Tuscany Bargain-Hunting

Driving south of Montalcino along Route 323, you’ll arrive in the Val d’Orcia, a more sparsely inhabited area unmarked on many tourist itineraries. The Val d’Orcia produces some wine, but it is more famous for Tuscany’s other agricultural products: olive oil, pecorino cheese, honey, and saffron. One of the many high points of life in this rural area is picking chestnuts in the forested hills and bringing them home to prepare flour for bread or even pasta. There is a wealth of hiking trails nearby, especially on Monte Amiata, a modest ski area in the winter. Much of the land is protected, as it is home to such rare species as the European wolf, and this also means that there are relatively few houses. Luckily, the ones for sale aren’t very expensive”within the €300,000 range for something in good shape.

The biggest challenge to living here is its remoteness. The largest towns around Monte Amiata have only about 5,000 inhabitants, which means there aren’t very many services nearby. Those who plan to settle here should be dedicated to country living. It is a long, albeit scenic, drive to any city. Farther south are the valleys and pastures that make up the Maremma. This is cowboy country, complete with rodeos and a beef-heavy diet. It, too, is remote, well off most guidebook itineraries, and yet full of Etruscan monuments and natural wonders. One of my favorite spots in Italy is here, in Saturnia”thermal springs just off a country road. They are semicircular white pools, formed by the calcium in the volcanically heated water. Romans come up for the weekend to smear themselves with the warm, white mud.

This ancient homeland of the Etruscans extends all the way north to the town of Volterra, known for its mining. This whole corner of Tuscany offers reasonable prices on homes, as long as you steer clear of the Argentario peninsula (the takeoff point for ferries bound for the isle of Elba), which is quickly gaining appeal among foreigners.

There are other hidden niches in Tuscany, which, after all, is a pretty big place. You really never know what might turn up. Maybe someone in Chianti needs cash in a hurry. Who knows? You could even see an entire Tuscan village go up for sale. In 2002, the regional government put a 1.4-squarekilometer medieval burg on the auction block, starting at €300,000. (Don’t feel too bad if you missed it”it was described as a real fixer-upper.) Not long before that, all 18 houses in the town of Toiano, near San Gimignano, were placed simultaneously on the market, each priced at about €500 per square meter. The island of Pianosa was put on the auction block in the fall of 2003, along with its own police station, for €8 million. If you can’t afford an entire Tuscan island, maybe you’d settle for a slice of Tuscan beach? The bidding for one in the town of Portoferraio started at just €5,000.

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