It’s a balmy September evening and I am sitting on the expansive veranda of Marella Caracciolo Chia’s Tuscan home, Villa Marella, chatting to her mother while the final preparations are being made for our alfresco dinner. Before the sun went down, Marella had given me a private tour of the Giardino dei Tarocchi, the extraordinary Gaudí-esque sculpture garden created over a 17-year period by the late French‑American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The land was given to Saint Phalle by Marella’s family, and the foundation is now run by them. The 22 giant, psychedelic mosaic-clad structures depicting mythical tarot figures are variously joyful, childlike, curious and sinister – the latter all the more menacing in the failing light. Marella, a niece of Gianni Agnelli and author of The Light in Between (Pushkin Press, £9.99), knew Saint Phalle personally, and enlivened our walk with stories of her colourful life.
Back on the veranda, more guests arrive, followed eventually by Marella’s husband, the renowned transavanguardia painter and sculptor Sandro Chia. As bottles are opened, the conversation turns naturally to Tuscan wines and to Brunello di Montalcino in particular – specifically that from Castello Romitorio, Sandro’s own winemaking estate in the hill-top village of Montalcino. Sandro creates wines with the same passion with which he paints. Grapes are picked strictly by hand to ensure that every bunch reaches an ideal ripeness, which means each vineyard may need to be harvested two or even three times. In 2010, his Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004 Castello Romitorio was named best red wine in the world by International Wine Challenge.
Marella and Sandro are typical of the Italian cultural and political elite who live in Rome and drive the 120‑odd km northwest to weekend and holiday in the Maremma – a former marshlands that accounts for almost a quarter of Tuscan soil. Sandro’s vineyards are on the eastern border of the region, which extends some 200km along the coast from Livorno in the north to Lazio province in the south.
The Maremma has everything that Italophiles love about Tuscany – ravishing panoramas of rolling countryside, serried rows of cypress trees, medieval walled towns, castles, culture and, of course, great food and wine. But with this full Tuscan package also come long, sandy beaches – some that are left to nature, others colonised with rented sun beds and trendy beach clubs – and quiet roads, especially midweek and outside the peak holiday month of August.
Yet curiously, especially in its far south, it is a place that slips the notice of most non-Italian holidaymakers. When, on a Tuesday in early September, I drop in at fashionable La Dogana beach club, it is almost empty. After perfectly cooked spaghetti with fresh anchovies, fennel and the sweetest Datterini tomatoes, followed by crispy-fried calamari and basil leaves, I trace my way along the beach past small pockets of sunbathers and solitary fishermen. After 45 minutes I am pretty much on my own, with what seems like endless sand stretching before me.
I am staying a 15-minute drive inland at Villa Pinciana (pictured on previous pages), a lovely, secluded, honey‑stoned villa that is owned by Ilaria and Massimo Tosato. Ilaria is a winemaker (her state-of‑the-art, discreetly operated winery, with its own entrance, is housed in the villa’s cellar), while Massimo, as executive vice-chairman of Schroders, commutes weekly to London. The villa is surrounded by olive groves and the Tosatos’ own vineyards, planted in 2003 but already winning accolades (Decanter magazine awarded the Terraria 2007 a bronze medal last year).
The property’s airy interiors reflect the elegant and individual taste of its owners (they used the same interior designer as for their own home nearby); the gardens were designed by Ilaria’s mother, who is a well-known Italian landscape artist. Views extend across the Maremma countryside to the coast, while the hill-top medieval walled town of Capalbio is clearly visible from the covered dining terrace that spans the villa’s entire length.
On arrival, I resist the temptations of the poolside sun beds and set off for the town. The 40-minute uphill walk is breathtaking – as are the views across the fertile plains to the sea. Capalbio is where a healthy contingent of Italian political and Roman high society congregate in the summer months during the aperitivo hour, over a basil mojito or vodka sour at the long white-marble bar of Il Frantoio, a former oil mill also housing an excellent restaurant, bookshop, boutique and upstairs art space. Later in the week, I dine in Il Frantoio’s atmospheric walled garden on smoked swordfish carpaccio followed by homemade pappardelle with wild-boar sauce. A nearby table is being served buttero – named after the region’s legendary cowboys who tend the local cattle, and one of Il Frantoio’s signature dishes. The locally reared beef is cooked with rosemary and bayleaf on a hot‑stone slab and served sizzling at the table.
Most Italians without second homes in the Maremma rent farmhouses or villas (at the time I visited, the Chias had paying guests at a villa adjacent to their own). Hotels aren’t plentiful, but there are a few that are world class.
Best known of these is the recently renovated Hotel Il Pellicano, on the Argentario coast in the southernmost quadrant of the region. Il Pellicano is legendary not just for its romantic and star-studded history, but for the way it has transformed a rocky peninsula into a tranquil Tuscan haven that has an extremely loyal clientele.
I speak to one longstanding client who has returned with his family almost every summer for the past 20 years; he admits to me, rather sheepishly, that he must have spent over a quarter of a million pounds in the process – yet the attractions of Il Pellicano continue to prove irresistible. He cites the intimate scale of the hotel (just 50 individually decorated rooms and suites – some in the terraced main buildings, others in cottages scattered throughout the gardens); the views of the sea and the spectacular Argentario coastline; the heated sea-water pool; the beautiful terraced gardens with their ancient cypress and pine trees; the private beach terrace carved out of rock (steep steps for the agile – or a lift); the PelleGrill’s simple yet fantastic Tuscan food (Maremma specialities include salt-crust-baked sea bass and beef fillet with herb cream); the great wine list (not just Super Tuscans, Brunellos and Vino Nobile, but also a good selection of Australian, Chilean and American wines); and the genuine warmth of the staff.
But it is, perhaps, Il Pellicano’s secluded location and privacy that carry the greatest appeal. “I holiday in Italy a lot, and it’s difficult to find quiet places by the sea where you can go swimming,” says this same guest. “I work hard and Il Pellicano is an oasis of luxury where I can chill out completely. Sometimes I come here and the only time I go out of the gates is when I check out.”
I am visiting for three days and soon find myself lulled into a similar frame of mind. Plans to visit the local island of Giglio and to hire a bicycle to explore a natural wildlife reserve are abandoned. I venture out only as far as the pretty fishing village of Porto Ercole, a 10-minute drive along the coast.
If Il Pellicano hospitality is akin to being in the family home of a friend, it is due in part to the fact that the main farmhouse-style buildings were built in the mid-1960s, by Michael and Patricia Graham, as a private residence. The couple soon started taking in paying guests along the lines of a country club, with the same faces returning year after year. When the Grahams returned to England in the late 1970s, they sold the property to their friend (and one-time paying customer) Roberto Sciò, who set about expanding it. Today, his daughter Marie‑Luise is the hotel’s vice-president.
In the early years, the cream of the European jet set passed through Il Pellicano’s doors, from Charlie Chaplin to Emilio Pucci, Kenneth Tynan and Susanna Agnelli. Today’s glitterati have an extra inducement to visit: the hotel’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Before dinner on my last night, I play tennis to work up an appetite. Between shots, I can hear one of the chefs snipping herbs in the kitchen garden. Antonio Guida’s tasting menu is a refined voyage through the flavours of the Mediterranean (seasonal langoustine with grilled oyster and ginger sauce, pigeon breast with cream of foie gras) with a final – and unexpected – serving of Amedei chocolate from Pisa, cut from a selection of slabs brought to the table on a trolley.
But no first-time visitor to this part of the Maremma should remain ensconced in a hotel – however cocooning – for their entire holiday. Locanda Rossa (pictured on previous page) is a chic collection of restored eco-friendly farm buildings set amid acres of olive groves 4km from Capalbio, and while it has everything on hand to satisfy the needs of weekending Romans (heated outdoor pool, small spa, restaurant and wine bar), for those with more time, it is a perfect base for exploring southern Maremma.
Owned by Lorenza Jona Celesia, the wife of a Roman financier, Locanda Rossa is run along the lines of a country home – it has no formal lobby – by a young staff, all female except for the chef, and two gardeners who help with luggage. Accommodation is divided between two small split-level main buildings and a smattering of self-catering cottages with their own gardens.
When Locanda Rossa opened in 2010, most of the guests were Roman. Four years on, it has quietly gained an international reputation, with German, American, Norwegian, French, Swiss and now a few English guests drawn to its relaxed vibe, stylish contemporary aesthetic and solid eco credentials. The hotel’s 40 solar panels provide hot water for showers and the outdoor pool; the estate’s 3,200 olive trees produce the fruit and extra-virgin olive oil for the kitchen; the 50 beehives the honey for breakfast; and in mid-summer, the hotel’s vegetable garden supplies more than half of the needs of the restaurant.
There are lovely touches. The specially commissioned red and white Richard Ginori porcelain is used not only in the restaurant, but for the tea- and coffee-making facilities in the rooms; the bread, pastries and jams served at breakfast are all homemade, and guests can help themselves to chilled soft drinks by the pool. It’s clearly a winning formula. More than half the guests are now regulars; as I am checking in, three Germans, plus dog, were bidding an effusive farewell to Barbara Valleggi, the general manager, after reserving the same cottage for the same two weeks the following year.
I resolve to shift up a gear for several days of exploration. Further afield, but still within two hours’ striking distance is the hill-top medieval town of Tarquinia, on the outskirts of which is the Etruscan necropolis, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its 200 painted tombs hewn out of rock. The earliest date back to the 7th century BC, and about 20 are accessible to the public, some impressively preserved. After a leisurely perambulation (no tour buses, no queues), I seek respite from the midday sun under one of the pavement umbrellas of Restaurant Ambaradam, an unpretentious eatery overlooking Tarquinia piazza. Its generous portions of excellent food at reasonable prices are understandably popular with locals; a plate of beef carpaccio with a radicchio salad made for a perfect lunch.
Further afield, but still only about an hour’s striking distance from Locanda Rossa, are the exceptionally beautiful Etruscan towns of Sovana and Sorano (pictured on previous page), rising out of spectacular outcrops of tufo (rock formed from volcanic ash), as well as the ancient thermal springs and waterfalls of Saturnia (best visited midweek, as they are extremely popular with locals). And then there is the charming lagoon-bound Orbetello, set halfway between the mainland and the Monte Argentario peninsula, with its stylish shops; and trendy Porto Santo Stefano, where Romans parade in the post-dinner passeggiata along a quay lined with shops, seafood restaurants and the occasional wine bar. It doesn’t take me long to realise that my visit can only provide a tasting menu of all that Maremma has to offer. For as alluring as the attractions of the southern part of this region are, further north there is apparently a whole other Maremma, equally picturesque, inviting, replete with fine cuisine and wines – and equally undiscovered. But that will have to be another story.