On the Road in Southern Tuscany: Pitigliano, Sovana, Sorano & Saturnia
Updated: May 28, 2022
Tuscany is so big, there are still places I've never seen in my 25 years of guiding here. So I was thrilled to have the chance to visit some towns in the far south, near the border with Umbria and Lazio.
Many people are confused about what Tuscany actually IS, so here are the basics: Tuscany is one of 20 regions in Italy (sort of like U.S. states). It's quite big, at 23,000 km2 (~8,900 sq mi.) it's about the size of Israel, or the state of New Jersey. It's divided into ten provinces (Florence, Arezzo, Grosseto, Livorno, Lucca, Massa Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena) and Florence is the regional capital. There's SO much to see here that sometimes it feels endless.
The area I headed to was out past the rolling hills of the Crete Senesi (= the clay hills of Siena, seen above), known for the vast fields of winter wheat that are brilliant green in the spring and a million shades of tan and brown the rest of the year. I continued south into the province of Grosseto to visit the towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano.
Pitigliano, beautiful at all times of day (as always, click on each image to see it separately if you're viewing this on a computer instead of a phone)
Pitigliano sits perched on a pedestal of volcanic tuff stone, and dominates the valley below. Its history goes back to Etruscan times, and indeed that was what I had gone there to explore.
The Etruscan civilization is still shrouded in mystery as they appeared in Italy seemingly out of nowhere around 1000 BC. Recent DNA studies show them to be "native" to the Italian peninsula, but their culture and language was so different from others at the time that I still think it's more complicated. They used an alphabet that was unique to them and left very little written record, so we still don't know that much about them! And these "Vie Cave" or "excavated roads/ways" are a prime example: why did they carve out these deep channels? Were they for religious pilgrimage? or for moving around without being seen? or for ease of travel? Some are wide and some are extremely narrow.
What's interesting is that some of the channels continued to be used -- and further excavated -- through the centuries, so the deeper you go the more "modern" you get.
Some are clearly sacred in nature as they lead to Etruscan tomb complexes, with slots for graves carved into the soft rock.
Many of them are like little houses inside, with separate rooms with "beds" to lie the bodies on:
Some were topped with elaborate headstones, like this gorgeous sea creature:
The figure is nearly life-size and would have looked like this (excuse my sleight-of-hand photoshopping 😉)
You can follow sections of the Vie Cave from Pitigliano all the way to neighboring Sovana, a tiny Medieval hamlet with some beautiful churches.
The Medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore has some beautiful frescoes:
And a rare example of a sculpted"ciborium," or covered altar:
Sovana may be small but it had an important history, so it even has a cathedral. This one was built in the 11th c. over an earlier church. I love the capitals on the columns:
The interior is somber and simple:
There's also a lovely baptismal font as well as some creepy old relics in the crypt:
Meanwhile... back in Pitigliano I admired this aqueduct that actually dates from the 17th c. when the city was under control of the Medici family from Florence (as was all of Tuscany at the time):
The city was fun to explore by night and I loved all of these little alleyways (one of which was the entrance to the Jewish ghetto, seen in the middle below:
There used to be a large Jewish population, and you can still see the synagogue and their bakery which was built inside an Etruscan cave.
For more on this, read the fascinating story of a Jewish grandmother who evaded deportation during WWII by hiding in the town's secret grottoes: "The Last Jewish Nonna of Pitigliano."
Along with town-hopping, I spent a lot of hours on the trail, and the springtime flowers did not disappoint! Here below, wild cyclamen:
Here below, a rare pink wisteria and two kinds of wild orchid:
One of my walks went past aquamarine thermal waters to the outdoor spring of Saturnia:
The river water was pleasantly warmed by the thermal currents:
I ended up at the magical hamlet of Montemerano, which has been included on the "most beautiful villages of Italy" list.
I also paid a quick visit to the fortress-topped Medieval town of Sorano:
Here too, the surrounding hills are riddled with Etruscan tombs and caves.
And of course... after all of that walking and exploring, it's time to EAT!
Here below: a simple but delicious salad of arugula, oil-cured black olives and orange slices; truffle-topped gnudi (the ricotta & spinach stuffing inside of a raviolo without the pasta); a pecorino cheese & pear flan; pici pasta (a Sienese specialty) with arrabiata sauce (= "angry" because it's slightly spicy); and in Pienza I had to try the local pecorino cheese, seen here melted on toast with fresh truffles; and to end a lovely lunch, a short shot of espresso followed by a glass of sweet Vin Santo with a cantuccio (what you may call a "biscotto," which in Italian is just the generic term for cookie) offered on the house. I think in the end my calorie intake exceeded the output.😄
While in Pienza I also stopped by a local pecorino cheese producer and got a peek into their drying room:
This is about as fresh as it gets! To see more about the tradition of pecorino cheese in Tuscany, see my previous post (click here).
That ends my scouting adventure in southern Tuscany. I hope you enjoyed it! I'd be happy to show you around in person when you're ready to travel, and we can see the sights on foot, by bike, or out the car window. The history, food, wine and scenery are marvelous no matter how you decide to get around. 🙂
As for me, I'm happy to report that I have TOURS again this year! Yayyyy! I'm doing one for my previous employer and the rest are FREElance, so I'm so happy to be back at work again after two long years of pandemic hand-wringing. Come on over and join me sometime, or just toss a few coins into my travel mug if you enjoyed your virtual trip (tip your guide here).
Thanks for coming along, and see you next time!