On our recent tour of the Maremma, we fell in love with Pitigliano and its little sisters Sorano and Sovana, the so-called “tufa towns”. Among the most mesmerising sights in the Maremma, these small towns seem to grow out of the rock itself and linger n the memory long after you’ve left.
Watching the sun going down from the terraces in Pitigliano, entering Sorano’s ancient gate and visiting the fascinating churches of Sovana, are experiences that will stay with you forever. Reasons why more and more people are choosing to visit this southern corner of Tuscany.
The tufa towns in the Maremma – Magical Pitigliano
Pitigliano is our first stop and the photos we’ve seen just don’t do it justice. The place has a fairy-tale quality, with extraordinary views and an almost magical light that reflects on the soft and yellowish tufa rock. Then of course there are its ancient houses that seem to emerge from the hillside itself like strange sandcastles.
Looking down from the terraces you can see the edge of the town disappearing into the valley below. Crows circle in the sky like winged guardians of the city. This is a place where fantasy is always in the air.
Pitigliano’s historic centre is a maze of narrow winding lanes, flowery terracotta vases, staircases and hidden passageways. Inside the houses there are storerooms and cellars that were originally excavated in Medieval times. We read that underneath the houses hides an underground net of tunnels that date back to the Etruscans. There’s a scenic Medicean aqueduct, a couple of churches and museums to visit. But the highlight is the Jewish Quarter, the ancient ghetto where the Jewish community came to live in the 16th century.
Before dinner we decided to explore nearby Sorano, a smaller version of Pitigliano. As you approach it, a similar magical sight appear – a small outcrop perched dangerously on a verdant hill it’s at once beautiful and outlandish. Leaving the car in the parking outside the centre, we enter the gate of the imposing Orsini Fortress that dominates the old town. It was the most important Medieval stronghold of the Maremma.
The centre is compact and exquisitely Medieval. The streets are quiet and atmospheric, and walking on the north side, we arrive at the Porta dei Merli, the old entrance to the town. The large travertine coat of arms reminds us who ruled the town: the Orsini first and the Medici family. In Piazza del Popolo, the Leopoldino rock is one of Sorano’s most peculiar buildings, an enormous outcrop of tufa rock that was reinforced with buttresses and walls to better protect the town.
Sovana and its ancient churches
The following day it’s a short drive to Sovana, the third of the tufa towns. But first we stop at Santa Maria della Grazie, a church on a hill facing Pitigliano from where we are told you can take the best photos of the town. And this turns out to be true. It’s a magical sight and by far the best viewpoint fro which to appreciate the town.
Sovana doesn’t disappoint. It feels a bit more touristy than its neighbours, thanks to the line of restaurants with English menus in the main (and only) square. But it also has cobbled streets, a peculiar looking slender building and the intriguing church of Santa Maria, that has a pre-Romanesque altarpiece. Sovana’s Cathedral figures among the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany. It is all we expected and more. The decorations on the portals and the capitals are a real treat, and there’s even a good bookshop at the entrance.
Tufa towns – A unique landscape of ancient origins
Recent archeological excavations have revealed that this area was an important site during the Bronze Age. The abundance of water and the easily defended position contributed to the development of early settlements that became prosperous communities.
The Etruscans had inhabited this part of the world since the 8th century B.C., building houses on the tufa rock and vast necropolises or ‘cities of the dead’. There are rock-sculpted passages spread out in every direction from the valleys below Pitigliano, megalithic corridors (the so-called vie cave) that linked the necropolises to other places associated with their cult.
Sovana Archeological Park gives an interesting insight into the Etruscan world, as it’s one of the most important Etruscan sites in Tuscany.
For history buffs, curious travellers, or anyone looking for an intriguing destination full of surprises and charm, the tufa towns are for you.
Planning a trip to Tuscany? Here are some suggestions about the best itineraries in this wonderful region. And some very good reasons to fall in love with the Maremma region in southern Tuscany. Buon viaggio!