulenti has designed new facilities at the Antinori family’s Tenuta di Biserno.
For a long time it was assumed that the Maremma’s salty air and coastal hills were inhospitable to wine. At least until the forties, when local aristocrat Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta decided to try producing wines similar to his beloved Bordeaux at his estate, Tenuta San Guido, near Bolgheri in northern Maremma. The result was Sassicaia, the first of the so-called Super Tuscan wines, released commercially in 1968.
Sassicaia spawned other great Maremman wines—Antinori’s Ornellaia and Masseto in particular, along with the premier bottlings of Le Macchiole, Grattamacco, and Gualdo del Re. By the late nineties, the Maremma was the hottest thing in Italian wine. Robert Mondavi bought into Tenuta dell’Ornellaia (it is now majority-owned by Frescobaldi); Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich bought a vineyard and launched La Mozza; celebrated Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja founded Ca’Marcanda. There were many more.
Where wine led, food followed—not that the Maremma lacked good food before Sassicaia. This is Italy, after all. But recently things have risen to another level. Trattorias that were once practically beach shacks are impossibly fêted, none more so than Luciano Zazzeri’s La Pineta, at Marina di Bibbona. In the eighties, when I first visited, one ate grilled fish fresh off the family’s boats for a few lire. These days a check for two can top $180. The New York Times called La Pineta “a must,” and Ruth Rogers of London’s River Café named it one of her ten favorite Italian restaurants. It even has a Michelin star.
Ah, Michelin. This French institution rather likes the Maremma. Caino, a cozy, seasonal Tuscan restaurant in Montemerano, has two of its coveted stars. So does the restaurant at the Pellicano hotel, in Porto Ercole. Ducasse’s Trattoria Toscana at L’Andana has one, as does Ristorante Bracali, near Massa Marittima.
That isn’t to say you should stick to the culinary journey prescribed by Michelin. You can dine in candlelit splendor at L’Andana one night and the next drive down the road to Macchiascandona, a shabby truck stop where the food is so fabulous it draws locals from miles around.
Places like the Maremma, whose time suddenly seems to have come, invariably have people who always knew—characters like Roberto Sciò, owner of Il Pellicano, the Maremma’s only luxury hotel before the arrival of Ducasse. “I came to the Pellicano as a guest more than forty years ago,” Sciò says as we look over the hotel’s immaculate terraced gardens to a sparkling sea. “Literally the first person I saw in the lobby was Charlie Chaplin. I walked a few paces and there was the Queen of the Netherlands, sunbathing by the pool.”
Sciò’s guests are wealthy, knowing, discreet. He has seen it all, and for him the Maremma’s emergence is hardly unexpected or unwelcome. There is, Sciò says, plenty of the Maremma to go around.
Others aren’t so sure and lament the new development. My friend Marella has doubts but isn’t one to let the Maremman grass grow beneath her feet. At Garavicchio she turned one of the houses into a villa for rent with the help of her husband, artist Sandro Chia, a star of the eighties New York art world.
The summer evening I visit, friends sit around Sandro and Marella’s majestic bronze dining table. The group includes Sabina Corsini, whose 1,000-year-old Florentine family of popes, princes, and Renaissance bankers has long owned estates here. We talk about the changes. “The Maremma has always been considered wild, tricky, inhospitable,” Corsini says. “Its darker side has preserved it. Of course it’s changing, but the region still only attracts discerning travelers, those who love pure and unspoiled country.”
We are drinking wine from the Corsini estate, Tenuta di Marsiliana, where the family has sumptuous houses to rent. Corsini shows me a few lines on the bottle’s label written by her father, Principe Filippo Corsini, which seem to sum things up quite nicely: “Beloved, dulcet Maremma, who could ever say, as once they did, that this is now a bitter land?”
Visiting the Maremma
Located in southwestern Tuscany, the Maremma stretches some 60 miles along the Tyrrhenian coast, from Capalbio up to Cecina. The nearest major airports are Rome’s Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci), a 90-minute drive to the south, and Pisa’s Galileo Galilei, an hour to the north. The Rome–Pisa railroad (trenitalia.com) offers regular connections to Grosseto and Orbetello. The best times to visit are May and June, when the countryside is most verdant, or September and early October, when the wine harvest takes place, the weather is good, and the summer crowds have left. Note that some hotels and restaurants close from mid-October through early April.
A former royal hunting lodge and estate with 25 rooms and 22 suites, Alain Ducasse’s L’Andana features indoor and outdoor pools, an Espa, and three golf holes, with a full course planned (from $370; Località Badiola, Castiglione della Pescaia; 39-05/6494-4800; andana.it). It also has a Michelin-starred restaurant, Trattoria Toscana, that serves robust country dishes (dinner, $100). The glamorous Il Pellicano, which occupies a ravishing spot on the Argentario Peninsula, has 35 rooms and 15 suites divided between the main building and six cottages (from $560; Località Sbarcatello, Porto Ercole; 39-05/6485-8111; pellicanohotel.com). Its celebrated terrace restaurant features a sophisticated, seafood-heavy menu (dinner, $145). Located in classic, remote Tuscan countryside, Castello di Vicarello is less a hotel than a beautifully furnished private house, with five suites and two rooms in a 12th-century castle and outlying stone buildings (from $495; Poggi del Sasso, Cinigiano; 39-05/6499-0718; vicarello.it). The atmosphere is stylishly bohemian, and meals of game and handmade pasta (dinner, $75) are usually eaten communally.
Villas for Rent
Some of the most exclusive properties in the Maremma can be booked through Letizia Pasolini and Matilde Cartoni of Live in It (39-06/6813-5740; liveinit.com). Casa di Garavicchio, a hillside retreat in converted stables overlooking medieval Capalbio and the sea, sleeps ten and has a pool and delightful gardens—plus, artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s fantastical masterpiece Il Giardino dei Tarocchi is on the estate’s grounds ($ from $5,370 per week; Borgo Carige, Capalbio; 39-33/5131-9215; castelloromitorio.com). Some 15 miles north, the Corsini estate has several properties for rent, including the Castello di Marsiliana, which sleeps 15 (from $4,350), and the Granaio degli Acquisti, a converted granary that sleeps eight (from $3,345), with a large pool and charming gardens (Tenuta di Marsiliana; 39-05/582-9301; tenutamarsiliana.it).
Where to Eat
Go to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Bracali, just outside Massa Marittima, for the tasting menu to enjoy the full sweep of Francesco Bracali’s creative, elegant Tuscan cooking (dinner, $140; 2 Via di Perolla, Ghirlanda; 39-05/6690-2318; bracaliristorante.it). At the Michelin two-star Caino the presentation can be fussy, but Valeria Piccini’s seasonal takes on pheasant, pigeon, rabbit, and other game are a triumph (dinner, $120; 4 Via Chiesa, Montemerano; 39-05/6460-2817; dacaino.it). La Pineta’s cacciuco is one of the best versions of the classic fish soup that’s made up and down the Tyrrhenian coast (dinner, $70; 27 Via dei Cavalleggeri Nord, Marina di Bibbona; 39-05/8660-0016). It’s little more than a beach shack in a pretty, pine-backed setting, but that’s the charm of Fuorirotta, which serves light lunches and dinner by prior arrangement ($ lunch, $35; Località la Canova, Marina di Grosseto; 39-34/5325-1813; fuorirottabeach.it). Don’t be put off by the unprepossessing exterior of Macchiascandona: The regional classics—bean soups, grilled meats—at this roadside trattoria are simple, inexpensive, and first-rate ($ dinner, $40; Via Castiglionese, near La Badiola; 39-05/6494-4127).