Photo ©Varda HB

Natural parks in the Val di Cornia

Footpaths through ancient oaks and marshes

The nature parks of the Val di Cornia region are fantastic and evocative enough to have been described by the writer Cesare Pavese: “quando il mare svanisce, disteso, nel bosco” (“when the sea disappears, unfurled, in the woods”) in Donne Appassionate, a collection of his poetry. With these words, he refers to the kilometres of unspoilt coastline around Piombino and San Vincenzo, where the sea caresses the shore. There are many footpaths here, along which visitors can admire the ancient oak trees and Mediterranean scrub, either in Sterpaia Park, Punta Falcone Park near Piombino or Rimigliano Park near San Vincenzo. Further inland are some of the area’s real naturalistic gems such as Montioni Park in Suvereto and the Poggio Neri Park in Sassetta.

Pavese’s famous description of this protected natural area couldn’t be more fitting. In fact, his words have been immortalised in bronze and put on display for visitors to read on one of the ‘book-trees’ (‘alberi-libro’) in Sterpaia Park. This park stretches down the coast from Piombino and across the Gulf of Follonica, south of the Tuscan archipelago.

Sterpaia Park is home to several splendid ancient oak trees and is known for being one of Italy’s few marshy woodland areas. This unspoilt coastal landscape of the Maremma region has changed little over the centuries. The park is also home to the distinctive ‘book-trees’, thanks to the architect Mariachiara Pozzana. The words of several poets, such as Ungaretti, Mario Luzi, Dino Campana and Eugenio Montale, have been engraved onto these trees by the Florentine artist Marcello Guasti. In Sterpaia Park, many diverse species of plants live side by side. Visitors will find juniper near the beaches and various species of pine tree behind the dunes.

The Orti-Bottagnone natural oasis isn’t far from Sterpaia Park. This oasis is run by the WWF and is a natural sanctuary for a large number of migratory birds such as egrets, sheldrakes and falcons. The Punta Falcone Park is situated on a promontory west of Piombino. This park is home to a range of typically Mediterranean plants and flowers. The park’s inhabitants include colonies of seagulls and cormorants who nest inside several anti-aircraft dug-outs left from the Second World War.
There are also excellent footpaths in this area, such as the one that leads from the Punta Falcone Park towards Baratti. This path goes through some beautiful coastal locations such as Spiaggia Lunga (for years a Blue Flag beach for bathing), Cala San Quirico, Buca delle Fate and the stunning Golfo di Baratti. Baratti is as famous for its beaches as it is for its ancient archaeology: the area boasts Italy’s only coastal Etruscan necropolis. Over the years, numerous ancient artefacts have been found in Baratti and can now be admired in the Archaeological Museums in Florence and Piombino.

Rimigliano Park is up the coast from Piombino, at San Vincenzo. The park is dominated by kilometres of thick Mediterranean vegetation. The dominant trees are Holm Oaks and native fir trees with characteristic umbrella fringes.

Further inland is the San Silvestro Archaeological and Mining Park (Parco Archeo-Minerario di San Silvestro). Several old mining tunnels are open to the public and there are a series of organised tours to learn about the way of life here at the time of the area’s mining industry boom. It was this industry that led to the development of the whole area of the Val di Cornia.

Visitors to this region shouldn’t miss a trip to the Montioni Inter-Provincial Park (Parco Interprovinciale di Montioni). This park stretches over 7000 hectares. Recent studies have found that there is a growing wolf population in the park – information which came as a surprise to the people living on the park’s edge. Montioni Inter-Provincial Park, which is full of Holm Oaks and alum caves, has long been home to deer, wild boar and other species of wild animal.

The town of Sassetta is a little further inland and is home to the famous ‘via del carbone’, or the ‘coal route’, which pays homage to the old coal workers who used to live off the local woodland. On May 1st every year in Sassetta, there is a town festival which celebrates the way of life of the old coal workers. Visitors can get first hand experience of all the different phases of working coal, from transporting wood with mules, to the preparation of the charcoal pits, and from the ‘baking’ of the wood in the pits to the final product itself.

The Poggio Neri Forest Park (Parco Forestale Poggio Neri) is also nearby. The woodland here is mainly made up of Holm Oak and chestnut trees and the park is the ideal destination for anyone who loves outdoor activities. There are a series of footpaths which can be followed on foot, mountain bike or horseback. Along the route there are various places to stop off for refreshments, as well as many fresh springs to quench your thirst. Walking these footpaths gives a good idea of how tough life was for the local coal workers.
Together, the towns of the Val di Cornia region are responsible for protecting these areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas which tell the story of the region right back to Etruscan times.