Prata in Maremma may not be the prettiest of Tuscan hill towns and it may well leave you feeling nauseas in order to reach it - as it has done to travellers for centuries - but that shouldn't stop you making the trip to see it. Because since when have appearances told all there is to tell?
For this dank dark backwater bred men and women of fighting spirit.
if you walk within it's walls and listen. Really listen. They will tell you of its three year siege, 715 years ago against the City of Siena's most violent troops. And of another rebellion 500 years later that nearly lost them all of their heads. And the heads of the City of Massa Marittima.
Amongst its calls to fame are the fact that it has one of the most uninviting darkest, dankest, medieval streets I have walked in in Tuscany.
And a story of three year long siege of its castle, to which that street belongs.
Located in "alta Maremma" (high Maremma) above the valley of the river Merse, it was once called Prata Marittima and Prata di Maremma.
One of its calls of fame from ancient times, is the tortuous road to reach it from Massa Marittima, which has become embedded in local Maremma sayings as a way of describing people of a nervous disposition, or someone generally not physically well:
come la strada di Prata"
Which in English reads, "You are crooked (or twisted), like the Prata road."
In fact, my youngster always pleads for us not to have to take that road when we go to Florence as it makes her feel car sick. And members of the English side of my family have been known to each in turn ask us to stop the car along it, so that they could to get out! (And that was driving it very slowly!)
On a fine day, with no hurry, it makes for a lovely woodland drive. At the summit of which you get a view of Maremma laid out before you all the way to the sea. But after a scant breakfast or lots of wine the night before, it will test the best of stomachs!
At dusk and in the night you will get to see - often stood in the middle of the road - all sorts of wildlife, from wild boar, to deer, porcupines, foxes, and wolves!
So, if it isn't the prettiest of Maremma's medieval hill towns, why visit?
Well, there are four things that immediately come to mind when I am describing Prata to visitors and friends. The first is the sheer height of the columns supporting the bridge to reach it - I am always glad when I reach the other side when driving across - I am a woos, I know!
And the view of the wooded hills of the metalliferous hills of Maremma all the way from the hill top of Il Poggione and Poggio di Montieri in the north, to the Tyrrhenian sea and the Isola d'Elba and even Corsica on a clear day.
The cooler air and the reprise from the heat of the summer nearer the coast: it may only be a few degrees cooler than Massa Marittima below, and Massa Marittima may only be a few degrees cooler than the beaches in the Gulf of Follonica below it.
But trust me, in the heat of August all those little differences add up and make one big difference to feeling comfortable. Especially to those who like to be up and out and about on summer days in Tuscany exploring and seeing new things.
Then there is one in particular of its narrow medieval streets in the heart of the historic centre - which was once the centre of the "castello" (castle) - that is narrow, dank and dark. The most uninviting I have come across in all of my travels around Tuscany.
But then all of the internal streets were once like that.
And the underlying bedrock sticks out in various places in the town, under buildings and houses that have been built on and around it. Part of the course here in Maremma's hill towns.
But then there is another: its history. Which is a reason in itself to visit and touch the walls and stones that bore witness to it.
Like many of Maremma's hill top castles, the Castello di Prata was constructed to a design of crenellated walls, towers of various heights and designs, and ramparts.
With a higher and more robust central tower to which the castle defenders would retreat if the enemy overcame the external walls.
By 1770 the castle was in ruins and partly dismantled, but today the thick walls and ramparts are still visible and one of the towers - a severed round one.
And there was only one entrance into castle, Porta di Via Dogana, now called Via Ferrucci.
Once inside, you would have been met with dark, winding and very narrow streets partly carved-out through the bedrock and only partly paved.
Houses were practically devoid of natural light and blackened inside from the smoke of their fireplaces.
To have a fresh water supply inside a walled hill town in medieval times wasn't that common - it depended upon the underlying geology of the bedrock and the engineering capabilities and knowledge of the day.
The nearest city of Massa Marittima at the time was fortunate enough to have the benefit of an informed and skilled engineer who constructed aqueducts to enable the residents to be self-contained.
The castle of Prata in Maremma, however, did have its own drinking water supplies: four in fact.
Three wells, one near the main "Palazzo" building, one next to the parish church, another in the area called "Bastione", and a rain-water cistern in a small "piazzale" (square).
The centre of the castle, the highest and most inaccessible part known as "la Rocca" had its own towers and was the living quarters of the Lord of Prata.
Although Prata castle was a large building, it was very basic and uncomfortable. The ground floor was given over to stables and a warehouse. The best room in the house was without a doubt its large kitchen on the second floor, where everyone congregated.
The bedrooms, although also quite large, offered little night-time comfort or privacy. They had few beds, were divided by curtains, and the fireplaces when lit rarely warmed the rooms in the winter months, which remained damp and cold.
Flooring in the spring and summer months consisted of leaves and dried flowers.
The "Signore di Prata" spent most of his days out hunting or eating his catch, of which there was plenty as the surrounding woodlands were and still are today home to many wild boar, deer and other animals.
He also bred swans within the castle walls for their beauty and to dine on.
The life of the farmers and artisans living in the land controlled by Prata was a very poor and harsh one. And at times of enemy attack, they were entirely dependent upon the castle for refuge and protection, which the Lord gave willingly, but not without a price.
For in exchange they were required to pay taxes of a percentage of their annual harvest and wood supplies. To provide their services for free, transport tolls, and any other taxes or fees that the Lord decided to introduce or was apt to change at will.
Can you imagine a castle siege lasting three years? Well, the Castello di Prata held out that long to the troops of the city of Siena from 1285 until August 1288.
Now Prata wasn't an expansive castle by any means, and nothing like the massive elegant complexes of some you may have seen in France or England. And whilst its strategic location, situated as it was high up on the top of steep hill, clearly made attacking and conquering it logistically difficult, merit also lies in this instance with the castles very thick and well fortified walls.
And its internal water supplies. Which meant that the residents didn't have to run the gauntlet of the being killed making a trip to fetch water from the valley below.
But the overriding factor it has to be said for Prata withstanding for so long its attackers, is that Siena didn't have enough military strength to fight all of its battles at one and the same time. It had to decide which to concentrate on and which to leave until later. And such was the case with the siege of Prata.
On the 26 October 1285, Siena's military troops accompanied by twenty-eight knights on horse-back of influential Lords affiliated with the city started to move towards Prata to take control of the castle and its lands. They were joined by a company of men whose reputation went before them: for they were violent men known for destroying and burning anything and everything in their path and the devastation to lives they left behind them.
The Sienese arrived at Prata, surrounded and began their attacks.
For the whole of that month and until mid September, the bombardment continued. But it was unsuccessful. Try as they might, the archers with their crossbows could not provide sufficient cover for the the troops with their winches and heavy stone catapults, nor for the soldiers attempting to climb the walls. The Sienese had heavy losses from systematic return attacks by the castle's own archers on the walls above.
It was at this point that the Sienese were forced to extract part of their troops from Prata. For the Ghibellines - in opposition to the Guelphs of Siena - in order to distract the Sienese from their attacks on Prata, had themselves attacked and taken occupation of castles belonging to the Republic of Siena.
Indeed, the Ghibellines had taken advantage of the concentration of Sienese effort at Prata to also occupy a strategic position in the Val di Chiana, that of the hill of Poggio di San. Cecilia, which had enabled them to block communication between the city of Siena and its Guelph allies in the countryside. Actions that Siena could not ignore and which ranked of greater importance to resolve than attaining control over Prata.
Even in calling-in support from the Guelph party members in the Tuscany cities of Empoli, Florence, Poggibonsi and Prato, these other battles and then the subsequent further dissipation of Siena's forces to the wars in Arentino and Casentino, meant that the siege of Prata proceeded ever more slowly with no end in sight.
But finally, in August 1288, the city of Siena was in a position to change that and it had a strong desire to do so. It decided to make a supreme effort against Prata and called to arms all able-bodied men between 18 and 70 years of age.
Those newly recruited troops, together with knights, archers and powerful stone military architect-designed catapults, made their way to Prata to break down the walls of the castle.
Their arrival marked the end. Huge rocks were quarried from nearby and the walls of Prata castle battered with force. The men, women and children of Prata could hold-out any longer and were forced to surrender.
The news arrived by a rider in Siena on 30 the September 1288 and was greeted by great joy and celebration. Twelve days later a group of Sienese knights with a lawyer arrived at Prata to take formal possession and found few people remaining. They had fled in fear of reprisals at the hands of the Sienese men.
But the fighting spirit of the men of Prata wasn't crushed with their surrender; to the contrary, they have borne arms whenever a cause required it. In the eighteenth century, they did just that again, risking much and in the face of not insubstantial disquiet from the city of Massa Marittima.
In 1799, Prata in Maremma - as with other parts of Tuscany - was under French control. The initiation of a French republic government in Tuscany was at first greeted with joy and great celebration. But in Prata it quickly turned sour.
After only a short period of occupation the citizens of Prata were subject to various new taxes and, adding insult to injury, the stripping of their valuable objects from their museums. They joined the rebellion that started in Arezzo on 16 May 1799 and which spread like oil across water.
Taking to the hills, the men of Prata with those of nearby Maremma hill towns of Tatti and Boccheggiano, began a three year war with the French. From that year until 1801, they planned and carried-out ambush attacks on French troops and travellers in the mouth of the Val di Merse - the Merse valley.
During one such attack, they killed French soldiers and took prisoner the wife of the local French Commandant, whom they ill treated. The ambushes spread into land too close to the city of Massa Marittima for the comfort of the citizens and leaders of that city, who feared reprisals and worst.
The Bishop of Massa Marittima managed to convince the rebels to cease their attacks and to keep the peace with the French. But when Napoleon later returned to Italy after the Battle of Marengo in 1800, and reoccupied Piemonte, Liguria and Tuscany, it was the citizens of Massa Marittima he considered central to the bloody revolts of the Val di Merse and sent a French delegation to the city to call it to account.
Prata was attacked and plundered for three days from 10 to 13 of March in 1801.
Yet again, it was the Bishop who saved the day. He manged to convince the French to thence be clement and negotiated a pardon for not only the citizens of Massa Marittima (who by all accounts hadn't been involved in the attacks) and those of Prata, Boccheggiano and Tatti.
My pick of some incredible places to stay close-by - Maremma apartments, simply the best.
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