SIENA, Italy — My husband Mischa and I zipped through the undulating Tuscan countryside in our rented apple green Opel. Suddenly in the luminous dusk, the red stone abbey of Monte Olivetto Maggiore soared out of the groves of pine, oaks and olives. After parking the car, we walked up to the monastery, one of Tuscany's most beautifully situated, eager to hear the Benedictine monks' Gregorian vespers, which wafted through the abbey's portal. It was a sublime introduction to our journey southwest through the Maremma, a little-known corner of Grosseto province, Tuscany's southern and largest area.
We love Italy and have seen the wonders of Florence, Siena, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Bologna, the magnificent region of Emilia-Romagna and even a few of the lake areas around Milan. This time, my Italian friend, Elisabetta, whose home town is in Grosseto, suggested a vacation together in her province to see the bittersweet land of the Maremma, with its scenic coast and the island of Giglio.
We hardly were aware of the coast in Tuscany and never had heard of the Maremma, but Elisabetta's enthusiasm was convincing. We would meet her in Ansedonia, but I understand Italian (French is my mother tongue, a close linguistic cousin) and the few days of exploring on our own would be easy.
The Maremma occupies a vast wedge between Latium (Rome's region) and the rest of Tuscany, but is defined more by climate, fauna and flora, history, regional food and the character of its inhabitants than by geographical boundaries.
It took 3,500 years to write the history of the Maremma, from the Etruscans to Greeks to Romans, on to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the dominion of the Medicis. Now for a taste of the region, you need drive less than two hours from Rome or Florence--and you'll find it unforgettable. The countryside reminded me of old Dutch paintings. The Tyrrhenian Sea wrapping the land lends sparkle and charisma to the coastal cities. It is an Italian version of Martha's Vineyard or Big Sur.
From Florence, we had taken a short train ride to Siena, the jumping-off spot for the Maremma, and rented the little Opel for a week. It was still daylight in late summer, and warm. Feeling like a break for gelato and bracing espresso, we stopped in a snug cafe and came upon Piero, an ancient mariner and poet. Piero spoke French and the Latin he learned when he studied for the priesthood, a calling he abandoned to marry 42 years ago.
Piero appointed himself our temporary mentor. He related that long after the Middle Ages, the Maremma was bogged by swamps, riddled with malaria. Drained dry, it still was unpenetrated by main highways and had to wait until the 1950s to be "discovered." Like many locals, Piero has embraced the new industry of turismo, and holds a job working on a ferry boat. But the Maremma is still enough off the beaten path to discourage many travelers.
During the few days we had in the Maremma, we intended to make our vita as dolce as possible, to enjoy a symphony of experiences that could be reached in easy stages: nature reserves perfect for trekking, bird and wild animal watching; Monte Amiata, a dormant volcano that is the highest peak in Tuscany; the Etruscan and medieval villages of Saturnia, Sovana and Pitigliano on the sloping hills southwest of Siena; the beautiful Costa d'Argento (Silver Coast) with fashionable Ansedonia and the spectacular promontory of Monte Argentario from which white ferries whisk you to the island of Giglio.
Our first overnight stop in the Maremma was the Hotel Terme di Saturnia, an elegant resort fed by a hot volcanic spring whose health-giving waters have been popular since Etruscan days. The hot, sulfurous spring water runs off at about 200 gallons a second, making a laughing little brook through fields of sunflowers until it cascades down onto terraces of flat rocks. This area, a short drive from the hotel, is open to the public free of charge, but with no amenities for changing clothes. It was fun paddling in the stream with giggling children and mamas, then sitting precariously on smooth stones, letting the thermal waterfalls rush down our backs.
There were a few American tourists at the hotel. But during our entire stay in the Maremma, I never felt the crush of tourists. It may have been the end of the season or the simple fact that the area is not really promoted and hardly advertised. Hotels, with the exception of deluxe properties, serve mainly Italian or European clientele.
We devoted the following day's excursion to the villages of Saturnia, Sovana and Pitigliano, all little towns of Etruscan origin. Little is known about the Etruscans, who lived eight centuries before Christ and dominated what is now Italy, from the Po valley to Naples. They were arms dealers, processing iron and making weapons that their ships carried to all the ports in the Mediterranean. They were culturally sophisticated and, like the Egyptians, buried their dead in fantastic necropolises.