If you happen to drive through the small village of Valpiana - and unless you know the village you wouldn't normally heading north from Follonica on the coast to Massa Marittima as the main route now by-passes it - its modern day aspect will probably strike you as bland and uninteresting.
And notwithstanding its two bars, two restaurants, and church, you will probably decide on balance not to stop for a coffee break as it certainly isn't a picturesque Tuscan hill town. But then you will miss an intrinsic and incredibly important part of the history of Maremma.
For behind the present day appearance of Valpiana lie the remains of ancient furnaces and forges that were once the most productive iron-ore smelting and steel foundries in the whole of the region.
The tiny self-contained village of Valpiana was the industrial heart of Maremma and produced the best iron in the whole of Toscana.
The foundry at Valpiana not only smelted the iron-ore mined from the surrounding metalliferous hills, but also all of the iron-ore mined and transported to the mainland from the Island of Elba.
Indeed, it was here and with the political intent of creating an iron monopoly in Tuscany, the Medici family expanded the foundry complex and built themselves a "palazzo" from which to oversee their endeavours. But their scheming failed.
Notwithstanding this, the village of Valpiana continued as the industrial centre of Maremma Senese (the modern day Maremma Grossetana) throughout the whole of the middle ages period.
The landscape around Valpiana testifies to its history, for where once stood forests of oak and elm east towards the Lago dell'Accesa and west towards the Castello di Marsiliana, there is now Mediterranean macchia, olive groves and vineyards. For the forests were felled to feed the furnace fires.
The ironworks eventually lost their importance with the establishment in 1835 of new furnaces - commissioned by Leopold II - at Follonica. They were abandoned and finally closed in 1885.
The mining railway that connected Ghirlanda, north of Massa Marittima, with Follonica on the coast, stopping at Valpiana, was bombed during the Second World War in June 1944 and the line never re-opened. Valpiana's station is now a private home.
Today you can still see the remains of the first rudimentary smelting oven from the fourteenth century built by the city of Massa Marittima under the direction of the Sienese noble and landowner Tollo Albizzeschi (father of Saint Bernadino Albizzeschi).
And the water canal that once turned the water wheels that in turn worked the bellows of the blast furnaces, that now turn the water wheels of the local flour mill where you can purchase freshly-milled flour.
The apartment block in which you will find the local DESPAR shop was once the "Palazzo della Diregenza" or "Palazzo dei Ministri" and was built in the sixteenth century by the Grand Duke Cosimo I de 'Medici. Literally translated as the "palace of leadership" or "palace of ministers" of the furnaces, it is recognisable by its distinctive Medici family coat of arms.
The walled garden of the "palazzo" - now belonging to the adjoining Osteria Giardino dei Medici - is now overgrown, has a sunken pond and was once adorned with fountains and statues. If you can get a grip on the fence alongside the osteria, you can catch a glimpse. easier still, ask the owners of the restaurant to take a peek!
The local Comune of Massa Marittima has invested in the restoration of these old sites in Valpiana and placed of story-board information points to share their history. One or two of which are in the oddest and generally unaccessible spots!
There is a tourist information point inside the "Bazar" shop next door to the pizzeria which comprises of a rotating pamphlet stand.
When it is replenished by the main tourist office in Massa Marittima you will find it full of really interesting information about local routes for a drive or cycle, treks and wilderness paths through the "Colline Metalliferi", the metalliferous hills, including some great and free large scale quality maps. Unfortunately, on the days it is empty you will need to take the drive up the hill to Massa Marittima to obtain these.
Valpiana is also a good spot for tasting and purchasing the locally grown and pressed olive oil. If you take the road "Via della Cava" out of the centre of the village, just a few metres on your right you will find the local "frantoio" (olive oil press) the Frantoio Stanghellini L'Olivastraia. I can testify that their "Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva dell'ALTA MAREMMA" is wonderful, as I use it every day. It has a milder, less peppery hot taste to the olive oils produced in the Tuscan countryside around Florence.
The frantoio welcomes visitors for tastings with bruschetta. Take a step by step photo tour of how they extract the olive oil by the cold press extraction method.
L'Olivastraia, Via della Cava, 24 tel. 0566 919367 or 0566 919019 http://www.frantoiostanghellini.it
Tuscany's largest and latest aquarium is in Valpiana and is a great place to spend an hour or two. Its small, so don't expect a Genova experience, but I particularly like it because it is aimed at educating children - and us! - about our marine environment. There is always something new to see and the aquarium and its staff specialise in the study of the white shark, of which there are two to see and watch being fed. Aquarium Mondo Marino.
Just a few kilometres east of Valpiana before you reach the tiny hamlet of La Pesta is the beautiful, crystal clear freshwater karst lake of the Lago dell'Accesa (the Accesa Lake), once the home of an important Etruscan civilisation in ancient Etruria for the extraction of precious metals. One side of the lake is reserved for fishermen and the other for bathers, but in the summer no one seems to mind mixing and the wooded jetties are full of youngsters and families dipping their toes and sunbathing amongst the reeds.
There is a tale told about a resident crocodile, but it hasn't been seen of late! Read about the Etruscan tombs in the woodland surrounding the lake.
If you head north out of the village along the original old tree-lined and walled road towards Massa Marittima, take a left under the by-pass and then a left again after the olive groves at the T-junction. If you take another left at the next junction, this road will take you through the valley of Marsiliana and the Riserva Naturale Statale della Marsiliana (its nature reserve), past the tiny Marsiliana castle on its hill top to your right (now an agriturismo but I have never been successful in finding anyone at home to speak with!), and on into Maremma Livornese territory.
Along this road you will pass the headquarters of the Corpo Forestale dello Stato with its tower and some great wild asparagus picking grounds, and then enter the Parco Interprovinciale di Montioni - the Montioni Nature Reserve. I did mention elsewhere in this guide didn't I that Maremma is nearly all a protected nature reserve! At the next junction take a right to Montioni and a whole new experience and history involving the princess Elisa Bonaparte.
Make the journey in the early evening and I can nearly promise you sightings of wild deer and boar, as well as foxes, hares and birds of prey.
The village is home to both an osteria and a ristorante pizzeria. Plus the local DESPAR shop has a fresh bread and cold meat and cheese counter (very limited selection) where you can have panini made up of your choice. Beware that the shops bread supply for the day tends to run out before 1pm. More about the restaurants in Valpiana.
And just a kilometre south is my favourite "salumeria" (Italian delicatessen) the La Novella where you can eat a wonderful range of Maremman sliced hams and cheeses and taste the local wines.
Here you can have your own choice of "panino" made up to order, and eat one of the best traditional lunches in Maremma Tuscany on a budget. There are tables indoors as well as outside in the shade.
Or, if you fancy a restaurant meal, just another couple of kilometres further south and you will find yourself driving through the tiny hamlet of Cura Nuova, home to one of my very favourite Maremma restaurants.
Valpiana boasts a large pasticceria (located in the industrial zone just north of the village) that provides the local supermarkets and many town and village shops with a wide variety of typical Tuscan "dolce" - sweet cakes and biscuits.
There is an intoxicating smell of warm sugar when you open the office door, but don't be put off by the fact that there doesn't appear to be a public or shop entrance - the shop is in a room on the left. It's a great stop for stocking up without the hassle of a supermarket stop.
But be aware, and I have yet to ask the boss why, that the direct prices here are a little higher than at the local COOP supermarkets. Still, it is convenient and can fulfill the problem of presents for taking home in one stop ... if you don't eat all the goodies before you get there that is!
My favourite dolce here is the "Panforte ai Fichi" (Panforte with Figs), but there is also a panforte with cherries and dark chocolate - "Panforte Cioccolato e Ciliege" (it is the one in the pink paper wrapper) - that is too delicious! or one with melon, or marzipan ("marzapane").
Panforte is a traditional Christmas dessert in Tuscany, but makes for a perfect after dinner dessert anytime of the year, and for a treat of a snack whilst writing web pages ;)
Pasticceria Le Logge, Via Dei Ferrinanti 29/a (when you enter the industrial zone take the first turning on the left and keep left until the road comes to an end. Le Logge is the building on your right.) Tel. 0566 919923
For a Tuscany farmhouse experience, my personal recommendation - I have stayed there - is a lovely agriturismo with a swimming pool and horses along the country drive I described above: Borgognano farmhouse. It offers self-catering apartments and bed and breakfast accommodation.
The nearest town of Massa Marittima is nothing less than a stunning jewel in Maremma and one of the places that you must visit. These, without a doubt, are the best places in which to stay there.
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