If you think that Tuscany is all about verdant rolling hills, vineyards and cypress trees, think again.
Yes, it does have some of the most famous countryside in the world, but there’s a lot more to it. Think semi-arid desert, wild southern cowboy country, and mountain quarries so dramatic they featured in a 007 film. It’s a place that never ceases to amaze me.
Unexpected Tuscany – The Apuan Alps, a world made of marble
In the north of the region the tops of the Apuan Alps glitter under the Tuscan sun. At first glance it looks like snow, but it isn’t. It’s white marble. The very same marble that Michelangelo used for the Statue of David. This is an otherworldly sight made up of deep abysses, dark galleries and caves, of tiny stone villages perched on harsh mountain slopes.
Overlooking it all are the quarries where gigantic blocks of marble are cut from the mountain. Steep, narrow roads snake up towards the caves and everywhere a fine white dust hangs in the air. On the Apuan Alps you’ll find the Antro del Corchia, one of the largest cave systems in Italy. The Versilia coast, with its chic resort town of Forte dei Marmi is only a few kilometres from here, but feels like a world away.
The desert in the centre of Tuscany
Believe it or not, you can also travel to a desert in Tuscany. The Accona Desert is only a stone’s throw from Siena, and it’s one of my favourite spots in the region. It’s part of the Crete Senesi, a semi-arid area of grey clay where the vegetation is sparse and so are the houses. I’ve driven through it in mid-August in 40 degree heat, and I assure you it looked and felt exactly like a desert.The hills here have unexpected colours; white, grey, ochre and burned yellow. It brings a whole new meaning to the word “photogenic”.
Ancient roads excavated by the Etruscans
As you head south, set the time machine to 500 BC to when the Etruscans were living in central Italy. This is where we leave civilisation behind, and enter a land of necropoli and hilltop towns that seem to grow out of the tufa rocks. We are in the Maremma region, in the deep south of Tuscany. This place isn’t known for grand monuments and famous sights. What it is known for is unspoiled nature, local cowboys known as butteri, and a slow pace of life.
The Maremma is where you find the Vie Cave, a system of sunken roads excavated at the time when the Etruscans were here, building vast cities of the dead and practising their mysterious rites. What we know about them comes from the artefacts found in the necropoli, one of which you can visit near Sovana. This will give you a chance to get up close and personal with an enigmatic civilisation. I visited in summer and there was hardly anyone around save for a few lizards basking in the ruins.
The towns built on the tufa hills
Talking about unexpected Tuscany, we can’t forget the “tufa towns” in the Maremma. The small and quaint town of Sorano is a timeless place and, together with its neighbour Pitigliano, is known as a ‘tufa town’ for the way it perches on the tufa hills, its buildings almost a continuation of the rock itself. This area is just magical. And far enough off the beaten track that you’ll experience a level of authenticity that’s hard to find in the more tourist-ridden parts of the region.
The truth is there are still many parts of Tuscany that haven’t been colonised by tour buses. I’m here to tell you that if you’ve only seen Florence and San Gimignano, you haven’t seen anything yet. Exploring the unexpected side of Tuscany could become the highlight of your holiday.