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Homes for Under $70,000—and Other Glittering Prizes of Uncharted Italy

Homes for Under $70,000—and Other Glittering Prizes of Uncharted Italy

It’s the scent of the Mediterranean. The scent of Italian summer. On a road linking Tuscany to Lazio, I gave into temptation and lay in a meadow to revel in the fragrance of earth, herbs, and flowers.

And the colors! Acres of corn poppies—a scarlet coverlet embroidered with purple, white, and gold bouquets. The urge to find some paints and splash the scene onto canvas was overwhelming.

The Latin phrase festina lente (make haste slowly) suits the Maremma in Italy. It’s as if the air compels you to slow down and really savor Italy’s sweet life. But why savor it only on vacation? A move-into village house could be yours for $63,000. And consider this: You’d only be a 90-minute drive from Rome.

The Maremma is an old name for southern Tuscany and northern Lazio. Borders aren’t definitive, but its center is Grosseto province. Although the city of Grosseto itself isn’t overburdened with charm, everywhere else makes up for it.

Drowsing under low hills, the Maremma’s hinterland is every bit as dreamy as central Tuscany. Threaded with wine routes, this is also a realm of stone farmhouses and cypress trees; of castles and medieval villages on a blue horizon. Yet relatively few foreign travelers come to explore. Maybe they think nothing exists south of Siena.

Much of the coast comes under the Maremma National Park’s protection. Veined with spaghetti-thin roads, the park is full of birds. I’d never glimpsed a bee-eater before, but here were flocks of them. With their turquoise breasts and amber wings, it was like watching jewels in flight.

Only a scattering of seaside towns punctuate the undeveloped beaches that stretch for miles between Cecina and Tarquinia in Lazio. San Vincenzo and castle-topped Castiglione della Pescaia were my two favorites.

Escaping history is impossible in Italy, but I never want to. Maremma was the heartland of the mysterious Etruscans. The echoes of these people are everywhere. Around 6,000 years ago, way before Ancient Rome’s glory days, they were building cities here, and necropolises, even roadways hollowed from tufa rock.

A Sampler of Treasure Towns

Famed for its hot springs, Saturnia was named to honor the pagan god Saturn. There’s a luxurious spa outside the town, but I joined locals at a spot called Gorello. There’s no charge to use the natural thermal pools here. You’ll emerge feeling great and reeking of sulfur, but the waterscapes of stepped cascades are surreal. Easy to see why the site was sacred to Romans and Etruscans. (See my video here.)

Suvereto is a drop-dead-gorgeous walled town where you can discover first-hand—and neck—how miscreants felt when sentenced to punishment by pillory. Along with a dilemma of enticing restaurants, gastronomy shops sell wine, olive oil, and specialties like lentils, beans, and farra—a grain that goes into winter broths.

On via Matteoti, Antica Osteria dei Tre Briganti (“Inn of the Three Brigands”) looked worth investigating. Seeing the menu, I had a craving for cinghiale, a wild boar stew simmered with olives and served with polenta. With a small carafe of house red, my lunch cost $22.

Despite the “maritime” tag, Massa Marittima is around 15 miles from the sea. Graced with palaces and gargoyled churches, it’s the Maremma’s art town. Oddities include a medieval mural of a tree hung with phalluses. Annoyingly, it was under restoration during my visit, but I saw a copy.

If such things intrigue you, the mural should be on display again by summer’s end. The tree’s 25 strange “fruits” dangle from branches, snuggle inside birds’ nests, and two women even fight over one implausibly-sized specimen. An Italian academic claims it depicts witchcraft practices.

Belief in spellcraft was rife during the Middle Ages. Manciano was another cauldron of activity. It has a curious saying that translates as “Manciano, the home of witches, they’re wherever you look.”

With its houses teetering above a gorge, the first glimpse of Pitigliano is like a forgotten fragment of legend. Along with Sovana and Surano, it’s one of the three “tufa towns.” It was once known as Little Jerusalem because in the 15th and 16th centuries, almost a quarter of Pitigliano’s population was Jewish. Reminders of those days still exist in the old ghetto.

Take hiking boots if you aim to meander Pitigliano’s Vie Cave, Etruscan roads hollowed from the rock. Cavern-like in places, some were still in use up until 50 years ago by farmers and their donkeys.

Populonia is a tiny but perfectly-preserved fortress settlement. The fortress was built with stones from the old Etruscan city (there’s an archaeology park here) to defend the coast from Barbary pirates. The drive up to the village gives giddying views over the Gulf of Baratti and its half-moon beach. So allow time for a dip.

Across the border in Lazio, the Maremma Laziale includes placid Lago di Bolsena. The lake is girdled with medieval villages and stretches of beach for summer bathing. I was with a real estate agent on this day, so had little time for poking into the past. But Bolsena village has catacombs under St Cristina’s Basilica and a chapel of miracles where it’s claimed the communion wafers once dripped blood.

You can literally eat history at Trattoria del Moro in Bolsena (Piazza Dante Alighieri).  The house specialty is Anguilla alla Vernaccia, eel cooked in white wine.  In his Divine Comedy, Dante sends one Pope to Purgatory for his gluttonous appetite for eels.

Buy a Piece of La Dolce Vita

Daniele Pettinari of Castrum Tuscany took me to view properties on both sides of the regional border. The agency’s seven Maremma offices cover different areas of Tuscany and Lazio. Daniele manages the Manciano branch.

In general, Lazio properties are around 30% less than comparable homes in the Tuscan Maremma. One stop was Cellere, a 15-minute drive from Lake Bolsena and approximately 90 minutes from Rome. With only 1,400 inhabitants, it has a village-like tranquillity. The bar on the square holds my record for Italy’s cheapest espresso, 83 cents.

I saw a 484-square-foot house here for $77,000. It’s trattabile, which means offers are acceptable. Daniele and his Cellere office colleague reckoned the vendor would take $63,000. Houses at this price are usually small, but fit the bill as vacation homes. In the town of Canino, the owners are seeking $68,000 for a 646-square-foot house, but it requires an additional $17,000 spent on new electrics and flooring.

Properties around Lake Bolsena seem very reasonably priced. A 538-square-foot villino, similar to a maisonette and with a small garden, is $110,000. You could probably shave this down to $103,000—there’s little that isn’t trattabile.

In the Tuscan Maremma, prices depend on proximity to the coast. The Mediterranean is still a glittering prize. Manciano’s square-foot price averages is $185, but on the coast and Argentario peninsula, it’s $389 to $519 per squarefoot. Abitare is an English-speaking agency in San Vincenzo, a seaside town near Populonia. $321,000 for a 753-square-foot apartment is typical.

Thanks to its thermal springs, Saturnia is also a hotspot. So too is lovely Suvereto. Properties here generally fetch $325 to $390 per square foot.

How to Find the Maremma

One reason the Maremma escapes notice is the lack of international flights. There’s talk of budget carrier Ryanair commencing flights from other European cities to Grosseto, but it hasn’t happened yet. For North Americans, flying into Rome makes the most sense.

Although the Autostrada from Florence to Rome bypasses the Maremma, better links to this north-south artery are underway. Depending on the approach route, many towns are already within a 90-minute to two-hour drive of Rome, Pisa, or Florence.

During May, many people were enjoying the beaches, and eating outside was a pleasure. But summer and fall are lovely, too—the grape harvest is in September. October brings chestnut festivals, mushroom hunts, and truffle fairs.

The Best Countryside Sleeps

I rented one of Agriturismo Peretti’s self-catering cottages. Priced at $98 a night, it could have slept three. It’s handily located for forays throughout Grosseto province. The small towns of Fonteblanda and Magliano-in-Toscana are only a 10-minute drive. Sylvia and Andrea also provide bed and breakfast in their farmhouse—$91 for doubles.

For me, the dolce vita was lolling on the patio at sundown with a glass of Morellino di Scansano, the local red wine. Doves cooed in trees, the odd lizard scurried across warm tiles. I didn’t cook, but concocting simple suppers was easy. Even I can’t do much damage to salami studded with fennel seeds, pecorino sheep’s cheese, and a tomato and basil salad dressed with pale green olive oil. See here for more agriturismo options.

Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, you can subscribe here.

Read more articles from our sample issue here.

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