Imagine Tuscany and the mind conjures up beautiful landscapes, large country villas and big old farmhouses brimming with people and food, miles of olive trees and avenues of cypresses. This is all here in abundance for sure, but take that winding road up and out of the valley towards a hilltop hamlet and you will discover one of Tuscay’s tiny towns. Mini medieval settlements clinging to hillsides, hewn into rock faces or perched proudly on high peaks. Each little Tuscan town is both similar and unique. No two layouts are the same and the jumble of dwellings jutting one way and another, squashed into corners or lining lanes gives each town its own special charm. The streets follow the lie of the land resulting in haphazard routes, often vertiginous, narrow and sharply shaped, veering off to the left and right, up and down, round corners and under arches. Uneven pavements and rickety roadways act as one and the same in these tiny towns – only the smallest of vehicles can even think about entering the streets and many do, parking precariously wherever they can squeeze themselves in.
The Italian way of parking is quite unique in itself and something that has given us a great deal of amusement over the last few weeks. It seems that pretty much anything goes – if it’s just about bigger than your car it’s deemed a valid space to stop, no matter if it’s in the middle of a zebra crossing, behind a fence or sideways in the street! Ancient Fiat 500s, Pandas and Piaggios are all popular in these parts, the perfect tiny transport with many being bashed, scraped and dented – no surprise really. Needless to say we do not bring the motorhome into the heart of these mini marvels. Buzz remains safely in the comfort of a nearby car park on the edge of town and we take the last part of the journey under our own steam.
Walking the streets of these little towns we find ourselves wondering what lies behind each little door. Brightly painted or battered and aged, each has a story to tell and a life lived behind. Many little homes are loved and cared for, their mini window boxes stuffed with bright flowers or herbs, or sometimes even sleeping cats!
Driving from Volterra to Gabella through the Val di Cecina the winding roads took us through miles of curvy countryside and typical Tuscan landscapes. The hazy sunshine shone gently, playing down the hot 28 degree heat, casting the earth and freshly ploughed fields in a soft shadow the colour of sandstone. Sunday cyclists rode past as we enjoyed the scenery go by with tall, wild, yellow daisies dancing in the breeze and the silvery green round balls of olive tree tops shimmering on the hillsides. Passing over the river in Cecina heading towards Canetto we passed ancient stone farm buildings, terracotta painted farmhouses and stacked up hay bales ready for winter. This area is full of Agri Turismo sites – working farms and producers providing accommodation, tastings and meals for guests – an ideal way to gain an authentic Italian experience.
Carrying on we came to a sign for one such tiny town – La Sassa, 6km up a winding hilly road not passing a single vehicle. What we didn’t realise was that it stopped in a dead end at the top of the town and we only just about had anough space to turn around, much to the amusement of three locals sitting outside on a step passing the daily gossip. As we were there we decided to get out and take a look around, luckily finding room to tuck Buzz in at the side of the road back down the hill. Although not quite what we were looking for, La Sassa turned out to be a little hidden gem. A tiny isolated town with a higgledy piggledy collection of tiny but attractive little homes, sited randomly at all angles along little pedestrian streets.
Tuscany is dotted with precious places that are almost lost in the past and we can only hope that they continue to thrive so that the lucky ones among us can continue to enjoy them. Pienza, Montichiello, Campigliano, Sassetta, Suvereto – places like this are a joy to discover but we imagine they must be very difficult places to live which is sad in a way because undoubtedly they will become depopulated as one generation passes and the next moves on seeking work, social lives and a less cut off existence, putting the whole little town’s (and others like it) future in jeopardy.