There is a corner in Tuscany, straddled between the provinces of Livorno and Grosseto, in which six protected areas share a territory rich in history and nature. In this small fraction of land, the sand dunes that run along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea transform themselves into a shaded and forested environment, sloping inland into a sea of wooded hills. This is the area of the Val di Cornia, a district consisting of two coastal parks, an archaeological park, an archaeological mining park, a forestry park, a protected nature reserve and three museums that narrate the local history.
From the coast to the inland, the parks of the Val di Cornia wind through nature, becoming an true playground for lovers of the outdoors who, within a small area, can at the same time find unique and very different natural environments.
The coastal area of Rimigliano, the first of the six parks starting from the furthest north, is a long green strip of land overlooking the sea, composed of oaks and pine trees among which thousands of cicadas sings in the summer season.
The Sterpaia Nature Park, also facing the Tyrrhenian, is a precious example of a humid forest, typical of the ancient coastal landscape of the Maremma. Saved after years of battling against unregulated construction activities, it extends over a surface area of circa 300 hectares, across dunes, woodland and clearings.
Amid the leaves, the splendours of the Montioni Natural Park and the forest of Poggio Neri can also be found. Among the inland hills covered by holm oaks, chestnuts and oak trees, there are many trekking routes which can be done by foot, on horseback or by mountain-bike. These were the areas of the coalmen and woodsmen, people of another age who experienced the woods daily and were able to obtain its precious fruits.
From the land to its hidden core: that’s how the San Silvestro Archaeological Mining Park was born. Located at the gates of the municipality of Campiglia Marittima, it encompasses an area of 450 hectares, which can be visited along many signposted routes, mining tunnels and an original medieval village, founded almost a thousand years ago by miners. Even the heart of the earth can be explored, that is, the Temperino mines, where sulphur, copper, lead, silver and iron were once extrcted. Running even further back in time, atop the promontory in Piombino, the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park conserves the remains of its namesake city, which was originally Etruscan and later Roman. Lastly, three museums preserve the traces of the local culture, from the Etruscan period in the Populonia Archaeological Museum to the Middle Ages in the Museums in Castello, mediaeval ceramics in Piombino and the Fortress in Campiglia.
A week outdoors in the Val di Cornia is synonymous with an experience in close contact with nature and the land, enriched by the charm of the Tuscan landscape and bestowed with a variety of natural environments that this Tuscan corner can offer to the attentive and curious visitor. The point of departure of each excursion must be reached by car.
For information on opening hours and ticket fees: parchivaldicornia.it
Our journey begins in the Rimigliano Nature Reserve for a complete immersion in nature and vegetation typical of the Mediterranean scrub. A long walk into the heart of a protected dune area, which alternates between the shade of the oak trees and the maritime pines absorbed by the warm coloured sands. In the heart of the forest, it isn’t rare to come across red squirrels, wild boar, wild rabbits or foxes, with jays and green woodpeckers living among the tree branches. It is a wild landscape enclosed within 650 hectares, inside a narrow strip of land where four particular environments can be found. From the coast, a first stretch of beach is made up of light sand, behind which you find the first dune bar dotted with small juniper trunks and Phoenician juniper. Just before it, a humid belt is all that remains of an ancient coastal lagoon, while beyond that, a second dune belt is intertwined with early specimens of holm oaks, pines, cork oaks and white oaks.
Travelling across the park is very simple: all the numbered entrances can be reached by the Strada Provinciale della Principessa, which leads to Piombino from San Vincenzo. A path cuts across the heart of the park from one side to the other, with a total length of about 5 km, from which two entrances to the shore split off and are suitable even for those with reduced mobility thanks to two platforms. Along the path you can also linger on the peculiar elements that distinguish the nature of the land, which are detailed on the many informative signposts.
We move a few kilometres away to plunge into history, reaching the entrance to the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park. Inside the area you can stroll along a series of routes to relive Etruscan history thanks to the contribution of explanatory signposts. The park occupies an area of 80 hectares, enclosed by the slopes of the promontory in Piombino and the Gulf of Baratti, and leads you on a discovery of ancient Populonia, originally an Etruscan and later Roman city that was renowned for its intense iron mining activities. Walking alongside the ruins of the ancient buildings concerned with iron and steel activities, you can explore the traces of these inhabited centres.
Starting from the visitor centre, immediately we admire the San Cerbone Necropolis, a complex of aedicule tombs and graves where you can appreciate the evolution of funerary architecture. Among the most important works, the Chariot tomb represents one of the most important graves ever built by the Etruscan civilization. We then reach the centre of experimental archaeology. The first nature route departs from here, winding through the caves and lasting an hour and a half, which can be walked with a guide. Along this route, you’ll note the rich vegetation in the park, characterised by the area’s strong humidity.
A second circular route – longer in length and lasting two hours – brings us instead to the so-called via delle Cave. This path explores the upper part of the park, where you can admire one of the most evocative places in the area: the necropolis of the Caves. Passing through a dense forest of cork and holm oaks, you’ll come across the ancient mining caves and the tombs recovered from excavations in the limestone rocks. The true protagonist of this itinerary is the necropolis, which nowadays appears as an imposing rockface, in which you identify numerous tomb rooms, dug between the 4th and 3rd century BCE.
A network of routes that run along the roads made of volcanic rock, cutting through forests and the Mediterranean scrub, opens onto unexpected glimpses of the Isola d’Elba, linking the necropolis and the acropolis in Populonia. Precisely in this area, it is possible to admire a reconstruction of the entire foundation of one of its temples, the restored mosaic pavement which has been reopened to the public and a new visitor route that runs along the city’s ancient walls.
The third leg is dedicated in particular to lovers of ornithology and birdwatching, and takes place within the Sterpaia Nature Park, the second coastal area in the val di Cornia. Starting from the car park of the Sterpaia forest, you can explore this corner of the Maremma with the help of a guide along an 800 m itinerary preserving the last traces of an ancient forest set behind the dunes. Leaving the forest, head towards the coastal dune where you can admire sea daffodils, sea holly and snowbells. After trekking 3km along the beach and pine forest, go across the old Acquaviva trench and enter the Perelli Bassi marsh, a neighbouring area of the Orti Bottagone WWF Nature Reserve. Here it is possible to observe many species of water birds, such as the grey heron, the flamingo, the western marsh harrier (the symbol of the Oasis), teals and the black-winged stilt.
After almost a kilometre and a half, you’ll reach the Reserve’s border where, following a brief trail on the margins of the rushes in the Bottagone, you’ll come to the Reserve’s visitor centre. The Nature Trail visit departs from here, leading ornithologists to where they can spot ospreys, curlews, little egrets, peewits, shelducks and many other species.
A couple of kilometres from the Sterpaia Nature Park, a protected area of 7,000 hectares opens up between the Val di Cornia and the Pecora valley, starting from the coast and heading towards the hills of Massa Marittima and Suvereto. It is a dense intertwining of trees inhabited over the centuries by coalmen who lived in the forest – consisting mainly of oak trees – alternating this ancient activity with mining.
A double itinerary begins in Montioni for exploring the protected area: from the car park, cross a ditch which leads to the road for the Marcitotio farm. In the vicinity of the ancient hot springs of Elisa, abandon the road and enter the forest via a path. Go past the clearing with an old building at its centre and come to a cypress field. Here, with a small deviation on the right, it is possible to reach the ruins of the Montioni castle and Poggio Sentinella, a panoramic balcony overlooking the sea. Returning to the crossroads, continue walking through the forest towards Poggio Tre Cancelli. After having crossed an area where birdwatching cabins are situated, you reach another crossroads to follow on the left. Ascending, you’ll reach Poggio Tre Cancelli following a path that skirts the forest’s tall trees. From here, the entire nature reserve of the same name extends outward: the area of about 100 hectares can’t be visited, as it is subject to total protection that allows for monitored development of vegetation that is uninfluenced by human actions. From here, a panoramic fire-safety line leads towards Montioni, passing through the ridge between the Botro Secco valley and Confine valley, with glimpses of the Pecora valley. You’ll reach the local road of Poggio Sentinella and join another road along Poggio Speranzona which brings you back to piazzale di Montioni.
A unique environment, this geologic workshop hidden within the Mediterranean scrub, where man learnt to challenge the riches of the rock with pickaxes, is an encyclopaedia of history and mineral culture. The visit to the Archaeological Mining Park of the Val di Cornia takes place above and below ground, through an itinerary that begins with the narration of the ancient mining techniques – the first testimonies of mining work that occurred in these hills actually date back to the Etruscan period – and illustrates the environment, the mines and the narrow tunnels in the heart of the earth that were used during the extraction of minerals. From the building adjacent to the visitor centre, where the archaeological and mineral museum is based which describes the geologic characteristics of the Campigliese and displays artefacts from the San Silvetsro fortress, you’ll enter the Temperino Mine to then continue the visit in the museums showcasing the history of the mining machines and the miners. The Lanzi-Temperino tunnel begins here, which you travel through on board a mining train. Passing through the route which the carts full of minerals used to run along, you’ll arrive in the Lanzi valley, to then continue by foot towards the San Silvestro fortress. An ancient residential area, it was built on the top of a hill between the 10th and 11th century to provide a home for miners and metal smelters, and was abandoned in the 14th century. The guided visit accompanies the visitor through the houses, the church, the cemetery and the old industrial area, where you can still explore the ancient medieval metallurgic techniques.
For the last leg of your week among the hills of the Val di Cornia you’ll move to Sassetta, a wonderful village situated on a hill and presumably established around the year 1000. After walking through the streets of the historic centre and admiring the ruins of the ancient medieval castle, we advance into the forest of Poggio Neri, a dense intertwining of oaks and chestnut trees, ideal for shaded walks in the warm season. From Sassetta, follow the directions for route number 100. Pass through La Fattoria and ascend until the Bruzzi plain. After approaching Poggio Santa Lucia, take a left towards Poggio Lindi and Poggio Valcanina until intersecting the route for San Vincenzo and San Carlo. Arriving at Casa Silvestrina, continue in descent on route 101, skirting the val Canina and Casonzoli. Continue at the foot of Monte Ceci until the junction with route 102. This pathway is equipped with platforms for those with reduced mobility. Winding around Monte Bufalaio, route 102 is a botanic itinerary, equipped with signposts that highlight the local flora and fauna. On the western slope of the mountain, you can admire an old quarry now in disuse, where the famous Sassetta red marble used to be mined, while continuing further on you can take a restorative break by admiring the medieval village from a particularly evocative position. Along the track it is also worth visiting the Forest Museum, a themed itinerary housed in an ancient chestnut drying room, where you can retrace aspects of daily life of the people that for centuries inhabited these locations working as coalmen. The return trip runs along a portion of route 101 until you see directions for Sassetta.