Massa Marittima needs no introduction. A true medieval city, it eclipses almost every other town in the Maremma with its beauty and its fame. For centuries, it has been the centre of the region’s affluence and wielded considerable power not just inside its own borders, but in the affairs of Florence and Siena too. Being so close to Pisa, it attracts more tourists alone then the rest of the region combined. Even if you have never heard of the Maremma, there is a good chance that you’ve heard of Massa Marittima.
But that’s not what draws me to the walled city. From the moment you step into Piazza Garibaldi, you realise that Massa Marittima bears no resemblance to the rest of the Maremma. The humble charm and simplicity of the region has no place in the grand buildings and magnificent Duomo that surround its main piazza. This is a city that mirrors the beauty of Siena. No where else in the rest of the Maremma can you visit a city that bear such a close resemblance to the artistic splendours of Northern Tuscany. And the tourists can’t get enough of it.
In the history books, Massa Marittima is known as the ‘figlia nobilissima’ or ‘noble daughter’ of Pisa and then Siena. Its origins lie somewhere in the High Middle Ages, when the hills around the city were mined for minerals. In the 10th century, the city became the seat of the Bishop of Populonia, but the city’s golden age came in 1225, when it became an independent municipality. While the rest of the Maremma was fighting under the Aldobrandeschi and the Orsini, Massa Marittima remained autonomous. All the most beautiful buildings in the city were built during this autonomous period, when noble families flocked to Massa Marittima for a taste of culture and the high life. Today, the Massetani begrudgingly accept their place in the Maremma. Like most cities in the north, they don’t have an affinity to Grosseto, which is more than 2 hours drive away. In fact, Massa Marittima see itself as the capital of the Maremma in all but name. But Massa Marittima’s hard won freedom lasted little more than a century, and when the Sienese took over, they changed the city drastically. Massa Marittima remained under Siena’s wing until the Grand Duchy of Tuscany took over in the 15th century.
There is nothing understated or modest about Massa Marittima. Its buildings and churches are simply too striking, and its culture too well-defined with a wealth of museums, events and festivals. Massa Marittima is renowned for the Balestro del Girifalco – one of Tuscany’s most celebrated historical re-enactments. Held in May and August, the ancient archery competition is more than 100 year old.
That said, you can still sneak in some of the pleasures of local life if you visit in the summer months and stay up late. Massa Marittima has plenty of great restaurants that have taken traditional Maremman fare and turned it into an elegant dining experience. When I last visited, I was amazed at how late the Massetani eat. They wait until the tourists, worn out by a day of sightseeing, are safety tucked into their beds, to reclaim their streets. A languorous dinner is followed by a stroll. Regardless of where they live, the Massetani seem to gravitate towards Piazza Garibaldi, drawn by the music and the lights. Street concerts are met with excitement by adults and children alike, and everyone seems to know each other.
While I sat on the steps of Il Duomo, trying, and failing, to blend in, I was completely taken by the beauty of it all. In fact, I remember getting melted gelati all over my shoes because I was too busy staring at the completely relaxed and sociable Massetani. They just oozed sophistication and that European sense of joie de vivre that allows them to let their children stay up late without a care in the world!
Of course, they pay for it the next day, and Massa Marittima is a deserted city until 11am on most weekends. I had to leave the city early the next day and was amused to no end by the fresh and eager tourists itching to see the beauty of the city and the bleary eyed locals who begrudgingly stumble into my cafe for a very late morning coffee and pastry.
|La Cattedrale di Massa Marittima
The Cathedral of Massa Marittima is truly the heart of this medieval city. Dedicated to the patron saint, San Cerbone, it is masterpiece of marble, inspired by the venerable Duomo di Pisa.
Piazza Garibaldi is the heart of Massa Marittima. Whether you like it or not, you can’t resist gravitating towards this piazza. It just draws you in with its colour and its vibrancy.
|Chiesa di San Francesco
This pretty little church gets a mention because it’s in a beautiful corner of Massa Marittima. Legend has it, it was requested by St Francis himself in 1220.
|Chiesa di Sant’Agostino
The church of St. Augustine is the most magnificent example of Gothic architecture in Massa Marittima, and most other cities in the Maremma.
|Chiesa and Convento di San Pietro all’Orto
St Olmo’s Church and Convent in Massa Marittima is no longer a religious building. It’s actually the site of the Museum of Sacred Art.
|Torre del Candeliere and the Sienese Fortress
From the top of this tower you can see every street and via of the city. You can watch the Massetani go about their business and the tourists cover the piazza like multicoloured ants. It’s a liberating feeling!
|Albero della Fecondità
The Albero della Fecondità is a peculiar fresco, found on one of the walls of the Fonti dell’Abbondanza in Massa Marittima’s Piazza del Duomo.
A beautiful lake with all the tranquility of a nature park is the last thing you’d expect to find in Massa Marittima, but it’s there, and it has an Etruscan history.
The Maremma’s premier archaeological museum after the one in Grosseto. On display are the fossils of a primitive primate and a stone flint man carved in 3,000BC.
|Museo di Arte e Storia delle Miniere
You really need to be interested in mining history and minerals to enjoy this exhibition dedicated to the art and history of the city’s mines.
|Museo di Arte Sacra
This museum has a lot of things going for it. Not only is it housed in the beautifully serene Monastery of San Pietro all’Orto, but it also has a fantastic mix of exquisite and macabre religious art.
|Museo della Miniera
Definitely not for the claustrophobic, this museum has been set up inside an old stone quarry so you get a real sense of how Massa Marittima’s miners lived and worked.
|Museo degli Organi Meccanici Antichi
A privately-owned museum displaying the history of Italian organs with rare and exquisite musical instruments made in the country as early as 16th century and right up until the 20th century.
|Balestro del Girifalco – May and August
The Balestro del Girifalco is a major historical re-enactments of medieval Tuscany, and a true treat for anyone who visit Massa Marittima when it’s on.
|Sapori d’Autunno- November in nearby Tatti
Over one November weekend, this town celebrates everything there is to love about the Maremma in winter.