Monte Amiata mightn’t be the best known corner of the Maremma, but it really comes into its own in autumn.
There are two reason for that and they are, of course, culinary. They’re chestnuts and mushrooms, both of which are regarded as some of Tuscany’s finest, which is great if you love them, horrible if you don’t.
One of Monte Amiata’s biggest town, Castell’Azzara is a refreshing step back into simpler times. Tradition dictates more than the odd festival or celebration here. It dictates life.
Behind the tall walls and beneath the feet of Monte Amiata, Castell’Azzara is unfussed. When I think of the town, I get this dopey smile because I love its effortless way of life. No one’s interested in selling out their beautiful surroundings or attracting tourists.
It might sound backwards to you, but Castell’Azzara is not the hillbilly highland of the Maremma. For starters, it is surrounded by the most spectacular and lush mountain atmosphere, completely preserved and so utterly revered that it is a national park.
But it also has the sort of lifestyle that so many tourists are looking to experience. This is no gimmick, just quiet provincial streets and people going about their business in what could easily be a museum of neo- Renaissance buildings and beautiful examples of Italian royalist architecture.
Grotta del Sassocolato: A magnificent network of caves, Grotta del Sassocolato takes its name from the incredible thousand-year-old stalactites that drip down from its roofs. During the summer months, the caves are home to more than 2,000 bats. Their presence is a testament to the purity of the habitat and attentiveness of the people who care for the nature park.
The caves are only open from 10 April to 10 November, when you can go on guided tours in English. These tours can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours. For more info, check out the official website of Castell’Azzara’s pro loco.
Cornacchino and museum: Like so many mountain towns in the Maremma, Castell’Azzara rose and fell by the mines. Cornacchino is the largest, albeit now abandoned town in the forests and is located just outside the town.
Between July and November, you can visit Cornacchino and its cinnabar mine as part of a guided tour. But if you’re here during the rest of year or just don’t feel like going underground, you can wander through the abandoned town. The homes of the miners and the tubs they used to wash the cinnabar in the early 19th century are still here, as are plaques the recount the history of the area.
In the mining museum in Piazza Garibaldi, relics of the mines and the tools of the miners are preserved as irreplaceable hallmarks of Castell’Azzara’s heritage.
For more information, visit the official website of Castell’Azzara’s pro loco.
Where to eat:
La Tana dell’Orso, Via Veneto, 4 Castell’Azzara
La Tana dell’Orso is my favourite restaurant in the Maremma. In the early days when I was being courted by my, now, husband, I ate here and absolutely fell in love with it. Every morning the husband and wife team go to the nearby market, buy what’s fresh and cook it. You never know what you’re going to get because the menu changes on the whim of the husband, who happens to be one of the most entertaining maître ds I have ever met.
But the food here is good, affordable, hearty fare with plenty of homemade pasta and well cooked steaks. During autumn, the restaurant is particularly renowned for its excellent use of local porcini and truffles.
Where to sleep:
- Agriturismo Il Cornacchino: A beautiful agriturismo located inside the Monte Penna nature park. Take advantage of your amazing surroundings by going on a guided horse riding or walking tour. For more information, see their website.
- La Contea Degli Angeli: This spectacular homestead is great for couples and families with a sprawling property and a swimming pool. Every Sunday, they host a different event or activity. See their website.
- Agriturismo Le Ghiande: While this agriturismo doesn’t have its own website, its private apartments have been decorated sumptuously with plenty of local stone, exposed beams and rich fabrics. See this website.
Zucche in Feste, 8 and 9 October
Albeit a little peculiar, this pumpkin festival is an institution in Castell’Azzara and is renowned for its quirky events and avant-guarde take on the humble gourd.
Each year, the town’s pro loco comes together to dream up clever ways to use the hundreds of pumpkins that are plentiful and delicious during this season.Every year is different.
You never know what you’re going to get. It might be pumpkin served up in classic pasta dishes or a soup or inventive demonstration of modern cuisine, like a pumpkin shooter. Last year they even served cocktails and beers made from pumpkin.