The ancient heart of Montecerboli is a tiny lived in medieval castle. A circular one. Sat between steaming vaporous plumes and boiling mud pots in Maremma's Valley of the Devil. But you won't find that valley on any map!
Once through it's original gateway - "la Porta" - it won't take you long to wander around within its still intact castle walls. The stones of which were laid in place in the year 1003 on an outcrop of gabbro rock called Montis cerberi. From which it takes its name.
But a castle is a castle and tiny doesn't ever mean boring.
Whilst admiring the stone built houses inside with their pretty rows of flower pots in bloom and tiny gardens. And glancing over the top of the wall where you can at the immaculately tended allotments below.
You probably wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that at one time, when that gateway in all likelihood still had its wooden doors, the Castello di Montecerboli had a Count.
I doubt you'd guess why this Count was given his title. For, although he did, indeed, do a grand deed worthy of recognition and award, his story only takes us back two hundred years, to the 19th century. When all of Maremma's knights in arms and dragons, of which there were many by the way, were all but long gone and the stuff of legends.
The clue to this Count's tale lies in that hissing and steaming countryside that surrounds this castle.
Because all that hissing and steaming are in fact "Soffioni boracifero" - boraciferous shower heads. Also known as boric acid fumerales. Of which this part of Maremma has a lot.
And the gases of those Soffioni boracifero are in fact a mixture of water vapour, boric acid and ammonia that were released into the magma chamber of Maremma's once active volcano, Monte Amita. And are now finding their way out of that chamber at temperatures of 230°C and pressures of 20 atmospheres via fissures in the local ground rock. Beneath your feet!
Now, the Count of Montecerboli was one François Jacques de Larderel. A French engineer and entrepreneur.
In 1813 he developed a method for capturing that escaping "soffioni" steam and its pressure from Montecerboli's "lagoni" - lagoons. Which he then used to feed evaporation boilers. Boilers that extracted valuable boric acid from local mud rich in boric substances.
But François Larderel didn't rest on his laurels at that. Innovation after innovation followed and in 1827 the extraction technique was perfected on a massive scale.
Followed in 1833 with the first steam coring - deep drilling to find those gas reserves, rather tan trap what was escaping naturally.
Take a look at what that pressure looks like when those magma chamber gases exit through a new bore hole.
This is what a new boraciferous shower head looked like in Larderello in 1932.
The video is in Italian, but it will give you a sense that my words cannot express of the incredible scene and intensity of the escaping steam.
If you want to see a live natural one close up, albeit on a much much smaller scale! Then take the short drive to the nearby town of Sasso Pisano.
Home to the hottest natural thermal spring waters in the whole of Tuscany - they emerge above ground at 65°C - and some of the largest ever excavated Etruscan and Roman hot baths.
You can even take a soak!
You'll find the fumaroles in the hot rock landscape just before you enter the town.
And, if you are very lucky, a very rare mineral indeed.
Montecerboli became the very first industrial site of boric acid extraction. The local economy and employment flourished. Especially in the town of Pomarance.
Growth continued and the core plant moved to the town that you can see over the walls of Montecerboli - you can't miss it because of its huge vapour cooling towers. Larderello. And, in turn, Larderello became the first site in the world where geothermal energy was exploited to produce electricity. Now producing less, but still 10% of the world's geothermic energy.
Maremma is an amazing land!
The Grand Duke Leopold II awarded Francesco Giacomo de Larderel, as he was known in Italian, with the title of Count of Montecerboli.
And. In his honor, changed the name of the area to Larderello.
I like to think that this terracotta fella sat in the castle's garden is François Jacques de Larderel.
My girl inspecting the garden plants: oh my gosh she has grown since I took this!
Looking over the castle's perimeter wall to the allotment gardens below.
And the view of Larderello and its geothermal plant in the distance.
To find the valley on any map you will need to look for its formal name, the Val di Cecina. South of Pisa, between the towns of Volterra and Pomarance.
But it's local name of the Valle del Diavolo - the valley of the Devil - is the one that everyone in Tuscany knows it by.
Not just because of the landscape, the sometimes overpowering smell of sulphur, the intense heat beneath your feet, the red colours of the soil, and the thick plumes of steam that blind your vision...
But because it was this place that inspired the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the writing of his epic poem, the Divine Comedy. More precisely, of the very first part, the Inferno.
The Church of San Cerbone.
The streets to home inside the castle are very narrow and not all of their depths see the light of day. Ever!
You don't have to have land to have a garden in Italy: every outdoor space is a plant opportunity!
The old shoemaker's residence and workshop: the Calzolaio.
I just loved the soft curve of the building on the left attached to the castle entrance: it is home to the old "frantoio" - the olive oil press.
And that's it. The whole little nutshell of a castle.
There is more that you must see.
Walking around, keen eyes will have spotted the imposing Rocca Sillana in a hill in the distance.
And you must go! Even if you don't have a fascination for medieval castles or military fortresses, and this was one important one.
You will get to see a jaw-dropping 360 degree view of 70% of Tuscany laid out before you from it's walls. Yes. I said 70%! NOT TO BE MISSED.
Entrance is only by guided tour - the local cultural guide is there most days and the tours start at set times - the cost of which is only a few Euros.
You can even get married on its roof, but that's another story altogether!
Explore some more...