Over a decade ago, the film Under the Tuscan Sun tossed the heart of central Italy into the global tourism spotlight, sending busloads of camera-wielding tourists to historic hamlets and pack-them-in, pack-them-out wine tasting pit stops.
For today’s thoughtful travelers, Tuscany’s Maremma region offers authenticity and nature on a grand scale best sampled in spring, when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and the land is bursting with life renewed.
Here are five great ways to experience Tuscany’s wild side:
1. Book into one of six rooms at the historic family-owned Dimora Santa Margherita.
Owners Elisabetta, a former Alitalia flight attendant, and William, a furniture designer turned chef from Milan, offer an experience more akin to a family homestay than a hotel (the couple lives upstairs with their two children).
But the surprisingly posh rooms, all overlooking the striking Val d’Orcia, represent the region’s ancient tradition of stonemasonry at its best. Walking, biking, and horseback riding are on the daily menu here, along with William’s home-style Italian cooking.
2. Looming behind Dimora Santa Margarita is one of Tuscany’s wilderness secrets—Mount Amiata, a vast forested nature reserve crisscrossed by hiking trails and roamed by gray wolves, deer, wild boars, foxes, and a myriad of bird species.
You can spend a day or a week and still not take in all that Mount Amiata has to offer nature lovers—especially in the spring, when the area teems with wildflowers and herbs.
3. Maremma is also home to mineral hot springs made popular during ancient Roman times by soldiers and the elites they served, who came here to rest and rejuvenate. The large Terme di Saturnia, a series of cascading pools tucked into a valley, is most popular among locals.
For a more intimate experience, head to the historic spa town of Bagno Vignoni, where options for a hot soak in geothermal springs abound. On the edge of the town are the original massive stone hot tubs carved from the surrounding bedrock where Rome’s soldiers soothed their weary bodies.
4. I did not even know there was such a thing as wild asparagus before traveling to Maremma, where I discovered residents collecting it in the fields and along country roads. Get a taste for the local flavor at tiny roadside eatery Antico Molino D’Orcia.
You would never guess from the reasonably priced menu that the kitchen boasts one of the region’s rising-star chefs, Mattia Mana, whose dishes, including uovo affogato—a poached farm-fresh egg paired with truffle and pecorino cream—are worthy of some of New York City’s celebrated restaurants.
But then again, this is Tuscany, where food trumps most things in daily life. Be sure to stop at Franci olive oil mill, whose Le Trebbiane extra virgin received Tuscany’s top honors last year. (Tuscans take their olive oil very seriously.) Maremma is also the land of Sangiovese grapes, and the wine produced from them is considered among Italy’s finest. For easy drinking, try the Begnardi Montecucco Rosso.
5. No one likes a good medieval festival more than the tradition-loving Tuscans of Maremma, and the Festa del San Giorgio is sure to round out any off-the-tourist-track experience.
The rites-of-spring celebration takes place at the end of April in Montemarano, a stunning stone village that dates back to the 13th century. The entire community gets into the spirit of the Middle Ages, donning period garb and even participating in a reenactment of St. George’s famous dragon battle.
Be sure to try the signature pasta of the area, pinci, made from the leftover trimmings of handmade tagliatelle and now a classic dish of its own.
When I asked Franco De Panfilis, the owner of Antico Molino D’Orcia, how he would explain the difference between the Tuscany of Florence and Siena and that of Maremma, he put it this way: Florence is for the tourists, Siena is for the worldly Italians, and Maremma is for the local farmers and villagers.
I will be back.
Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.
> More From Costas:
> Travel With National Geographic: