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Underground Tuscany: a journey to discover quarries and mines

  • 20/04/2022

Landscape, good wine and art: Tuscany is all this, but not only. Those who love this land know, beauty is also hidden underground: this is where the ancient local mining tradition is born, which draws so many mineral and geology enthusiasts to the area.

So why not let yourself be conquered by this ancient and fascinating dimension? To do this, simply follow the paths of the mineral deposits that have marked the production evolution of the area over the centuries, choosing thematic routes, or perhaps focusing on a particular area. We offer you ours: an underground tour among the mines in Tuscany, between the provinces of Siena and Grosseto, along the traces of mercury, lignite and chalcedony.


Mines in Tuscany: the extractive soul of ancient civilizations

The mining face of Tuscany was already known to the Etruscans: the mining activity guaranteed, in fact, wealth and well-being to this people already around 750 BC.

Cities such as Populonia and Vetulonia prospered thanks to the abundant presence of minerals rich in silver and copper in the subsoil.

This activity, so precious for the civilizations of the past, emerges today among mines and old quarries that give us a snapshot of the Tuscan mining history between paths and paths: the mining parks of Monte Amiata, that of the Colline Metallifere and the Archaeological Mines Park of San Silvestro. Along these three itineraries it is possible not only to follow the productive history of this land backwards, but also to treat yourself to a walk in nature and, why not, a stop in the cellar to discover the local wine.

 

Journey to discover the mercury of Monte Amiata

Also known as the "good volcano", Monte Amiata is characterized by a subsoil rich in minerals, including, in particular, cinnabar. Used since prehistoric times as a dye for fabrics, for cosmetic uses or as a medicine, this mineral is present in nature in the form of a red powder and from its refinement mercury is obtained. This activity, also already practiced in Etruscan times, is historically linked to several mining establishments built in the mid-19th century by Italian and German investors who made the Monte Amiata District the first producer of mercury in the world.

The main factories include the Siele Mine, considered one of the largest in the world. Let's take a closer look at the site.

 

Siele Mine and mining village

The Siele Mine and its mining village are immersed in the Pigelleto Nature Park. We are in the territory of the municipality of Piancastagnaio, in the province of Sien​​​a, here, in 1847, with the establishment of the Modigliani mineralogical Plant, the first Italian mercury plant was officially born, which also marked the beginning of the modern mining industry on Mount Amiata.

Mercury was used in chemical applications, in precision instruments, in leather tanning or for the pharmaceutical and war industries. The site, which initially provided for a donkey transport system, was equipped in 1914 with a cableway and an underground tunnel that connected the excavation area to the distillation furnaces and refining plants.

The mining activity of the Siele Mine continued until 1961: to retrace the historical places and stages of the site, today it is possible to visit the factory (largely preserved), shaft 1 and the miners' village, which grouped around the mining area housing for workers, a church, a grocery store and a post office.


A walk to the Tenuta La Poderina

Discovering a territory also means appreciating its flavors and atmospheres, which is why before continuing the journey to the Colline Metallifere, to discover the lignite and chalcedony deposits, a small detour to the farmhouse is what you need.

About 40 km from Piancastagnaio and the Siele Mines there is La Pode​rina Estate. Here, in the heart of the Val D'Orcia, in the locality of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, right in front of the suggestive Abbey of Sant'Antimo, the estate offers the ideal location to plan a stop in one of the two apar​tments that the property has, and maybe take a walk through the vineyards aboard an off-road vehicle. A stop in the cellar is also a must to taste the "Brunello di ​Montalcino DOCG", which for the 2017 vintage received 94 points from James Suckling, the "Poggio ​Abate Montalcino Riserva DOCG" which for the 2016 vintage , James Suckling awarded 93 points, or the “Rosso di Mo​ntalcino DOC".

 

The Colline Metallifere between lignite and chalcedony

From the mercury of Monte Amiata, our itinerary leads us on the lignite roads: from the province of Siena, which preserves traces of mining activity also in the Montefollonico area, we pass to the Colline Metallifere.

Immersed in the homonymous park, this area gathers seven municipalities in the province of Grosseto: Follonica, Gavorrano, Massa Marittima, Monterotondo Marittimo, Montieri, Roccastrada and Scarlino.

This is where an important part of the history of mines in Tuscany is concentrated and it is in these lands that mining boasts a millenary tradition. The park, which has in its DNA the enhancement of the environmental, historical, cultural and technical heritage of the territory, develops on itineraries dedicated to the different metals and their respective processing places.

There are a total of 34 areas that can be visited that allow tourists and enthusiasts to take a journey through the technological evolution of the area's mining and metallurgical activity. Alongside important metals including copper, silver, iron, alum and pyrite, in this area it is also possible to closely observe lignite.

 

Lignite

Lignite is a coal generated from the organic remains of the forests of the Cenozoic period, we are talking about 65 million years ago. Since this is a recent fossil coal from a geological point of view, it is still in an incomplete carbonization stage. Among the places historically linked to the extraction of lignite is the Monterufoli Natural Park: let's explore it together.

 

Monterufoli Natural Park

For those who love to discover the territories following the traces of the mining past, the Monteru​foli Natural Park is one of the places not to be missed: immersed in the lush nature of the Val di Cecina, this area extends over an area of over 4 thousand hectares through the municipality of Pomarance, in the province of Pisa. Linked to the extraction of lignite, the Natural Park can be visited following the ancient route of the old railway that facilitated the transport of the extracted fossil to the port of Livorno.

The railway, inaugurated in 1872, marked an important stage for the local mining activity which reached the highest levels of intensity between 1915 and 1920: the route connected the Villetta di Monterufoli station, where lignite was loaded, to the station of Casino di Terra, which conveyed the cargo towards the outlet to the sea.

Today it is possible to follow the route of the ancient railway along the Ritasso stream: here, in addition to admiring massive mining outcrops, it is possible to see the remains of the ancient masonry bridges that crossed the stream.


Discovering quartz and chalcedony

A walk in the woods of the Natural Park, along the slopes upstream of the mine, offers the opportunity to reach ancient excavations of semi-precious stones such as chalcedony and quartz. Already known in the 1500s, these two minerals were extracted and used in the production of mosaics at the behest of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Ferdinand I, in particular, was responsible for the foundation, in 1588, of the Galleria dei Lavori, an artistic manufacture specializing in the processing of semi-precious stones which was later transformed into the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. The activity of the Gallery was dedicated with particular attention to the Monterufoli chalcedones: these microcrystalline varieties of quartz, together with magnesite, dolomite and opal, attracted the interest of the Grand Dukes to the point that Ferdinand I in 1609 reserved their extraction and exclusive use of the Galleria Granducale.

In addition to the fascinating mineralizations that dot the dense vegetation, the reserve is home to a rich floral and faunal biodiversity: this is the habitat of the Monterufoli pony, an equine breed of smaller size than the norm, characterized by a particularly thick mane and a strong and muscular physical structure.


A stage in the Estate

In the heart of the Natural Park, a few kilometers from the splendid Etruscan Coast, stands the Monterufoli​ Estate. The ancient structure linked to Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, imprinted in the literary imagination by Dante who placed him in his Comedy, is immersed in the Mediterranean scrub of the natural park and represents an important step to complete your visit: from here it is possible reach the lignite and magnesite mines, organize a visit to the chalcedony deposits with an off-road vehicle, or jump on a bicycle to immerse yourself in the vineyards surrounding the estate.

What makes the Monterufoli estate special is the close link with the mining past of the area: the building that houses the business center is located in the place where in the mid-19th century there was the railway station of the lignite mine, the terminus of the Casino di Terra - Monterufoli.

Here, where in ancient times the lignite loads went to Livorno, today it is also possible to take a dip in the world of wine: the cellar of the estate is open to anyone who wants to know the production phases of fine wines such as the "V​ermentino di Toscana IGT" and the "Poggio Miniera val di Corn​ia red DOCG", awarded for the 2013 vintage with 95 points in the Doctor Wine 2022 wine guide. The estate is also the ideal place for a relaxing weekend, in fact it has three accommodation facilities: the “Miniera", the “Scuderie" and the “Casa delle Guardie", which in all offer nine rooms and six Tuscan-style apartments.

 

The Archaeological Mines Park of San Silvestro 

It extends for 450 hectares in the heart of the Val di C​ornia, behind Campiglia Marittima and the Promontory of Piombino and offers visitors a dip in unspoiled nature, local history and archeology. Among the most engaging aspects of the Park there is the possibility of making a full immersion in the geological history of the territory by closely observing not only the places of the mining activity, but also the tools and daily working life of the miners: the Mining Machinery Museum and the Mining Museum are dedicated to this. Fans of geology and mineralogy can plan a stop at the Museum of Archeology and Minerals and the Temperino Mine: a mini train tour will accompany visitors to the plants of the Valle dei Lanzi from which you can enjoy a spectacular view of the medieval Fortress of San Silvestro.

 

For those who love discovery, Tuscany, with its thousand souls, is an endless source of surprises, landscapes and breathtaking views: are you ready to go?​​​​

 

 

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