Sorano, the city of tuff in Tuscan Maremma
Sorano is one of those places that can ignite the imagination. The village is an intricate tangle of narrow streets and medieval houses that seem to emerge from the rock and in fact many of these buildings have been carved directly into the tuff. These characteristics have earned Sorano the nickname of “Matera of Tuscany“. Here time seems to have stopped 500 years ago and life flows at a pace that unfortunately we are no longer used to.
We are located in the southernmost part of Tuscany, in the province of Grosseto, in the so-called “area del tufo” (tuff area) a land where you can breathe a particular atmosphere, a land that was once inhabited by the Etruscans. And it is precisely at the time of the ancient Etruscan people that the history of Sorano begins. In the area there are many finds of this ancient civilization which is responsible for the creation of the “vie cave” (cave roads) that connect various settlements in the area.
In medieval times, when the village acquired its current conformation, the area was controlled by the powerful Aldobrandeschi family and Sorano was no exception. This was until 1293 when the last heir of the Aldobrandeschi married a member of the Orsini family who thus acquired control over Sorano and its territory. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Siena set its sights on these territories and in 1417 managed to take over the fortress of Sorano. The Sienese domination lasted for a century and a half, until 1556, when Sorano was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany after the definitive victory of the Florence over Siena.
Things to do in Sorano: the visit to the hamlet
As well as the nearby Pitigliano, the village of Sorano lies on a tuff spur which guarantees an excellent natural defense to the settlement. At the ends of the town there are two imposing defensive bulwarks: the Masso Leopoldino to the north and the Orsini Fortress to the south. The defensive system is completed by the walls built in the XII century by the Aldobrandeschi.
The inhabited area has a tangle of alleys, underpasses and steps strongly influenced by the morphology of the land. On this labyrinth of narrow streets there are ancient houses of medieval origin that rise a short distance from each other. There is no shortage of things to see and even a simple walk through these streets is well worth the visit. Let’s see what are the main things to do in the historic center of Sorano:
Walls of Sorano
Sorano has always had very solid defenses since the time of the Aldobrandeschi. In fact, they erected a first circle of walls that integrated with the conformation of the land and a fortress placed at the highest point of the town. The Orsini also contributed to the strengthening of the defenses of Sorano by expanding the fortress and renovating the two access gates to the city: Porta di Sopra and Porta dei Merli. The Lorraine finally endowed Sorano with a second fortification, the Masso Leopoldino. Today the walls have been largely incorporated by the buildings of the village but they are still clearly visible and even the two access doors are still in place.
Arriving in the city you walk along the imposing bastions of what was once the fortress of the Aldobrandeschi. Passed to the Orsini at the end of the thirteenth century, the fortress was enlarged and reinforced during the sixteenth century. In 1552, at the end of the works commissioned by the Orsini, the fortress appeared in the forms that we can still admire today. The complex is an admirable example of Renaissance military architecture, made up of various structures, with a keep in the center and two imposing bastions on either side.
Since 1996, the Orsini Fortress has housed the Museo del Medioevo e del Rinascimento where an interesting collection of medieval and Renaissance ceramics from Sorano and other places in the surroundings is exhibited. The museum allows you to visit what was once the private residence of the Orsini family. Among the various rooms, inside an octagonal tower, there is a small room full of frescoes, which seems to have been used by Niccolò IV Orsini to welcome his lovers in secret.
Chiesa di San Nicola
The collegiate church of San Nicola is located right in the heart of the town, in an elevated position above the main road. Documented as early as 1276, the collegiate church does not retain much of its medieval past. This is because during the eighteenth century the church was heavily restructured and to find traces of its Romanesque past it is necessary to look in the back where some traces of the original masonry are preserved. Inside there are the baptismal font which dates back to the sixteenth century and a nineteenth-century canvas, St. Joseph, made by the painter Pietro Aldi.
Many know of the large Jewish community that lived for centuries in Pitigliano, so much so that it obtained the nickname of “little Jerusalem”, but not everyone knows that even in Sorano there was a very active Jewish community that has lived there since the 17th century until the early twentieth century. In the Sorano ghetto there were probably two synagogues and an unleavened oven. Even today evident traces of this reality can be found and at its entrance you can see the signs of the hinges of the access door to the ghetto.
We complete the tour of the Sorano fortifications by talking about the imposing Masso Leopoldino that dominates the northernmost area of the village. Since the Middle Ages, a defensive structure known as the “Rocca Vecchia” stood here but, between 1801 and 1804, a series of landslides caused damage to the structure so consolidation work was necessary. It was on that occasion that the fortress changed its name to “Masso Leopoldino” in honor of the Grand Duke who had financed the restoration work.
The Masso Leopoldino is a truly remarkable work, of great size, with solid shoe bases that slope down to the tuff cliff below. In the upper part there is a beautiful panoramic terrace which guarantees a wide 360° view and a graceful clock tower of medieval origin.
What to see near Sorano
The surroundings of Sorano are a continuous discovery on the traces of the ancient Etruscan people until reaching other delightful villages such as Sovana or the wonderful Pitigliano, but also castles, ecclesiastical complexes and spas.
The Parco Archeologico Città del Tufo is a vast area of great historical, artistic and archaeological interest that extends between Sorano, Sovana and Vitozza. The area in question, characterized by tuffaceous rocks, has been inhabited by man since prehistoric times and has seen the flourishing of the Etruscan civilization. In the park there are the famous cave roads, built by the Etruscans digging into the rock, several necropolises (Poggio Felceto, Poggio Prisca, Poggio Stanziale and Sopraripa) and the rupestrian settlements of San Rocco and Vitozza.
Vitozza is not a simple rupestrian settlement as one might imagine, but a real lost city. Its 200 caves have been inhabited who knows since but here, starting from the eleventh century, a village developed that became quite important, so much so that it was decided to protect it with two castles. It is difficult to imagine what the living conditions in such a settlement could be, however, surprising as it is, these caves were inhabited until the end of the eighteenth century.
Sovana is a real gem, a small village but full of things to see. Documented as a bishopric since the early Middle Ages, Sovana has a Cathedral, one of the many fortresses built by the Aldobrandeschi, a beautiful museum and much more. For more information I suggest you read the guide dedicated to Sovana.
Castello di Montorio
Try to guess who built the Montorio Castle? Exactly, always them: the Aldobrandeschi. In the thirteenth century, however, the castle was ceded to the Ottieri who managed to maintain control until the early seventeenth century, when it was finally incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In the Grand Ducal period the castle was converted into a fortified farm and lost its original role while retaining most of its architectural features.
Terme di Sorano
The Terme di Sorano are located just south of the municipal capital, about 3 kilometers away. These thermal springs have been known since the Middle Ages and were also used by the friars who lived in the premises of the nearby Pieve di Santa Maria dell’Aquila. It is no coincidence that one of the thermal pools is called “Il Bagno dei Frati“. In addition to the historic pool, there are other pools fed by thermal water, which flows here at a temperature of 37.5 °.
Terme di Saturnia
The Terme di Saturnia are located 30 kilometers away from Sorano. Thanks to the famous Cascate del Mulino, Saturnia is considered one of the most beautiful spa resorts in all of Tuscany. In fact, these waterfalls are a real spectacle of nature and it is no coincidence that every year they attract many visitors from all over the world.
How to get to Sorano
Sorano is located almost on the border between Tuscany and Lazio about 80 kilometers from Grosseto. Reaching it by public transport is not very easy so it definitely deserves you to go there by car or with a rental with driver.
By car: to reach Sorano from Florence, you should take the A1 motorway to the Chiusi-Chianciano exit and then follow the signs for San Casciano dei Bagni, Pitigliano and Sorano. From Rome, A12 towards Montalto di Castro, then follow towards Lake Bolsena and Sorano.
Public transport: by train to Albinia and then three buses to reach Manciano, San Martino sul Fiora and finally Sorano.