It seems unlikely, but winter is the most peaceful time to visit one of Tuscany’s tallest mountains, Monte Amiata, and the area around it. Although it’s only mildly cold compared to the mountains of the north, the chill is enough to keep most southern Tuscans away. Their aversion is our delight as we pack our bags for a weekend road trip in the search of natural beauty and unexpected manmade splendour.
Monte Amiata, between Siena and Grosseto, is an extinct volcano, responsible for the hot springs in both provinces. In winter, the days are crisp and cool, but the snow is light and the roads easy to navigate. For the most part, we’ll be travelling on the Strada Statale 323, where a sturdy rental car will more than do the trick.
Our road trip starts in Castel del Piano and covers a fairly short distance—only 36km—but it is full of sights that are authentic, if a little peculiar.
Castel del Piano is known for pastries and paintings. The small town gave birth to the area’s most famous artists, the Nasini father and sons, who painted most of the sombre religious scenes found in churches from here to Grosseto. The Corsini are a more recent famous family: their bakery on Via Marconi is a slice of floury heaven with Christmas pandoro and panettone, and their biscuits—always in high demand—are shipped all over Italy and throughout the world.
The town’s small art gallery in Palazzo Nerucci is open on weekends and worth a visit, if only to see the rare self-portrait of Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera. She painted four in her lifetime, one for each season. This gallery has autumn.
After a much-deserved wander around the rest of Castel del Piano and a break for lunch, we’re back in the car and heading to the Riserva Naturale Monte Labbro, the area’s most spectacular nature park. An afternoon hike might sound like a terrible idea, but it’s actually the warmest part of the day and the best chance of seeing the animals that call the park home—among them roe deer, polecats and wolves. (Don’t worry, they’re behind fences!)
If you have the stamina, follow the path to the top of Monte Labbro and the crumbled remains of David Lazzaretti’s Zion. Lazzaretti was a self-styled second coming of Christ. During the nineteenth century, he recruited hundreds of rainbow-clad followers from the mountain towns before being shot by the Carabinieri. His tiny fortress and the remains of his church are still visible.
Back down the mountain and it’s time for dinner and an overnight stop in Arcidosso. Monte Amiata is famous for two things in winter: truffles and chestnuts. Before chestnuts became a luxury item, they were the locals’ only source of carbohydrates, dried in dedicated barns before being ground into flour by hand. The locals here love chestnut polenta, which is stirred for hours to make a dense and rich paste—the perfect base for a wild game sauce.
In the morning, you’ll want to see Monte Amiata’s peak rather than simply drive around it: at the top is a 22-metre steel cross that was carried by hand through the mountain towns before being installed here in the last century. It’s one of hundreds throughout Italy, commissioned by the pope of the day.
Get a good night’s sleep and then make a quick morning stop at Santa Fiora, once the heart of the Aldobrandeschi kingdom. The family ruled the province of Grosseto for more than three centuries and was said to have had a different castle for every day of the year, but in Santa Fiora, they left behind something a little more enchanting: a private garden, La Peschiera.
Start your visit early in order to see it. Things have become a little wild in the years since the Aldobrandeschi left, but the towering cedars and unkempt hydrangeas and jasmine add to the garden’s appeal. At its centre is the source of the Fiora River, which provides much of Tuscany’s drinking water. Inside is a small community of trout who are the descendants of the family’s personal seafood supply.
You can follow the stream as it leaves the pool and travels under the Madonna della Neve church next door. As churches in Tuscany go, this one is frighteningly bare, but unforgettable. In the fifteenth century, the Augustinian monks would baptise people directly in the stream that makes up part of the church’s floor. Today it’s covered by glass, but the effect is still impressive.
The last stop on our road trip is just outside Castel’Azzara. Aesthetically, the town is nothing to look at, but we’re far more interested in the surrounding forest anyway. In certain periods, you can visit Grotta del Sassocolato, a beautiful cave with hundreds of stalactite and a few hundred more bats—a colony of 2,000, to be precise.
Elsewhere in the forest are the remains of local mines and mining communities, which can be visited with a tour guide. Ask at the local tourist office. Rumour has it that the forest is also filled with black truffles—if you know where to look.