Thursday 22 February 2018

'Time slows down here' - Welcome to Tuscany's best kept-secret

Suvereto: Italian Insider

Suvereto, Tuscany. Photo: Getty
Suvereto, Tuscany. Photo: Getty
La Rocca, Suvereto. Photo: Deposit
Suvereto, Italy. Photo: Getty
La Rocca in Suvereto, Italy
Torre Mozza, a Tuscan beach in Italy.
Suvereto, Italy

Hugo McCafferty

Like turtles returning to the same stretch of beach year after year, we know everything about Suvereto.

We know the right place to swim. We know the best place to sling a hammock under the pines, and we know where to park the car so that the shadow prevents it becoming like a furnace in the scorching Tuscan sun.

I lived in Milan for close to 10 years with my Italian wife and three Italian-born children. During that time, we returned to Suvereto every year - not because it was easy and familiar, but because it was so magical.

This jewel of a little town is one of Tuscany’s best kept secrets. One we’ve kept under our hats for years, but feel it’s time to share.

Suvereto is the quintessential Tuscan Medieval borgo, or historical village, a granite-built fairy tale dating back to the 12th century and surrounded by the Val di Cornia, a densely wooded valley that brims with wild boar and is flanked by vineyards.

Perched on top of a hill with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the village gets cooler air in summer, as well as having the advantage of being (mostly) mosquito free.

La Rocca, Suvereto. Photo: Deposit
La Rocca, Suvereto. Photo: Deposit

Tuscany is everything it’s billed to be – rolling hills and castles, vineyards and Cyprus trees, medieval villages and cantinas, white sandy beaches and clear blue water.

 For me it encompasses the very best of Italy all in one place, it has the landscape, the culture, the history, the food, the services and most importantly it has a well-established tourism industry which means everything works, unlike some of the up and coming Italian destinations like Puglia or La Marche.

People have told me over the years of the villas they’ve booked close to San Gimignano or Sienna and I’ve always wanted to change their minds for them.

Tuscany is a vast region and the majority of it is inland, covered in dense, deciduous forest. These inland villas can get suffocatingly hot in summer, and mosquitoes come out in force ready to dine on some unaccustomed Irish skin.

I always advise people to head for the coast. The the beaches are among the best in Italy and the islands are just a short hop away.

So what makes Suvereto so special?

Suvereto, Italy. Photo: Getty
Suvereto, Italy. Photo: Getty

Well, the first thing going for it is that it is full of life. Sometimes in Tuscany you can happen upon an incredible medieval village that is like something out of a dream, but the only problem is that it’s devoid of people. There may be a few tourists wandering around at high season, but other than that it feels like a dying town.

Suvereto is different. It is bustling with activity year round, the locals take great pride in the village and it always feels like there is something happening.

Take the sagra, or local food fairs, that run in an olive grove at the foot of the village through July and August. You'll find tents filled with tables and benches where you can sit and eat the finest fresh fritto misto, or tagliatelle cingiale - the local speciality of wild boar - elbow to elbow with the locals. And you can wash it all down with local sangiovese red wine for as little as €3.50 a bottle.

You can then retire to the dance floor set up at the other end of the olive grove and join the ‘nonni’, or Italian grandparents, as they waltz the night away to the sound of a local accordion player backed by his overdressed wife on keyboards under disco lights and a smoke machine.

The song and dance linger long into the night, even when you’ve gone home to sleep off the evening’s excess and the music carries on the night air.

While the Sangiovese on offer is good enough for the locals, you may be of more discerning palate and prefer to sample some of the high end blockbusting Tuscan wines from the area.

Suvereto is on La Strada del vino or the Wine Route, winding its way among the many vineyards and wine producers of the region. The quality of the wine is epitomised by the very impressive Petra wine cellar, built into the ground to avail of the constant temperature and designed by renowned architect Mario Botta.

La Rocca in Suvereto, Italy
La Rocca in Suvereto, Italy

However there's a seemingly endless amount of family run vineyards that you can visit, even just by pulling up, where the quality is every bit as good.

At one point in time, about 600 years ago, Tuscany stood culturally at the very centre of the world and there are still traces of the Renaissance to be found in Suvereto.

The churches such as that of the Madonna sopra la Porta (c.1480) and those dedicated to San Leonardo and San Rocco (both dating from the 1520s) bear witness to this period activity, as do the visits of famous artists such as Andrea Guardi, responsible for the bas-relief of the Madonna and Child on the sixteenth century Fonte degli Angeli.

But in truth, Suvereto is a town that has a life much older than that with its origins going back to Etruscan times.

The town really began to flourish in the 12th and 13th centuries with the now ruined fortress that sits on the very top of the hill - La Rocca or Rocca Aldobrandesca, the beautifully preserved Convent of San Francesco – where today the cloisters are.

There’s plenty to see in the town but you still can’t beat the slow traipse up the hill in the balmy evening air to take your time over some gelato.

Suvereto, Italy
Suvereto, Italy

Time slows down here.

In August Suvereto holds its wine festival - Calice di Stelle (chalice of the stars) - where all the local wine producers set up stalls in the town.

You can browse the many types of wines from Prosecco to Vermentino and vin santo. All the wine sampled is accompanied with local food – porchetta sandwiches, fried calamari, or porcini risotto. It’s the most incredible evening under the stars with the streets crammed of good looking Italians, brown as berries from their days at the beach.

For all its history and culture, you could travel to this part of Tuscany for the beaches alone. Tuscany is one of the few Italian regions where ‘free’ beaches prevail. These are publicly owned and more similar to what you find in Ireland, where you just pick your spot and spear your umbrella in the ground.

It sure beats the private beaches where you have to spend heavily to lie on a sun lounger, crammed into an area like sardines.

The beach we visit year after year is Mortelliccio at Piombino - a vast golden sandy stretch of beach with calm clear waters. There’s a dog friendly beach for those who can’t bear to leave their four legged friends at home.

The nearby La Pineta regularly gets mentioned as one of Italy’s best beaches. If white sand and crystal clear blue water is your thing then a trip to Elba Island is recommended. There you’ll find five incredible beaches, one more beautiful than the next.

The coastline here is breath-taking and it was a draw for the ancient Etruscans too. This is the heartland of the ancient civilisation that preceded the Romans and once vied with them for supremacy.

At Golfo di Baratti, a wide shallow bay you can find the Etruscan settlement of Popolonia. The necropolis still remains as does the remnants of the acropolis high on the hill overlooking the sweeping bay the golden sanded beach below. From here the the yachts in the marina look like child’s toys.

Torre Mozza, a Tuscan beach in Italy.
Torre Mozza, a Tuscan beach in Italy.

Suvereto has been the secret paradise we escape to.

On a recent trip to the north of Milan, I was surprised to see the town feature on Rai television’s Borgo dei Borgi programme. It was show that pitched 20 of Italy’s best medieval towns against each other and Suvereto, of all the hundreds of stunning towns in Tuscany represented the region.

The secret is out, so to speak, and while you can find tourists from all over Europe, you rarely meet any Irish.

We’ve come to know this place as a summer destination, but just a few years ago we came for a quiet New Years’ Eve. We wanted to escape the usual nonsense around the end of the year and thought a quiet weekend in Suvereto in the dead of winter would be seclusion enough.

What we didn’t bargain for was a huge New Years’ Eve party in the piazza with thousands of locals out to party the night away.

It seems this town never stops surprising you.

Get there

Suvereto is about 1.5 hours by car from Pisa Airport. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin to Pisa. See also visittuscany.com

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