Hugging the Tyrrhenian Sea, an off-the-radar corner of Tuscany’s Maremma region has plenty to commend it—not the least of which is the chance to saddle up with the butteri, Italy’s traditional cowboys.
By Mavis Teo
Photographs by Martin Westlake
Within an hour of the sun rising, Frumento already has bloody spots on his face. They mark where tafani—Italian horse flies—have sunk their knife-like mandibles into his flesh. Any flies that land on his rump he can swish away with his tail, and those that alight on his shoulders he nudges with his nose. But the 16-year-old gelding is helpless against the insects that settle on his cheeks and muzzle. I do my best to help brush them off, but they’re as vicious as any I’ve ever seen in the various parts of the world where I’ve ridden, even the wilds of eastern Indonesia.
This surprises me; I am, after all, in Tuscany, a region characterized by soft rolling hills, vineyards, charming old farmhouses, and medieval ruins. But while the hinterland of the Maremma is certainly picturesque, it is also wild country, as locals will tell you with pride—a once impoverished and mosquito-infested marshland resuscitated only in modern times by drainage programs initiated by Grand Duke Leopold II in 1828 and expanded under Mussolini’s regime in the 1920s and ’30s.
Despite its size—it covers about a quarter of Tuscany, stretching inland to Montalcino and along the Tyrrhenian coast through the provinces of Livorno, Grosseto, and Lazio—the Maremma has remained largely off the tourist radar and a well-kept secret among blue-blood Italians, some of whom have hunting lodges here. More visitors are passing through these days, though it’s still relatively free from the throngs that descend on Siena or Florence.
Nature is one draw: in place of reclaimed swamps, national parks and wetlands have sprouted, teeming with floral and fauna. There are also deep, dark forests and unspoiled beaches fringed by cliffs and dunes. Agritourism has taken off here as well. Farmhouses have been refurbished into country-chic hotels with olive groves, vineyards, and orchards to supply their own locavore-leaning restaurants. The Maremma’s ideal microclimate of soft sun and fertile soil has also attracted numerous investors—among them, New York restaurateurs Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali—to buy up local vineyards.
And then there are the butteri. As hardy as the Maremmano horses they ride and the long-horned Maremmana cattle they herd, Tuscany’s cowboys trace their heritage back to Etruscan times, though they are few in number these days. To preserve their traditions, they allow visitors to join them on horseback while herding livestock in the protected Ente Parco Regionale della Maremma. For a horse-crazy adrenaline junkie like me, it promised the perfect combination: a unique equestrian experience paired with good eating, fine wines, and a comfortable place to lay my head at night.
Though other parts of the Maremma beckoned (the hot springs of Saturnia, for instance), I chose L’Andana in the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia as my base, it being the nearest hotel to the butteri. Set on a 500-hectare estate with a vineyard, winery, olive groves, and pastureland for free-ranging cattle, the former Medici hunting lodge was converted into a gorgeous 33-room inn by industrialist Vittorio Moretti and chef Alain Ducasse in 2004, complete with a spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant, Trattoria Toscana. Besides the usual five-star facilities, L’Andana can also arrange hunting trips and horse riding with the nearby riding center, Le Cioccaie. Before my arrival, Andrea Alocci, the 27-year-old Tobey Maguire look-alike who manages the front office, had prepared a program for me to sample the wines and cuisine of the Maremma on horseback. “It would be a pity not to ride and eat at the same time, because we are famous for both,” he told me earnestly of his hometown.