Roccalbegna in Tuscany Italy is a slice of Neapolitan ice cream sandwiched between two rocks and boy, oh boy, one of those rocks is a big rock! Take a walk through that Italian "gelato" and you will find no end of things to see, from waterfalls, a medieval lane of love, to a centuries old olive tree and medieval towers, roses, a fortress and faces in a wall... Your camera memory card will be bursting will details.
But it is only when, if you are lucky to witness it, that a simple but rare thing happens which makes you realise if you hadn't already, just how special Roccalbegna is.
For the passage of a car through town is an uncommon event.
But even rarer still are two cars passing each other through town at the same time. Which you cannot help but notice, because they can't.
Which takes you to the very heart of why Roccalbegna is here at all. And will leave you with a smile. Just a little one, but one nonetheless that comes with a warm glow. Because, in this 21st century of ours, it feels good deep down to find ourselves stood in places in which the race for speed has had little effect. In which time has, for all intents and purposes, stood still.
For the road through Roccalbegna is practically unchanged from when travellers passed through on horseback. Or in a horse-drawn carriage. It is a narrow road. Not much more than a cat's whisker wider than a single car narrow. Lined with tradesmen, whose signs are painted on the walls above their doors in the same Neapolitan colours as the houses in town. Which is why Roccalbegna and its fortresses were built here: the only route through this part of Maremma into Monte Amiata territory passed and naturally narrowed here, between two rocks. A perfect strategic location to control all trade and traffic. And many wanted to.
But it has literally also stood still in time for another reason. For its medieval street plan hasn't been altered since it was drawn-up in the middle ages. All coloured in vanilla, strawberry and chocolate! Your footsteps will trace those of veiled women in full-length robes, with sleeves that reached the ground, cone hats and horn-shaped headdresses. Men in tights and long pointy-toed shoes. And oxen.
Roccalbegna is a slow town: go to enjoy it for just that and whilst you are there be blown away by its "Rocca".
The Rocca Aldobrandesca, or "il Sasso" as it is locally known, will take your breath away. Twice. The first time you see it as you approach town. And then when you climb to its highest point and look over the wall. Read about its turbulent history and find its secret as you make your way up the rock... the Rocca Aldobrandesca.
When the city walls were rebuilt and fortified in the thirteenth century there were two gateway entrances to the inside of Roccalbegna, the Porta di Montagna to the north and Porta di Maremma to the south, and three towers.
Today only two portions of the Sienese city walls survive. The section attached to the Porta di Maremma in the south-west.
And a section north-west along the route to "la Rocca" with two still-standing Sienese towers and their barracks.
From the outside looking in. You can see the Porta Maremma and the remaining section of city wall in the lower left of this photograph.
Roccalbegna takes its name from the "fiume Albegna" - the river Albegna - that flanks it.
The earliest surviving documentary evidence of its presence is contained in a record dated 17 November 817 of the Abbots of Amiata, the Abbazia di San Salvatore of Monte Amiata, who owned the town and a lot more around these parts.
By the year 1210, Roccalbegna had its Rocca. The early years of the thirteenth century brought with them an irreversible decline in the power of the abbots in favour of the ever stronger noble family of Maremma, the Aldobrandeschi. And in 1216, Roccalbegna became theirs.
From then onwards, the story of Roccalbegna is forever entwined with that of its Rocca. For whoever controlled the Rocca, not only held Roccalbegna, but the most strategic outpost in the territory of Monte Amiata. Barely a man or woman could pass in or out of Monte Amiata without doing so through Roccalbegna.
When the Republic of Siena took ownership of Roccalbegna in 1296, they did something extraordinary. For not only did they restore the Cassero and build new city walls and towers connecting it and the Rocca, but in the April of that very same year they had their architects draw-up a new urban plan for an enlarged town within those walls. An octagonal one. With forty plots and a grid of straight, narrow, perfect 90 degree criss-crossing streets.
The very same streets that you can see and walk along today. Unchanged.
Noble Sienese families were encouraged to purchase plots and build their palaces there. The "encouragement" extended to giving each a free, 100 bushel size, plot of land and the privilege of not having to bother with paying taxes for a long time. And they came.
Once a fortress and the fulcrum of activity and power in Roccalbegna, and then a private residence complete with formal gardens, the Cassero Senese today is an oasis of tranquility which mother nature has adorned with tiny beauties.
It's one of those rare places in this world where you could happily sit for hours and hours doing absolutely nothing.
The path up will take you past these staring faces!
One hundred and fifteen years after Siena re-built and reinforced it, the Keep became too expensive to maintain and was dismantled down to just its living quarters.
Thirty-four years later, in 1445, its fortunes changed again when the then governors of Roccalbegna, Andrea and Gherardo di Mariano, restored it along with the town's water cistern and a part of the city walls. Still owned by Siena, the Republic contributed four hundred gold florins for the works.
What was once a formal geometric Italian garden is now home to a wonderful variety of plant and wildlife that have taken hold in its crevices. And roses. Beautiful roses.
One of those tiny beauties: an old World Swallowtail butterfly.
The view of the river Albegna and the other side of its valley. There is a drop over the wall that you see in the photograph above down to the river with its crystal clear waters.
It is along this stretch that, if you take a walk along the river bank, you will find three ancient water mills: the the Mulino di Sopra (the mill above) near the bridge over the Fiume Albegna (river), the Mulino di Mezzo (the middle mill), and the Mulino di Sotto (the under mill). Little remains of the upper and lower mills, but the Mulino di Mezzo is still intact and being restored. A path - called locally the, "quattro passi con gli elfi" (walk with the elves), has been cleared from the central shady park in town down to it, with places to sit and gaze at waterfalls along the way.
The mill's old pond is now full of flowers instead of water.
The Cassero, its freshwater well to the right, and the Rocca Aldobrandesca in the background to the left.
The view of La Rocca from the Cassero.
Walking through town will take you along ups and downs, around corners and along narrow stone-paved streets that open into public squares. Squeezed as they are between the ever present jutting bedrock upon which Roccalbegna has been built on and around, these same streets are surprisingly bathed in light and sunshine. Medieval they may have been, but Siena's city planners designed something extraordinary for Roccalbegna.
TIP. If you get thirsty walking around in all that sunshine, the water fountain that you will find in tiny Piazza Tripoli supplies lovely fresh, cool drinking water. But note that the water spouting from the heads in the wall at the far end of town, near the bridge over the river, is not drinking water. (There are plenty of signs to tell you.)
Piazza IV Novembre.
Quite a few of the houses in this part of town have or are being restored - in style and colour of their past - with funds from one of Maremma's banks. The builders were busy at work when I last visited and it is from them that we received unqualified assurance that the water fountain was good to use. Indeed, they don't bother bringing water with them from home as this supply is always wonderfully cool and fresh, better than fridge-cold water!
The main road down - the Via della Madonna - to Porta di Maremma.
The way to Via dell'Amore - the street of love.
These first two, in Via Ortaggio, took their owners into privileged circles in the city of Siena.
They are doors into the twelfth Palazzo della Lana, or the Palazzo della'Arte della Lana as it is fully known. Doors that when opened connected the textile producers of Roccalbegna with the ancient Wool Guild of the city of Siena, the "Arte della Lana". The most influential industrial guild in the city.
Doors which granted them special dispensations from the law.
Members of this guild disproportionately held positions of power in the "Nine". The Nine Governors and Defenders of the Commune and People of Siena, who ruled the city and gave it a time of unheard of stability peace from turmoil between 1285 and 1355.
And were exempt from inspection and fines by the officers of the city's podesta whilst about their duties of inspecting the city's streets for illegal practices and inspections.
The Nine approved a request by "lanaioli" (wool manufacturers) that podesta officers be instructed to desist from bothering them, including "their customary methods of sale, which included the illegal display of wares in their windows as well as on the benches of their shops". Reference: A Medieval Italian Commune: Siena Under the Nine, 1287-1355, William M. Bowsky.
Around the corner are two more arched doors numbered 1 and 3, and a smaller one numbered, 5. Take a close look at the architrave of Number 5; for in it you will find carved a city of Siena shield, tools of the wool trade, and the heads of two sheep - one female and one male.
Roccalbegna's main church, the Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, was originally built in 1296. And, yes, the front portico is slanting: structural failure following subsidence.
Amongst other things, the church is home to an oil on canvas painting by the Sienese Baroque artist Francesco Nasini, "Madonna in cielo tra i Santi Cristoforo e Giacomo Maggiore". (His work is concentrated in the churches of the hill towns of Monte Amiata.) And a painting on wood with gold leaf by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of "San Pietro, la Vergine col Bambino e San Paolo", dated around the year 1340.
As well as two frescoes found on the walls during its restoration in the 1900's of the much more modest of Roccalbegna's religious buildings, the fifteenth century Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso.
Once through the Porta di Maremma, you'll find the small fifteenth century church of Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso immediately in front of you.
And there is another "rock" to see. You'll need to turn left out of the Porta and walk down the lane to your left. Follow it and between two houses on the right you will spot a clearing with view of the other "pietra", and a memorial plaque.
The plaque simply says,
"In ricordo di Ariberto Margiacchi qui ucciso L'11.6.1944"
In memory of Ariberto Margiacchi who was killed here on the 11th June 1944.
You will find his name listed in another plaque in town along with BINDI Imoto (31 years), BIZZARRI Roberto (22 years), LAZZARINI Santi (33 years), PIERINI Pio (65 years), and POLEMI Livio (20 years), other "sons of Roccalbegna", killed that day "at the hands of German anger". Ariberto Margiacchi was 39 years old.
At around 1pm that day a German truck carrying armed SS troops with sten guns arrived in town on their retreat north. The liberation was on its way. The towns people panicked and sought safety in flight, at which point the SS opened fire. These six men were killed, and many more were injured.
The gardens behind each building, tucked into corner spaces amongst the bedrock, are well-tended and some, are home to centuries old olive trees. This one is in the lovely garden with lavender just outside the Porta di Maremma.
Even the buildings in the olive groves are strawberry Neapolitan ice cream coloured :)
Just on the doorstep is the superb Aia della Colonna Tuscany farmhouse.
Explore some more...