The Etruscan Coast – Exploring hill towns and cities
A guest post from Emiko Davies on La Costa degli Etruschi, the Etruscan coast, an area made up of the 90 or so kilometres of coastline belonging to the province of Livorno that stretches from the port city itself south to Piombino.
Named for the Etruscan necropolis of nearby Populonia, this is a glorious part of Tuscany that boasts an array of medieval hamlets, fishing villages, beautiful beaches, untouched wilderness, ancient history, and some of the world’s best wine. In fact, you could just a little too easily get side tracked by following the food and wine trail that takes you from the gutsy seafood stew, Cacciucco Livornese, to the luxurious Super Tuscans of Bolgheri.
I have prepared a guide to some of the highlights this region has to offer, from north to south. This article focuses on hill towns and cities of the Etruscan coast, while a “separate episode” moves on to the food of the etruscan coast (though without strict separation of tourism and eating activities, since I find something special to eat everywhere in Tuscany).
This rough-around-the-edges port city was once known as the “ideal” city in the Renaissance. What you see now is mostly from a great refurbishment of Buontalenti’s planned city in the 18th – 19th centuries and you can get a taste of the old splendor of the city by visiting Villa Mimbelli, an impressive 18th century residence that now houses the Museum of Giovanni Fattori, one of the leaders of the Macchiaioli artists, the Tuscan predecessors to the French Impressionists.
For a feel of the old city, though, you have to wander through the so-called Venice district, which has managed to keep its suggestive network of canals and narrow alleyways. It won’t take much to imagine the glory of this forgotten city when you visit Livorno during its annual “Effetto Venezia” event, this year from July 30-August 8, when the streets come alive with theatre, concerts, dance, fireworks, exhibitions and more.
Visit the famous Terrazza Mascagni (1925, expanded after WWII), with its black and white tiles, for a great photo.
But what keeps Livorno on the minds of fellow Tuscans – other than the colourful accent and expressions of its natives – is the rich fish stew, Cacciucco, which rightfully has a following of its own. Made with a mixture of at least 6 (purists will tell you 13) different types of locally-caught seafood cooked in wine with tomatoes and chilli, it has become a symbol of the city in more ways than one: they say that the many different types of fish included in the dish represent the people of Livorno themselves, a historically mixed batch of Jewish, African, Middle Eastern, Anglo Saxon, Dutch and other communities that found the port a more harmonious and tolerant place to live. For the ultimate pick-me-up, especially on a chilly day or after a big meal, knock back a ponce alla Livornese: rum, cognac, aniseed liquer, coffee and sugar, served hot.
Populonia is a beautiful, absolutely tiny and ancient town, perched high up on the Piombino peninsula with stunning views of the sea and the bay of Baratti below. It is home to a large archaeological park covering about 80 hectares, which contains some of the most important remains of the Etruscan settlement of this town, including the biggest necropolis in Italy of this mysterious native culture. Wealthy Etruscans had their tombs constructed much like the homes they lived in, complete with stoves, vases, cups, precious jewellery and regular objects they used during their lifetimes. The town’s small museum dedicated to the Etruscan history of the area holds the items found inside the tombs and brought up from the seabed below, describing in more detail this ancient, lively, wine-loving culture. It’s rustic and basic but fascinating.
Populonia is the only Etruscan town on the sea and probably during its time it was connected to nearby Volterra, another important ancient site. A 15th century fortress made with stones stolen from the Etruscan ruins dominates the tiny town.
The perfect way to round out an exploration of this beautiful area is to visit the ancient hot springs of nearby Venturina. Bathe under the stars in a pristine thermal pool that gushes out natural water at a perfect, warm 36 degrees celcius and relax like an Etruscan noble.
Lovingly nicknamed “the pearl of the Tyrrhenian sea,” this gem of a town was built on a panoramic stretch of wild coast, with a mixture of soft sandy beaches and rugged cliffs. The beautiful spot was a favourite of three important M’s: the Medici, Marcello Mastroianni (who had his holiday house here), and the Macchiaioli artists who came here for inspiration and a bit of painting en plein air. The artists would stay at the villa of their art collector friend, Diego Martelli, who at his death donated his vast collection of their paintings to the Galleria di Arte Moderna of Florence’s Pitti Palace. Now known as the Pasquini Castle, Diego Martelli’s old residence houses the Diego Martelli Centre of Art. On Saturdays in August and September, the Centre offers guided walks where you can tread in the footsteps of the Macchiaioli artists who loved to paint the picturesque bays, parks and life of the area.
The quiet, winding streets and romantic villas shaded by huge umbrella pines make the setting for that perfect wander - even on your own. Stroll along the sea promenade that hugs the rocky coastline, park yourself in one of the stylish bars or cafes along the main street or imagine yourself a Macchiaioli and visit the gardens and exhibition space of the Pasquini Castle that overlook the town centre… if you don’t just spend all your time on the beach!
This precious medieval borgo has somehow maintained its rustic charm over the centuries. The hilly town with its steep little streets has stunning panoramic views of the flat sea below that were fought over for centuries. As quaint and quiet as it is now, the town has had its share of violence and battle as it was fought over by the most powerful cities in the region until it eventually became, strategically the southernmost city under Florence's control. Even until last century its ownership was still changing – it finally became part of the province of Livorno in 1925.
Several interesting architectural and archaeological sites have been preserved despite these wars, from the Archeology museum of Palazzo Pretorio (now actually the town’s official wine cellar) to the impressive medieval Gheradesca fortress of La Rocca di San Silvestro.
Don’t miss the little Pisan Romanesque church of Pieve of San Giovanni, found inside the town’s cemetery. Amongst other things on the almost bare façade of the church is a scene of the hunt for wild boars (to give you an idea of what the medieval locals ate) and a curious little sator square, a latin palindrome that has its roots in witchcraft and folk magic and was believed to ward off the devil.
Probably the best time to visit is August, when you can take in the medieval atmosphere with their Medieval Festival that lasts several days around the 15th of August.
THE AUTHOR: Emiko Davies is an art conservator who has called Florence home for the last six years. Whenever she can, she escapes the city for the Etruscan coast, where she and her husband have been lovingly restoring their little apartment on the beach.
FURTHER READING: "Eating your way around the Etruscan Coast" and "Summer nights in the Tuscan Coast".