Mount Amiata is a bizarre and likewise mysterious place. Almost conical in shape, partly asymmetrical, it is a beautiful mountain in southern Tuscany almost 1,800 meters tall, among Val d’Orcia, Maremma, and Val di Chiana.
At first glance, it is an (almost) uninterrupted succession of chestnut groves, beech trees, and olive groves, green all the way to the top. Its roads rise and fall and wrap around it, crossing through typical mountain villages; a paradise for hiking and cycling tourism.
Mount Amiata is actually an ancient volcano, part of a large lava dome complex. Although dormant, it continues to fuel its thermal waters, spewing boric acid from blow holes scattered throughout.
Before it was a volcano, Amiata was a rocky island, when almost all of Tuscany was a smattering of islands in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. In fact, from its prehistoric island energy, it retained the essence and characteristic of an isolated land. The woodcutters, miners, charcoal burners and peasants who live there are a solid and reserved people, having grown up in the wooded silence of the hillside.
When I walk through these chestnut woods, I always think that for the Etruscans, Amiata was the sacred land where Tinia (the Roman Jupiter or Greek Zeus), their most important god, lived. It is fascinating to imagine how they settled on this sacred mountain as a magnificent house of worship to venerate their mighty god. Here they hunted with great skill, cultivated the fertile volcanic lands and traded with the nearby cities of Chiusi, Vetulonia and Roselle.
My mother, passionate about the Etruscans, sees in every sequence of stones a paved road, and tells exciting stories of women who were free, independent, courageous, cultured and beautiful. I have always been enthralled by their names and the freedom they enjoyed, the idea that they traveled alone and attended men’s banquets.
The Etruscans were a people who knew how to enjoy life but it was the Romans who appreciated and utilized the thermal waters of Amiata. Their enjoyment helped develop the therapeutic spa concept, as offered by the springs of Saturnia, Bagni San Filippo, Bagno Vignoni, and San Casciano dei Bagni, each with their own unique charm.
The pools with limestone waterfalls are found in the middle of nature, framed by woods and Mediterranean shrub, freely accessible for a soak and above all, relaxation.
For those who love unspoiled surroundings, a tour of these parts is definitely worth doing. Here one can visit medieval villages, enjoy 50 degree thermal springs (122°F), with their characteristic sulfur smell, resulting in soft skin and a relaxed and happy body.
I am notoriously a couch potato, but here, by taking a bike ride I can explore the mountain, eat divinely, soak in the springs and meet the villagers playing cards at the local bar. Life in these parts flows slowly and still follows the rhythms of the mountain and the land. The seasons instruct the enjoyment of fruit in the summer heat, vineyards at harvest, olives and chestnuts in autumn.
In this part of Tuscany, life is lived at a slower pace, making it an ideal escape from the frenzy of city life. The undisturbed nature is utterly different from the ornate hills of nearby Val d’Orcia. I chose Monte Amiata as my country escape and even bought a farmhouse, glorious and obviously unused, just to feel a little like Scarlet O’Hara.
During the fall, Amiata is a paradise of delicacies: chestnuts and marron glacé, porcini mushrooms and truffles make for a good show in grocery stores and on tavern tables.
Under the sun and the crisp sky of the first cold, the mountain boasts the perfect autumnal yellows, reds and oranges.
This is also the season in which, on the clearest days, you can see the Apennine peaks of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, and Marche, the mountains of Lazio, the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago, and also Sardinia and Corsica.
My favorite town in Amiata is Santa Fiora, an elegant medieval village, famous for the numerous Della Robbia ceramics, scattered both in churches and in private homes. A small maze of alleys overlooks the Peschiera, a large sixteenth-century basin built at the source of the Fiora river, where gigantic carp swim undisturbed in its clear waters.
In the summer, Santa Fiora hosts wonderful master classes in music, along with its annual festival; events that render the village roads even more emotive.
To eat, however, Seggiano is the perfect town. A delightful medieval village surrounded by olive groves and chestnut trees, famous for the Olivastra Seggianese (a rare olive that makes a delicate, very precious and delicious extra virgin olive oil) and for the scottiglia, a mountain stew, a typical dish of medieval origins featuring a mixture of meat and tomato, delicious and perfect for non-vegetarians.
In Seggiano, there is also Silene, a Michelin star restaurant of culinary excellence, a real pleasure for the senses. Treat yourself to their Maremma-style tortelli with white truffles, if you can find a table!
In Amiata, when it comes to spirituality, one is spoiled by all the options. Above Arcidosso is the magnificent Merigar, the most notable center for Dzogchen studies and practice (one of the oldest teachings of Tibetan Buddhism). It was founded in 1981 by Master Norbu, who hosted the likes of the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere there. The center organizes practices, philosophical and spiritual gatherings of a high cultural and scientific level, has an incredible library of Tibetan sacred texts, and acres of greenery lovingly cared for by the community. The first time I visited it, I could not believe that there was a little piece of Tibet among the curves of Amiata, complete with prayer flags and a huge temple. It is worth visiting, if just to walk the grounds and soak up the peaceful energy that permeates it.
Our tour of Amiata can only end on the mystical Monte Labbro, home of the Giurisdavidica tower built by David Lazzaretti, a 19th century preacher. Referred to as the “prophet of Amiata”, Lazzaretti experienced visions that called him to fulfill a divine mission. He became a zealous and faithful follower of the Catholic Church, embarking on retreats, fasts, and other ascetic practices. He amassed hundreds of followers, and pioneered a utopian community blending christianity and socialism. Lazzaretti led the construction of a sanctuary in Arcidosso and a hermitage on Monte Labbro. He was portrayed by some as a socialist visionary and by others, such as the scholar Cesare Lombroso, who studied his brain posthumously, as a “monomaniac”.
Famous all the way to France and feared by Church and State, the “prophet king” came to a quick and epic end: he was killed by a soldier during a peaceful procession with his followers near Arcidosso.
The mystical and mysterious Monte Amiata is an inexhaustible source of surprises and oddities. It’s nice to visit, to come back again and again, always with fresh eyes and keen perception, in search of signals among the stones, chestnuts, and the divine.