09/30/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hidden Italy's Pitigliano Remains off the Tourist Grid

Peaceful Pitigliano is well off the Tuscan tourist trodden path. Built on volcanic tufa rock (limestone), the imposing medieval village is perched on a ridge and built in the round over 1000 feet (313 meters) above sea level. (Continue reading post below slideshow.)

A Photo Tour of Pitigliano

Within the Etruscan town walls, elderly Italian men with watchful eyes can be seen commiserating in doorways, while Italian women tend to patio gardens, and hang laundry from small windows down hidden lanes. They are among the 300 residents. With one entrance and one exit, it's impossible for visitors to go undetected.

Pitigliano is in Maremma, which is considered a wild and undiscovered region in southern Tuscany complete with cowboys, half-feral horses and long-horned white cattle. While northern Tuscany attracts eager tourists to Florence, Siena and Lucca, an average of one out of a hundred venture off the beaten path to this rural, naturally beautiful locale. So this might explain why it remains off the tourist grid and wine producing Pitigliano attracts very little attention, remaining quiet year round.

I discovered Pitigliano when I was staying in Saturnia, a nearby hill town. It was late March and I drove about 11 miles (18 km) on curvy country roads slicing through rolling farmland dotted with sheep. A strong since of history pervades the area and as I chugged up a hair pin-like road imposing Pitigliano loomed above me, I was awestruck at seeing the ancient Etruscan tombs pock marking the circular, vertical wall facing out over the valley.

Near the town's entrance, must-see Palazzo Orsini, a 14th century fortress turned museum is home to an intriguing torture chamber and Etruscan trinkets. (The museum is closed on Mondays.) Next to the castle, an impressive 16th century aqueduct runs along the side of town, which at one time supplied the town with water.

I parked my Fiat in the small Piazza near "The Rider," a statue in the heart of the village. From there, I strolled along the maze of quiet and virtually people-free, narrow lanes and cobbled alleys, many of which lead to steps with striking views of the Maremma valley below. Throughout the village, there are caves dating back to the Etruscans, which were used as wine cellars or sheds. Today, Pitigliano is well-known for their Bianco di Pitigliano, which is produced in Maremma's vineyards and aged in the carved out cellars in the tuff. It is famous all over Italy.

For local finds, I perused a handful of shops selling hand carved serving and stirring spoons made from the indigenous olive tree wood and local fig marmalade as well as the ubiquitous olive oil. For all of the elements to complete an Italian-style picnic, there is an impressive cheese shop, a butcher shop and cantina. Try Vin Santo, a local sweet to very sweet specialty wine. And if you happen to visit Tuscany in October, this is the time of year when local white grapes are hand picked and hung from rafters in rooms with many windows for air circulation. Once the grapes have partially dried, they are pressed and the juice is poured into chestnut barrels for fermentation.

I purchased grappa aka brandy in Ghiottornia, a small shop, not far from the main square. I was told by a local that grappa has been around since the middle ages and is generally sipped after dinner, but in Italy, some Italians spike their morning espresso with the potent and popular liquor. Grappa is made with the residue of grape skins after the grapes have been pressed to make wine. The skins along with the stalks and seeds are used to make the firewater.

If your itinerary allows time for an approximate 2-hour walk, there is a 3000-year old Etruscan path carved out of rock, which starts in Pitigliano and leads to Sovana, a neighboring village.

The annual main event, "Torciata si San Giuseppe," takes place toward the end of March. It's a ritual dating back to the ancient Etruscans and is held in the main square as well as the streets surrounding Pitigliano.

Best Bet: For an indepth, personally guided tour of Pitigliano, the nearby hill towns of Sorano, Sovana and Saturnia, as well as Etruscan tombs, contact the Tourism Office in Pitigliano. It is located off the main square on Via Roma.

Must-visit Sights in Pitigliano:

  • Chiesa di San Rocco: Dating back to the 12th century and also known as Church of Santa Maria, it is Pitigliano's oldest building.
  • Underground Tunnels and Caves: Ask at the tourist office when the area is open to tourists for walking tours. One cave dates back to approximately 400 AD.
  • Museo Civico Archeologico della Civilta Etrusca: This museum reconstructs Etruscans' lives and displays artifacts and objects found nearby. It is located in the Piazza Fortezza Orsini.

Maremma beef is comparable to Argentine beef. I dined on it nightly at Terme di Saturnia where it was grilled to perfection tableside on a sizzling hot stone, slathered in delicious olive oil and topped with fresh ground pepper.

How I got to Maremma:
I flew from Frankfurt, Germany on Lufthansa to Rome's Fiumicino Airport and drove approximately 150km/80 miles to Saturnia. Exiting the airport, I drove 65 miles north on SS1, which is a coast road, where I caught a glimpse of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I took the Albinia/Pitigliano exit and drove on S74 NE for about 15 miles. From this point, the drive is on winding, circuitous country roads with scattered farm houses. I passed the hill towns of Manciano and Montemarona, located 4km from Saturnia.

Where I Stayed:
Terme di Saturnia
Saturnia, Italy