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Coastal Towns of the Val di Cornia

Angie Brooksby (tuscanartist)

The Val di Cornia (Cornia Valley) is a peninsula on the Costa degli Etruschi (Etruscan Coast) in western Tuscany, between Livorno and Grosseto. Piombino, the largest town, is where you get the ferry to Elba (Isola d'Elba).

Map from Venere, used with permission

Populonia Alta

Populonia Alta is surely the jewel of the entire Val di Cornia. If there is one place that you cannot miss while visiting the Cornia Valley it is Populonia. Discoveries of human traces in the valley date back to the lower Paleolithic era, but the most prominent time in the history of Populonia was the Etruscan era. Populonia was the only Etruscan Acropolis built upon the sea; it was in the florid Etruscan epoch, a grand center for the fabrication and trade of metal goods produced from the minerals that were mined on the Island of Elba and Campiglia Marittima. The present village was built by the Appians on top of part of the original Etruscan Acropolis.

Drive from Baratti to access Populonia. On your way down the hill to Baratti from Populonia Alta, if you look closely you can find the face that has been carved into the rock wall. This may be the face of Fufluns, the Etruscan god of wine and namesake for Populonia.

Populonia, Tuscany, Italy, 2005. Photo by Angie.

If you visit the village in the evening, try to arrive before sunset. From the overlook on a clear day you can watch the sun go down behind silhouettes of the Tuscan Archipelago islands Elba and Capraia. In front of you on the horizon of the Tyrrhenian Sea, if the air is very clear (which happens more often in the winter), you may see the French island of Corsica. If you look to your right below the fortification of the Castle of Populonia with its sparrow tail crenellations, you may see the entire coastline of the province of Livorno all the way to the Apuan Alps. As you admire the view, if you are really lucky, the wild boar that are bred for repopulation and capture on the hill below Populonia may come up to the fence just below you. In the spring a sweet breeze filled with the aromatic pollens of the blooming macchia mediterranea will make you feel as if you have died and gone to heaven; that is if you do not suffer allergies.

Populonia is a very small village with some exceptionally nice shops of jewelry, ceramics and hand made leather goods that still resist the computer age like the most of the Val di Cornia (many people don't even have email!) The one piazza at the base of the fort in the summer is animated with evening theatre and concerts. The summer events in the Val di Cornia are viewable on www.eventivaldicornia.com

There is a wonderful bar, the Taverna di Populonia, managed and owned by the kind Marisa and her husband Luca Pavan. They have a vast selection of grappas, some from local producers. You may sit outside at the tables just inside the walls of the castle and enjoy a relaxing drink or an ice cream. Just down the street there is a wine shop called La Cantina Buia, run and owned by Giovanna Biagioni, with local typical products, mostly organically grown. Giovanna says that upon request she can organize wine tastings in some of the local wineries.

The real gastronomic attraction to Populonia is the Ristorante il Lucumone. Giuseppina Grasso, the owner, proposes a fine fish cuisine that although not traditional, reflects local recipes. She serves only locally caught fish and seasonal vegetables with exclusively fine Italian wines of all regions from Trento to Friuli to Campania and Sicily. Her exception to the vast Italian wine list is a few French Champagnes. You may eat squid with artichokes or baked fish on a bed of sea salt and wet it with a Bianco di Satta. The Lucumone gets its name from the high priest of the Etruscan Community.

Before you begin eating and drinking you should visit the Museuo Etrusco, a private collection of Etruscan artifacts that were discovered on the Gasparri property in the territory of Populonia. This little museum is not the main museum of Etruscan artifacts but a nice collection of vases and other various things. The main museum, the Museo Archeologico del Territorio di Populonia is in the city of Piombino.

If you want to stay in Populonia, there are apartments at the Castello di Populonia where you can enjoy fabulous views of the sunset every night with the luxury of the sea breeze to caress you in your sleep.

Baratti

Baratti not only is a beautiful beach with transparent shallow water, it is the location of the important Etruscan necropolis of San Cerbone and il Casone. It is here that you may enter the Archeological Park of Baratti and Populonia (www.parchivaldicornia.it); the full itinerary of the "metal road" and "the stone road" is over four hours long. The park extends for 80 hectares. The Visitors Center, the old house San Cerbone, where you will purchase your ticket to enter the park, is where you can find exhaustive guidebooks, replicas of Etruscan finds and knowledgeable studies of the ancient civilizations that inhabited the territory. You may also follow a guided tour of the archeological park or in the summer join one of the nighttime visits that are lit by torches and animated with reenactments of Etruscan life.

Baratti, Tuscany, Italy, 2005. Photo by Angie.

Because it is such an important archeological park, the Gulf of Baratti is protected by the Italian Ministry of Fine Arts from the horrendous overdevelopment that has ruined much of the Italian coastline with modern ugly high-rises (like in Follonica). New great discoveries are constantly being made of the testimonials of past civilizations that have lived here; it is one of the richest sites in all of Europe for its natural resources. The natural beauty of the Gulf of Baratti, without any modern construction, makes it a unique place to relax at the seaside. The spectacular marine pine grove with trees shaped by the constant wind creates a canopy for beach goers during a pause from the sun at lunch time. Italian families set up entire banquets on fold out tables and hang hammocks from the trees.

The summer time tourism in the Gulf is made up mostly of locals with their families and of Northern Italians and Europeans. It is a great place for kids. There are many things to do in the Gulf of Baratti other than visiting the Archeological Park. You can walk in the shallow water and chat - a favorite activity of many of the older local women - or you can snorkel, windsurf, rent a canoe, or learn to sail.

The best things to do in the Gulf of Baratti are offered by Andrea Magri owner of Sulle vie degli Etruschi. Andrea, often referred to as "the savage," started taxiing people with one boat to the 12 kilometers of splendid untouched coastline between Baratti and Salivoli in 1990; now he has a fleet of thirteen boats.

When I asked Andrea how he got the idea of taxiing people to the virgin coastline he just said, "I come from a family of Livornese that love the sea." We spoke about the Val di Cornia and Baratti in particular, he gushed about the beauty of the place saying that he has traveled the world but to him Baratti is the true paradise.

Andrea has a following of helpers that have more or less adopted his relaxed style copying him with his savage look - bare-chested with wild hair and shoeless. But don't be fooled by his appearance, he has a heart of gold and can provide you with a truly unforgettable day whether it is renting a boat from him or taking the water taxi to one of the striking rock coves like Le Buche delle Fate or a full day excursion on the nine meter floating boat to one of the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. He also offers diving excursions, even at night.

Once you have had a full day at the sea at Baratti, the perfect place to eat is the Canessa, owned by Max Vola, where you can eat sitting on a terrace only two meters from the sea. Without reservations you will have little luck in eating at the Canessa. A paranza, a plate of mixed fried fish, is definitely a favorite, but the specialties that Max and his staff serve are cacciucco alla Livornese and local fish, including lobsters, caught daily from the Gulf of Baratti. The availability of local fish depends on the weather conditions. You can choose wine from a list of 100 labels that range from local table wines to the must haves - Sassicaia, Amarone, Barolo, Tassinaia - to the splendid local wines from the Val di Cornia that have nothing to envy from the more famous labels: wines like Redigaffi from Tua Rita of Suvereto and Giusto di Notri or Perlato del Bosco and Buca di Cleonte. If you want something more exotic you can order a bottle from South Africa and celebrate with some champagne, Pommery or Bollinger. The terrace of the Canessa is literally on the beach. The Canessa is a great place to go with children.

Piombino

The first impression of Piombino is an unforgettable panorama of the ugly port next to the giant steel factory belching wicked black smoke. The scirocco wind blows foul smelling dirty air from the steel plant in the direction of a McDonalds just across the via della Principessa; a sight ugly enough to turn off even the most adventurous traveler. But Piombino is not the "ugliest town in Tuscany" as described by one of our regulars on the Slow Travel Message Board; Piombino is still worth visiting.

Piombino, Tuscany, Italy, 2005. Photo by Angie.

Everywhere you walk in Piombino you feel the constant sea breeze and hear the song of seagulls. Piombino is a port town that has lived off industry for centuries. Unlike many towns in Chianti that have lost their character, Piombino is self sufficient and not geared only towards tourism. It passed under various dominations between the Etruscans to the Granducato della Toscana including the Gambacorta, the Appians, Cesare Borgia, and even the sister of Napoleon, Elisa Buonaparte Baciocchi. Then in 1893, there was the beginning of what is now the modern steel factory, the Magona. The steel factory expanded rapidly in the period of industrialization in the early twentieth century and now it is so big that one can drive 17 kilometers from one end to the other. While the giant steel factory is an eyesore, it has a fascination; we are reminded that Italy is one of the eight most industrialized nations in the world. Piombino being a city that has lived mostly off of industry was confined in tearing down old to build new, thus losing much of its monumental history.

The little fisher's port - Porticcioli di Marina - once called Porto Falesia, was used by the Etruscans to dock when the rough sea did not permit them to take the minerals they had mined on the Island of Elba to the more northern port of Baratti. In September 2005 it will be the movie set for a film about Napoleon, with Monica Bellucci.

There are many things to see in Piombino. Rivellino is a fort built in 1447 that helped protect the city along with the remains of the fortified wall designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. To the south of the historic center but within walking distance, directly on the sea is the Castello. The core of the Castello was built between the XIII-XVI centuries and eventually surrounded by the actual construction that was ordered by Cosimo de'Medici. The more modern construction that has been built attached to the Castello detract from its original grandeur and tend to hide the star-like plan that was typical of the Tuscan coastal fortifications of the Renaissance period. In the summer the Castello is animated with concerts and lectures.

From the Castello you can walk down the street along the sea to Piazza Bovio where the lighthouse signals dangerous waters. There you can watch the ferries going to Elba which is right in front of you. Piazza Bovio in summertime comes alive with all kinds of evening activities from star gazing with professional telescopes that are provided by the members of the nearby observatory on Punto Falcone to the Festa del Pesce and fireworks at the end of July. After visiting Piazza Bovio walk down the steps on the north side of the square and have an aperitif at one of the cool bars in Piazzetta del Mare. Just around the corner is a tiny aquarium that hosts indigenous fish of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

But most of all don't miss the Museo Archeologico del Territorio di Populonia. It hosts over 2000 artifacts from the lower Paleolithic on. The artifacts on the sand of Baratti inside display cases or even underwater in aquariums to best preserve them. There are wonderfully translated signs in English that will leave you wondering why you have never been here before. The most prized pieces are the silver amphora of Baratti and the bizarre mosaic from the II century BC that represents a shipwreck and several ancient fish types.

In Piombino there are a few hotels but the most striking is right on the water, the Hotel Esperia. It is on the road between Piombino and Salivoli.

If you are staying in a place where you can cook and want some fresh fish the best place to buy it is at the supermarket Coop in Piombino.

There are many restaurants in Piombino that you can find walking down Via Vittorio Emanuele from Rivellino to Piazza Bovio, the place for the passeggiata. The passeggiata in Piombino is packed almost wall to wall with locals before and after dinner. Some other restaurants that are recommended by my neighbor and are not on the main street are Ubaldino in Via Benvenuto Cellini, Da Balestra behind the covered market where you can eat ostrich meat, venison and other unusual things or Lo Scoglio di Orlando that is in the Marina of Salivoli.

The Marina of Salivoli with its luxurious yachts is just north of Piombino in the adjacent modern town of Salivoli that does not have even one hotel. The locals have kept it to themselves. Just north of Salivoli directly on the sea is Punto Falcone an area of natural interest that has descriptive signs hanging on much of the flora. A few inactive cannons and giant artillery from WWII are placed in strategic points and the astrological observatory is there. From Punto Falcone you can hike all the way to Populonia or vice versa (almost seven hours). Many people ride mountain bikes on the trail.

From Salivoli you can hire a yacht with or without a crew at one of the charter services in Marina of Salivoli. Sandro Scatena who manages the Salivoli side of the Gruppo Nautico Italiano has twenty yachts available. He is a dynamic person that loves to create new adventures for those willing.

San Vincenzo

The other coastal town of the Val di Cornia is San Vincenzo. It is the most developed town in all of the Val di Cornia. I would say that it is overdeveloped. Some human traces from the late Paleolithic era have been found very near to the town center but no real monuments exist because the town was constantly devastated by barbarian invasions. There is only one monument in San Vincenzo, a tower that has been repainted to make it look new.

San Vincenzo, Tuscany, Italy. Photo by Angie.

San Vincenzo has a wonderful beach; it is a summer resort, mostly for families. During the summer the town explodes to ten times its permanent population. Most of the rental properties are let on a weekly basis during the summer months and do not even have heating, so are closed up for the winter. But it is in winter that I find San Vincenzo to be really beautiful, a writer's paradise.

The Via della Principessa, the road named after Napoleon's sister Elisa, goes from Piombino to San Vincenzo. Just outside of Piombino on your way to San Vincenzo there is a fruit stand owned by the passionate Cassarri family. You can buy fruit, vegetables, ostrich eggs, and even a live pig to make your own prosciutto with. On the way San Vincenzo along the Via della Principessa you can stop at the little fisherman's village of the Stellino near the Toraccia or hike in the park of Rimigliano that lines the beach for 10 kilometers where there is a nudist beach designated by the initials FKK.

Once you arrive in San Vincenzo you can eat at any of the restaurants there or go to some of the cool bars like Serendipity, a wooden building supported by metal pylons right on the beach. Serendipity is open all year round and even has a fireplace for the winter months; it is a place more for adults. Zanzibar, also open all year round, in the marina of San Vincenzo is another bar - I think that it is the most happening bar in Tuscany. Zanzibar is also a restaurant, but it is not a family place. Zanzibar is where local fishermen and singles meet for an aperitif and watch the sun go down beyond the marina. At a certain hour Giovanna the owner blocks the entry to the drinkers and serves a chic meal with a seafood base to elegant customers. After dinner fashionable singles regroup and wait for Giovanna and her crew to reopen.

In the summer the main pedestrian street in San Vincenzo is cram packed with families of all nations, but mostly Italian, that make there way to the Gelateria del Corso or to other restaurants to have meal or to shop. An enoteca, Vitis is a place to taste a vast selection of local wines. If you feel like spending you can go to the most important restaurant in San Vincenzo, the Gambero Rosso. For years it has been voted the number one restaurant in all of Italy.

A Few Words about the Val di Cornia

There are lots of things to do and see in the Val di Cornia: swim, boat, sail, hike, diving, visit museums and the archeological parks, take part in the numerous festivals or visit the striking hill towns (Campilgia Marittima, Suvereto and Sassetta), take a day trip to Elba, visit the WWF oasis of Bottagone. Or you can make a day trip to the Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden).

Are you asking yourself why you have never heard of these fabulous places? Well maybe because Rick Steves hasn't made it there yet and George Clooney hasn't bought a villa there yet. Recently a new dock has been built in the port of Piombino that can host large cruise ships; sooner, rather than later, this area will be more known. But really, the major reason why the coastal towns of the Val di Cornia have been left out of tourism is because most people only drove through the valley on their way to Piombino to catch the ferry to the Island of Elba and Piombino is a town that lives off of industry.

Resources

Photos

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3349: Photos of Populonia, Baratti and Piombino by Angie.

Tourism Information

www.turismopiombino.it: Official tourist site for Piombino.

www.bazaretrusco.it: Bazar Etrusco, information for the Etruscan Coast and Val di Cornia (Italian only).

www.parchivaldicornia.it: Park information for Val di Cornia.

www.eventivaldicornia.com: Lists all events in the Val di Cornia.

Activities

www.sulleviedeglietruschi.it: Boat rentals, excursions, water taxi, diving excursions.

www.divenfun.com: Diving excursions.

www.stp-piombino.it: Bus with driver.

www.allservice.li.it: Car rental.

www.gnicharter.it: Luxury yacht charter.

Hotels and Residences

www.hotelildelfino.it: Hotel il Delfino, seaside hotel in San Vincenzo, open all year.

www.castellodipopulonia.it: Castello di Populonia, vacation rental apartments in a castle in Populonia.

Internet Services

San Vincenzo Ricevitoria Corso Italia, 45 - The only internet cafe in the area.

Other Things to do in this area

Slow Travel Italy - Postcards - A Day Trip to the Tarot Garden: A postcard from Angie.

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3415: Photos of Capalbio and Tarot Garden by Angie.


Angie lives and works in Italy as a professional artist since 1986.
www.tuscany-painting.com

© Angie Elizabeth Brooksby, 2005. All rights reserved.

Venere maps used with permission, © Venere Net SpA

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