Montemerano Italy officially holds the ever so precious title of being one of Italy's most beautiful villages and it is in Maremma :) But it is for two quirky holes and a fabulous Italian salad in relaxed company that it holds a place in my heart.
Now I have to say that I don't normally go in much for the best place or the best thing awards. After all, it all depends on your perspective. And accolades like those are so very often over used that they become more like the wallpaper of advertisements we are bombarded with every day and loose their intended impact.
But, as you will know if you have read my "I LOVE Maremma" page, Maremma needs all of the attention it can get, so I am more than happy that one of its medieval hill top villages holds this particular award. But does it deserve it?
Did you know too that the most beautiful beach in Italy is in Maremma too? (It is Cala Violina and there is a link at the bottom of the page to take you there.)
Yes. Montemerano is pretty and fascinating to walk around, no doubt about it. So if you are in the beautiful area of Saturnia's thermal springs, tiny Sovana, magical Sorano and stunning Pitigliano, it is well worth a stop along route to explore and grab a photo of one of the most photographed piazza's in Italy, the "Piazza del Castello" - the public square in the centre of the original "castle".
Even after a rain shower, the buildings enclosing the castle "piazza" are incredibly photogenic: someone has even placed a mirror in an alcove corner so you can take a photo of yourself taking a photo!
But there is more to Montemerano than that if you take the time to wonder around the back, narrow alleyways, which most visitors give only a passing glance to - which you shouldn't - for the opportunities to take some more unusual images and strike up a conversation with a local resident or two sat outside in a sunny corner.
And to find one of the most enchanting entrances into a Tuscany hill town that I have come across: "La Buca".
Not to mention a unique and rather precious cat flap with a legend ;)
And if that hasn't got you interested, the local village gathering place - the bar - where you can sit for hours and become part of everyday rural life here - serves one of the best plates of Italian salad I have eaten and the service comes with a smile :)
This narrow medieval street is curved.
And its walls do bulge out - that's not the lens on my camera!
Look up and you will find layer upon layer of middle ages, Renaissance and twentieth century adaptations.
Amongst "modern" day electrics!
And in keeping, pretty restorations.
Surviving documents already mention a fortified hilltop Montemerano in the year 960. Its inhabitants had fled there from coastal villages that had been devastated and depopulated by repeated Saracen pirate raids. Its protective stone wall is that which today surrounds the Piazza del Castello and hence lends it its name, although no castle ever stood there. It was constructed under the rule of the medieval Aldobrandeschi family, who settled in Maremma from the city of Lucca around the year 850.
The construction of the second larger encircling city wall - the "mura di Montemerano" - started under the orders of the same Aldobrandeschi family in the twelfth century and was completed in the thirteenth.
The section of wall next to the Porta Grossetana entrance to the town, with the subsequent addition during the Renaissance of the distinctive "loggia" - portico - is of the original twelfth century.
When Montemerano transferred into the property of the Republic of Siena (1382), the walls were reinforced and, between the middle and end of the fourteenth century, the square church bell tower - the church of San Giorgio is on your left as you enter the arched doorway - was transformed into a "Cassero Senese", a Sienese keep.
The view from the inside in Piazza della Chiesa.
The fifteenth century sections of the town's defensive walls with its two remaining round towers.
The fourteenth century parish church of San Giorgio, home to some highly valued art work, including the infamous "Madonna della Gattaiola" - which literally means, Madonna of the Cat Flap! So called because this mid-fifteenth century painting by an artist known as, Master of Montemerano", has a curious circular hole cut into it near its base, believed to have been made by a local priest in order to allow his cat to enter the church to de-infest its rooms of rats! Now I bet you won't find another one of those in the Uffizzi in Firenze!
One tale has it that the church door with its original cat hole had rotted away and so the priest utilised a painting on wood - believed to have once been an altar piece - that had stood in a corner of the church for some time to reinforce the door and cut a new hole in it. The painting was originally of the Annunciation, but the section with the Archangel is also now missing.
Other sources tell of the painting having once been a door in a local country house and was moved to the church for restoration and safe keeping. I like the priest and his cat one best, don't you?!
Once inside the walls, this inclined street takes you through an arched entrance set at right-angles, into the grounds of the origins of Montemerano's original heart castle.
Although, the tiny "la Buca" - which in Italian means the hole - looks like a medieval entrance into what was the city, it isn't. The additional exit and entrance through the second line defences of the city was made, it is thought, in the second half of the sixteenth century when Montemerano became part of the lands of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and it was no longer considered necessary to defend the city from attacks.
In a Medici document dated 1588, the owners and users of gateways in and out of the town to keep them robustly fortified.
The average person's height has increased considerably since the middle ages and so most of you will have to duck to pass through this passageway
The view inside the Piazza del Castello and Piazza della Chiesa.
Visit Montemerano during the autumn - for Halloween at the end of October - and you will get to see an altogether different Montemerano...
For its streets, when dark, will be filled with witches and wizards and all kind of ghostly folk for the annual, "Festa delle Streghe", Witches Festival.
A great holiday treat for kids of all ages that will have them wanting to explore another Tuscan hill top town with you rather than dragging their heels behind you! Just lend them your make-up and grab a costume from a local store on the day and you'll all be set for a night to remember :)
The photograph above was taken just after lunch: imagine what that street will look like in the dark with a broom or two flying around it!
But if witchery isn't your kind of thing, what about dragons?! On the weekend closest to the 23 April every year the town holds a festival centred around the legend of "San Giorgio e il Drago" - St. George and the Dragon. Everyone is in medieval costume, the Piazza del Castello becomes a king's court in which the "Giostra del Drago" - the Dragon Tournament"- is held between the men of the three "terziere" (districts) of the town, and much local food and wine is consumed :)
Skilled horsemanship is tested to its limits, especially as each of the horses from "Borgo", "Castello"and "Croce", are two men carrying their rider!
And you'll also get to see the launching of probably the biggest homemade paper air balloon you have ever seen!
Tradition in Maremma is anything but boring!
For a small village, Montemerano isn't short of an eating place or two and it even has a Michelin star restaurant to its list. What was once an enoteca is now the two Michelin star, "Ristorante Da Caino", in Via della Chiesa, with Tuscan chef and owner Valeria Piccini.
It is the kind of place I doubt I will ever eat in it - not because the food doesn't warrant it, after all you don't get to hold two Michelin stars without pleasing a food critic or two - but because I'm more of a trattoria/osteria, or picnic kind of girl.
Lunch for two with a couple of glasses of wine each will set you back around Euros 400,00 or so. Relatives of a fellow blogger in Tuscany have eaten there and loved it.
Alternatively, if you are looking for a little elegantly presented home-cooking, you could pop just a minute's drive down the road - it is within sight from the village - to the Villa Aquaviva Winery and eat in their restaurant La Limonaia. The mum of the winery family is the chef.
My personal recommendation for one of the best light lunches I have had in along time whilst out and about exploring, is the bar Il Glicine, just outside the Porta I Cinta gateway. You can't miss it: all the locals are there either eating or playing cards under the shade of the tree and canopy. It is location F on this map.
I arrived after 2pm and asked for something light to eat and the owner offered me a list of choices, but I opted for a salad as one I had seen another client eating looked wonderful. Mine was too. A plate piled high with a huge bed of fresh, oh so fresh, delicate mixed green salad leaves, topped with with tuna and torn mozzarella and accompanied by a basket full of fresh Tuscan bread. With a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, it was divine.
With a bottle of water and a coffee to follow, all in at Euros 6,50 watching local life unfold with no rush in the world...
The bar also serves pasta and pizza at lunchtimes to: eaten as much by the locals as by tourists, which says it all.
And if you fall in love with the place - many do - you will find a few properties for sale in the historic centre, not many, just a few.
Let me know if you would like some help finding one full of character of your own.
Montemerano may be small but it is a great location for basing yourselves for a few days whilst exploring the stunning tuff town of Pitigliano, the incredibly magical Sorano, and tiny but famous Sovana.
Not only because when you have walked and walked and walked - as well as gawped and gawped at the scenery and medieval streets of those towns and the incredulous Etruscan Vie cave as well as the tombs, castles, forts and oh, so much more... The natural hot and soothing thermal waters of the Saturnia baths - you cannot visit Maremma without experiencing these - are just a few minutes drive (3 kilometres) down the road from town. Pure bliss :)
And then, in the evenings, the streets inside the walls will be waiting for you to leisurely stroll around and explore by lamplight.
I have two recommendations for you: but giving you two will make it a difficult choice! Because the first is a lovely self-catering apartment inside the early middle ages centre :) Now, if you haven't already slept in a medieval building inside a city's ancient walls at least once during your visit to Tuscany, you should. If only for the sheer experience of waking-up with the locals, opening the shutters of your apartment windows to let the new day's sunlight in, and popping-down to the bakery for fresh pastries for breakfast with your coffee.
And in this fifteenth century Maremma apartment - situated in the Piazza del Castello - you'll be dreaming the night away in a national listed building in one of Italy's most beautiful villages to boot!
My second recommendation is for those of you who, having planned a visit to Tuscany, dream of sleeping in a winery! If not the "cantina" - cellar - itself! on a wine estate close enough to the vines to be able to pick a grape or two in the morning when you wake-up or to nibble with you aperitivo on the terrace.
The Villa Aquaviva Winery is just 800 metres down the road from town - you can see Montemerano on its hill from the grounds - and offers hotel as well as agriturismo accommodation.
TIP: ask for the piggery! Honestly, that's not a typing error! Take a look...
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