Maremma's hill town of Sassetta in Livorno territory is the poor sister to her ever so wanting to be chic sibling down by the coast, Castagneto Carducci. But it is to her that you will longingly head in the summer. For despite her more mundane clothes and forsaken doorways, she has what money cannot buy.
Cool, caressing breezes on even the hottest of days. For which her sister tries so hard to make up for with wine bar, after enoteca, after wine bar.
There are prettier hill towns than Sassetta. And the number of vacant properties and for sale signs sadly tell of a declining population. Similar to other ancient hill top hamlets and villages in this part of Tuscany.
But if you are struggling to keep your kids amused and want a break from sandcastles along the Costa degli Etruschi (less than half an hours drive away). Then it is to Sassetta that you should head. For, completely for free, she will keep them happy for a stress-free hour or two.
You'll get to stroll around a medieval "borgo" bursting with bedrock and tales to be told. And they will get to explore safely on their own. There isn't much trouble they can get into and there is so much to see.
Then, when you are all done. Head the short drive downhill for some shopping, a gelato for them and a cool aperitivo for you in Castagneto Carducci. A wonderful afternoon. Sorted! At the price of an ice cream and a glass of wine.
At the heart of Sassetta is an elliptical walled centre that was once home to its medieval castle. The Castello di Orsini. When you walk around inside the town, along its narrow streets, you can make out the curved line of what would once have been its external walls. Built upon the local bedrock that juts out beneath and in them.
But where the Orsini castle once stood now stands a Spanish palace.
The medieval Orsini Lords of Sassetta: what a tale and some to be told! Sassetta may today be a quiet hill top town, surrounded by woodland along a road you have to deliberately choose to take to reach it. But it's middle ages rulers were anything but quiet. Nor dull.
Originating from the Orlandi Pellari branch of the family in Pisa, these men had an unbroken and powerful ancestry that went way back.
The lives and misfortunes of the Orsini lords. My pick of just four.
Lord Giovanni Orsini - known simply as "Nanni" - is the most legendary of them all. Because he slayed a dragon in 1109. But not just any dragon. A serpent-looking, sulphur spitting one. That lived around Sassetta. And ate the locals.
Hence the dragon - or rather a large viper - on the Sassetta family crest of arms.
You need to know that Sassetta is located in Maremma's Mediterranean and forest covered "colline metallifere" - metalliferous hills. Hills that are heated by a magma mass about 5 to 10 kilometres below your feet. Home to wondrous solfataras, fulmaroles and gurgling splitter-splatting mud pools. Wonderfully warm thermal springs. And snakes. And lizards.
It isn't hard to imagine that a long and fat viper warming itself alongside a steaming and spitting solfatara might kick-start a panic in town. And become its "draconem".
Especially as the name "dragon" originally referred to a large serpent.
But the Orsini lords story didn't start with Giovanni. The archives start 28 years earlier with one Rodilando and his son Gualando, to whom King Enrico IV confirmed the fiefdom in 1081. Vassals of the Selva Palatina di Migliarino.
But their castle, the Castello de Sassetta, was built long before then. In all probability, along with others near Maremma's coast, as protection against frequent and unforgiving Barbary pirate attacks.
In 1252, Lord Pannocchia Orlandi took a trip south. Not far at all. Just down the road to the next town of Monteverdi di Marittima. But sufficiently far to take him into enemy territory: that of the Bishop of Volterra.
There, by cover of darkness, he attacked the monastery of San Pietro, murdering the Abbot and all but one of the monks. Plundered and burnt to the ground the Abbey, the "Badia di Palazzuolo".
The one monk to have heard the start of the attack in time to escape, ran into the abbey seeking help from the Madonna. But he didn't hang around long. Grabbing her from her pedestal and putting her in a sack on his back he made his way towards Massa Marittima. Arriving and hiding in a place now called Frassine. There he hid her in a tree and fled. The statue stayed there for more than a century.
But today you can see her - she has prime position - in the Santuario Madonna del Frassine, one of Maremma's most important destinations for pilgrims.
In 1288, Pannocchia became protector of the City of Pisa and died two years later doing so against a Muslim attack.
The Comune di Sassetta (local Authority website) notes that the locals of Sassetta are still probably considered ex-communicated for the act of Lord Pannocchia!
It's 1314, and the war that the Bonturo Dati, the leader of the City of Lucca (through dishonesty and bribes) provoked the year before is coming to a head. Lord Tigrino is fighting alongside Uguccione Faggiola, Lord of Pisa, holding siege to the City of Lucca.
At the siege's end, Tigrino commits an act for which he was immortalised in Giosuè Carducci's poem, the Faida di Comune. The last verse reads:
"Ma Tigrin de la Sassetta,
Faccia ed anima cattiva,
Trasse a corsa pe’ capelli
Un lucchese che fuggiva,
E la spada per le reni
Una volta e due gli fisse;
Tinse il dito entro quel sangue,
Su la porta così scrisse:
– Manda a te, Bonturo Dati,
Che i lucchesi hai consigliati,
Da la porta a San Friano
Questo saluto il popolo pisano.."
Which, in a nutshell tells that Lord Tigrin, of nasty face and soul, dragged a fleeing Lucca man by his hair. Fixed his sword in the mans kidneys, once and then again. Put his fingers in the mans blood, and on the entrance door to the city wrote,
"I send to you, Bonturo Dati, the Lucca men you sent. From the doorway of San Friano, this greeting from the people of Pisa."
Who lost the lot.
In 1400, practically all of Tuscany fell under the control of Firenze, the ancient rivals of Pisa. Including Sassetta. But the Orlandi lords were having none of it and, at the slightest opportunity didn't hesitate to start an insurrection.
Wind forward thirty-three years and Lord Jacopo Ranieri di Tommaso Orlandi has a death sentence hanging over his head. One he manages to escape when Cosimo de Medici il Vecchio - with whom he is on good terms - returns to power in Firenze. The sentence is suspended and then cancelled for good.
But it doesn't end there.
In 1475, Lord Jacopo is appointed Knight and Captain of the Florentine militia. In 1478 trouble arrives in Sassetta in the likes of the men of the Duke of Calabria. Who had damaged the goods and properties of the people of the town when they passed through. Enraging so much Jacopo's nephew Pierpaolo, that he exited from the castle and attacked the Duke's men. Killing seven or eight of them.
The Duke set about to retaliated. Sending message that he was going to burn the place to the ground. Fifty foot soldiers and archers on horseback were called to Sassetta to defend it.
In 1495 he is arrested and taken to Florence suspected of treason against the Florentines. But he manages to not only be immediately freed, but to also to wangle for the Florentine commissioner who arrested him to be ordered to publicly apologize.
Two years later, with forty men, Ranieri surprises his neighbour Count Ugo della Gherardesca whilst hunting. With whom he has been arguing for tears over the border that divides the lands of their two families. And kills him near the Abbey of Castagneto Carducci.
In July 1498, he is taken prisoner for a second time. Again he manages to be freed. But this time in exchange for a Guelph, one Achille Tiberti di Cesena.
A year later he is captured during the failed defense of Cascina. By Florentine Paolo Vitelli and Ranuccio da Marciano. Vitelli is ordered by Florentine authorities to consign Ranieri to Firenze where they intend to carry-out an outstanding death sentence upon him for desertion. But Vitelli, not wanting to be the executioner of such an esteemed warrior and opponent, assists him to escape.
Ranieri continued to support Pisa's cause. Not hesitating to supported besieged Pisa and defeating Florentine troops when and where he could. Adding his men and sword to those of others in the conquest of nearby Suvereto, Scarlino, the Isola dell'Elba and Pianosa. And the siege of Piombino. But in 1504 he was captured during a sortie and sentenced, once again, to death. Which again wasn't carried out.
His battles against Firenze continue. Involving at one stage - in April 1505 - the negotiation of the release from Florentine prisons of his father, his brother Giacomo, and uncle. For prisoners he has captured. He and his brother continue unfailingly to plot and fight in support of Pisa. Even when the City doesn't pay him money owed. Using his own assets to maintain his troops.
In the autumn of 1506, news spreads of his capture and hanging in Bargello. But it isn't him swinging in front of the town's windows. But a relative.
He fights for ten more years. In the service of the Venetians and the Pope.
Then events caught-up with him.
In January 1514, whilst attempting to get back the contract of sale that their father had signed for the Castello di Sassetta, Ranieri's brother Geremia della Sassetta stabs to death Fazio della Gherardesca in Castagneto Carducci. The Florentine authorities declare both brothers rebels.
In October 1516 the Florentine authorities "invite" both brothers to a meeting to explain the justification of the killing of Fazio della Gherardesca. But they fail to show-up. On 15th October 1516 they are declared rebels and sentenced to exile - never to return to Sassetta. The Sassetta estate and their other properties were confiscated. The castle destroyed.
The locals submit to Florentine rule. Ranieri seeks refuge in Rome.
Despite trying to provoke his relations by marriage into action on his behalf, and writing copious letters to Giovanni de 'Medici and the Pope beseeching them to intervene in his favour. His energies fell on stony ground. The Florentine lords irrevocably refused to budge.
This time he had lost Sassetta for good.
He cannot stop himself. Sassetta runs through his blood and he must embrace it one more time.
In August 1520, knowing the odds against him, he returns home and takes the castle. And waits for the inevitable.
At the end of the month fifty light-horse cavalry arrive. Storm the castle and capture him. After a summary trial just down the road in the Pesa valley, he faces his headsman. A man he has long had wranglings with. And asks for permission to embrace him. In fear of being bitten on the nose rather than hugged, the man refuses.
Ranier places his own head, hands untied, on the block.
Get your kids to each pick-up a "Percorsi d'Arte" leaflet with it's map in the huge "letterbox" on the wall on the right just before you enter the "porta" to the historic centre of town, and you'll be set for a good hour and more of a treasure hunt that will have them touching and hugging their finds.
Whilst you get to explore a medieval hill top town with not on, "I'm bored", moan.
Sassetta's "Il Simposio di Scultura. Arte Contemporanea in Marmo Rosso di Sassetta" - The Sculpture Symposium. Contemporary Art in Red Mable of Sassetta - is held once a year. But the products of the event - creations in hues of soft pink - are on show the whole year.
Along with some surprises!
Each year a theme is chosen for the following year. All of them dedicated to the traditions of the town. The hunt, wood and it's ancient crafts.
For this 2016 year, the theme is the story of Sassetta's food and cultivation. And each preceding June, just five - know known across Italy as the "Fab Five" - international sculptors are chosen (their names are not known by the panel of judges) based upon their design proposal.
The town's red marble is a beautiful stone, rich in ammonites and shellfish fossils. But it doesn't just decorate the doorsteps, windows and staircases of it's ancient palazzo's. Loved by Italian architects and stonemasons of the 14th century, you will have probably already seen it before you step foot in this tucked-away part of Tuscany. For it adorns the Duomo and Campanile di Giotto in Firenze, and the Battistero di San Giovanni in Siena.
If you happen to visit around mid-July, for ten days you will be able to see the visiting sculptors at work carving their entries with chain saws and chisels, just outside of town on the road to Suvereto. You can't miss it. The land enclosed by the large and wide bend in the road - just after you pass the last of Sassetta's houses - has a number of blocks of marble on it and a large sign.
And. As well as watching the shapes emerge form the stone, you can participate in the event too. By voting for your favourite to win the annual People's Choice Award.
This year also Sassetta's marble sculpture collection complemented by a couple of curvy nude ladies in bronze.
And another that I suspect isn't part of the Symposium. There are others too that practically make it impossible to turn a corner without finding a sculpture or two. Including those spiders I mentioned.
The two favourites you'll find just inside the ancient gateway at the beginning of the trail.
Giving flowers to the "squirrel". Formally named "Animali del bosco, gli antichi custodi del regno" - "Animals of the wood, the ancient guardians of the realm".
And a cuddle to the dog. "La Punta" - "The set".
This lady isn't a Symposium sculpture, but she has popped-up without clothes anyway. Sat on the wall by the church making friends with the local black and white cat.
Watch out! Watch out! You will find them in two places!
Not on the sculpture trail map, but a must see are Sassetta's huge garden and house spiders.
This year Sophia would do this shot for me. Last year she wouldn't! I told her it was in the interests of getting a perspective!
Some of the sculptures are more tucked-away than others. The sleeping roe deer.
I can count five. How many house spiders can you see?
The view from the spider house across the valley and the quarry to the cemetery. And a note in advance if your little ones happen to be running on ahead.
The path continues past the spider house and ends in an unprotected drop over the edge into the valley below.
The road along the top of that cliff takes you to the hamlet of Frassine and the hot rocks town of Monterotondo Marittima. Along it you will find the farm of Podere La Cerreta, which is the starting point for a trekking trail that takes you along dirt roads and an easy track through woodland in Sassetta's nature park. The Parco di Poggio Neri.
Once home to the age old tradition of charcoal burning. With whole families living in wooden-framed huts near streams, with roofs of earth clods or fur. Tending to the fires day and night, winter through to summer.
Today Poggio Neri is still packed thick with holm oaks and chestnut trees - hence the permanent fixture of chestnut roasting equipment in the centre of town - and an abundance of flora and fauna. Enough to keep any young nature lover happy collecting and spotting things for hours.
The trek is of moderate difficulty - nothing too strenuous or steep - taking you uphill by 370 metres and down, along a 13.2 kilometre route. About four hours of wonderful woodland in total.
But. The trek once you leave the dirt roads is unsigned and barely perceptible in places. You will need to follow the trail directions carefully if you don't want to get lost.
For the map of the route - and others itineraries (treks, cycle routes and horseback riding) around the town and between Sassetta and the other hill towns of the Costa degli Etruschi - pop into the Tourist Information Office in the centre of town. Telephone 0566 794521. You can't miss it. It is located in a wooden hut alongside the only road that passes through town, in the triangular piazza. And, unlike many others in my neck of the woods in Maremma, this one is nearly always open.
And if you happen to be a pipe smoker you might be interested to know that the craft of making briarwood pipes has been passed down from father to son for generations here in Sassetta. For the woodland is also home to mature briar trees whose roots are dug out and cured for between three and five years before the bowl and shank are cut.
I love the details of life here in Italy. Modern-day telephone cabling making its way over terracotta downpipes held in place by rusted iron fixings in the Via del Borghetto.
A curvy street and leaning buildings inside the original castle walls.
The curve of the castle and it's protruding bedrock seen from the outside.
The Palazzo Ramirez de Montalvo. The most striking building in the centre of Sassetta. You can't miss it in the centre of town as you arrive at a near ninety degrees bend in the road through.
Built on the remains of the Orsini family castle by the Spanish nobleman and trusted confidant of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de'Medici, Don Antonio Ramirez de Montalvo. When he was granted the estate of Sassetta in perpetuity (for him and his descendants) by Cosimo I on 9 October 1563. He held the title of Lord of Sassetta until the abolition of the feudal system in the second half of the 18th century. At which point he assumed the title of Marquis (and only had power over the keepers of the church).
The crest of arms that you can see above the front door is his.
Montalvo, a descendant of an ancient and noble dynasty of the province of Avila, had followed his former lover, the sixteen year old Spanish noble lady Eleonora di Toledo (Doña Leonor Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio), from his and her home in Castile to Firenze. He was her butler. Where she was to wed - and did in 1539 - twenty year old Cosimo I.
Cosimo needed a wife of noble rank to strengthen his political position within the inner power circle in Italy. And a fertile one to calm and consolidate years of rule by his predecessors known only for their damaging scandals of sexual irregularities, excesses and assassinations.
Eleanora was the daughter of the powerful Don Pedro Alvarez of Toledo, Marquess of Villafranca and Viceroy of Naples. And the family had money. Lots of it. Before her death at the age of forty at the hands of malaria with two of her sons, she bore him eleven children.
Notwithstanding his prior relationship with Eleanora - I can only assume her husband was never told - Montalvo became Osimo's butler. A job which he carried out so well that Osimo rewarded him with a tower house in the centre of Florence, in Borgo Albizi. Which Montalvo had rebuilt and extended when he brought two adjacent houses and a plot alongside. With a court architect and financial help, he had built with quality materials and decorations, the Palazzo Rameirez de Montalvo.
Still stunning today with its facade covered in magnificent frescoes by court artist Giorgio Vasari and external stonework.
Montalvo had three sons and one daughter. Whom he named Eleanora (Leonor). I guess he never forgot his first love.
On the outskirts of town heading towards Castagneto Carducci there are three more. This one
This one in the grounds of the cemetery - on the lawn in front of the gates - you will find this fountain (which has long since stopped working).
And further along the road, on a bend is the prosciutto nicknamed by my lot as the prosciutto - the ham! The BIG ham. It is huge! And would feed an army. I think my daughter and her girlfriend were getting hungry!
Note to mum's: There was once, but there is no more, a gelateria in town. There are a couple of bars and a small "alimentare" (grocers), but other than that you will need to take any snacks you need for hungry sculpture hunters with you. I didn't! (I had promised them an ice cream!) Hence the visions of food in the oddest of places.
There are still more to find in the woods!
Take a look at what the "Fab Five" in action last year (2015).
This year - 2016 - the opening ceremony kick's off on the 9th July. After which the action immediately starts. Lasting from morning till night until the 19 July. For all to see, out in the open.
Virtually all of Maremma's hill top towns, villages and hamlets will require you to drive up and up and up twisty roads, around bend after bend after bend. They are hill top towns after all and, thank goodness, we are still talking slow rural life in this part of Tuscany in which there are only two fast roads. One along the length of the coast. And one from Grosseto to Siena.
But of the three routes to get to Sassetta. One requires me to tell you not to take it if you have children who are prone to travel sickness. For if they weren't before you took it, your holiday will forever be remembered for the one in which they developed it.
Coming from the south, don't drive the 14.4 kilometres of hair pin bends from Suvereto, via Prata. Or vice versa.
Instead, take the unintuitive longer - but much straighter and faster 18.7 kilometre route towards Frassine. And then head left towards Monteverdi Marittima and left again to straight to town. You can't go wrong. The route is really well signposted. It too has some s-bends and and takes you across streams in the valley as you climb the hill on which Sassetta sits. But nothing like the curves of the direct Suvereto route.
If on the other hand, you are travelling on a motorbike and obviously without children in tow. Ignore everything I have just written. Because you will love it!
Take a look.
I still take the twisty route, but slowly. Because sometimes the colours along it are awesome.
Not of the woodland. Nor of the views that you can glimpse of the landscape beyond the roads edge towards Maremma's Valley of the Devil. But because, sometimes, the cork cutters have been at work and the contrast between the deep purple of the stripped trunk, with that of the remaining cork above and below. And the vibrant green of the foliage. Just makes you want to stop and take it all in. And photograph mother nature. But you can't! At least not easily. For there are very far and few places to do so.
The best place to park - and it's free - is just outside of town. Opposite the cemetery.
Be aware that many of the spaces you will pass as you drive through Sassetta - around the triangular piazza and alongside the tourist information office, are for residents only.
Inside the church of the Chiesa di Sant'Andrea you'll find a Tuscan Renaissance painting on wood of the Madonna con bambino fra i Santi Girolamo e Antonio abate" (Madonna and child between Saints Jerome and Abbot Anthony), dated around the first half of the 16th century. And others of the 17th century.
As well as an opera by one Giovan Battista Soldini: the "Stimmate di San Francesco" - the "Stigmata of Saint Francis". Soldini was a friend of the Montalvo family and painted this one whilst in Florence, inspired it is said by a painting in the Uffizzi gallery of " Ecce Homo" by Lodovico Cardi.
If the old lady who lives in Sassetta next to the church is around when you happen to pop your head inside the church, you might get an invitation to go "behind the scenes" to the see the remains of an anonymous martyr of the Roman catacombs. And more art. The remains are carried through town on the Low Sunday under the name of Santa Lorìca.
During the last three Sunday's in October, an otherwise quiet Sassetta puts on her best clothes and opens her doors to visitors from all around for her annual gastronomic festival. Celebrating - with age-old recipes handed down from mother to daughter - what has been the basis of life here for centuries. The products from her woodlands. Chestnuts and game. With a good helping of polenta.
With townsfolk parading in medieval costume, local "sbandieratori" throwing huge flag after flag into the air and catching them with their feet as well as hands. Against a backdrop of a medieval "borgo". What else could you want on a balmy October day whilst dipping your bread in a "sugo" of hare and wild boar?
And if you visit on the last Sunday, you'll also have the opportunity to go to the races and wager a bet or two (between yourselves). For the streets will be lined with people for the annual Palio dei Ciuchi. The donkey race between the town's rival "quartieri" (districts). Nowhere near as elegant as a horse race, but no less fought over.
Rural traditions in Tuscany don't come much more authentic or insanely mad as this event!
The woods around Sassetta are home to thermal baths. But, unlike the natural gushing springs at Saturnia, these aren't freely accessible to the public. They are in private ownership. And aren't the torrent gushing type either.
Needless to say, I drove into the woods to find them. You'll spot the sign along the "blue route" in the map above. And ended-up along a rough track, past some large curved-horned Maremman bulls, to reach a restaurant, lodging and baths "complex". (NB. There isn't any public parking when you get there.)
Unfortunately, for the first time ever in the eight years I have been writing this guide, when I introduced myself and inquired whether I might take a quick peek in order to write about them here, I was told "no". Not unless I was a paying guest. Fair do's. A different style of management to that which I have become used to in Maremma. But unfortunately, I didn't have the time. Nor did my daughter and her friend have the inclination to take a dip. Especially as none of us had brought our costumes. So no pics.
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