Walk through the ruins of the ancient Etruscans and Romans in this open-air archaeological park in the Gulf of Baratti.

Tuscany offers diverse scenery from north to south, from the Apuan Alps to the Tyrrhenian Sea. One unique place to visit is the Gulf of Baratti, often named as one of the most beautiful places in Tuscany. The gulf is a natural bay located near the harbor of Piombino, right in front of the Island of Elba. This area has been renowned for centuries as one of the major productive centers of ancient Etruscan and Roman times, according to the Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia.

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Trees in the Gulf of Baratti. Photo by Enos Mantoani

The park is over eighty hectares (198 acres) long, stretching from the seaside to the hilltops of the municipality of Piombino. The archaeological area is divided into two parts, creating a geographical and historical division. By the sea are the production and burial areas (the necropolis), while on top of the promontory are the ruins of the city Populonia, the Etruscan Acropolis.

Here are some of the main sites you can see in this ancient, open-air museum.

Necropolis, tombs, and Etruscans: the Archaeological Park of Baratti

This archaeological area is literally one of a kind, because it’s the only example of an Etruscan settlement by the sea. The large park includes different archaeological areas, such as the Necropolis of San Cerbone and the Grotto necropolis.

The Necropolis of San Cerbone is named after Saint Cerbonius (575 AD), Archbishop of Populonia during the Barbarian invasion. He is buried underneath the small chapel overlooking the sea, located right in front the necropolis. This necropolis hosts some of the most important and impressive Etruscan tombs dating back to 7-6th century BC. The “Tomba dei Carri” is probably the largest (and oldest) tomb: it’s a huge, round-base tumulus with a diameter of twenty-eight meters (92 ft) where a patrician family is buried with two ceremonial chariots decked in bronze and iron fittings. These carri gave the tomb its name.

Following the path of Vie Cave in the woods, you reach the impressive “Necropoli delle Grotte.” This was the Etruscan cave of calcarenite (a type of limestone), later transformed into a burial area dating back to the 4th-3rd century BC. The tombs are carved directly into the rock, and some are decorated with painted dolphins and waves. Don’t miss the unfinished quarry block at the base of the left side of the tomb face—like observing a moment of an ancient past life that was suddenly, for a reason we will never know, interrupted.

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Necropoli delle Grotte. Photo © Valentina Dainelli.

Populonia, the seaside Etruscan city

The castle of Populonia is located on top of the promontory overlooking the Gulf of Baratti, less than three kilometers (1.8 mi) from the Necropolis of San Cerbone. Its name comes from “Fufluns” and means “the city of Fufluns”, i.e. the city of the Etruscan god of wine and euphoria (the spelling from Fufluna to Popluna or Populonia came with the Romans). The Etruscans were known to be winemakers, and this territory is surrounded by wine denominations today. The Val di Cornia is a DOC in itself (both white and red) within the wider Maremma territory, and the wine zone of Bolgheri begins hardly half an hour north of the archaeological park of Baratti.

The area is divided into two main and different areas: the original Acropolis and the medieval castle. The Acropolis has been claimed for centuries to be the only Etruscan coastal city and it was definitely one of the most important centers related to extractive metallurgy, mainly iron from Elba and copper from the Colline Metallifere nearby.

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Castle of Populonia. Photo © Valentina Dainelli

The Archaeological park of Populonia preserves both Etruscan and Roman remains; among the remarkable findings dating back to Roman times are the road, temples, and thermal baths. According to historian Livy, Populonia provided all the iron for Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC)—regarded as one of the greatest generals and military strategists of his time in ancient Rome—during his second campaign. After being destroyed by the Lombards in 570 AD, the area was almost abandoned until the Middles Ages when the noble family of Appiani, rulers of Piombino, built the castle and fortress we see today.

Populonia is now a lovely medieval town with a stunning panoramic view over the Tuscan Archipelago: from the top of the castle’s tower, open to the public until sunset, you admire the islands of Elba, Capraia, and Gorgona, the Gulf of Baratti, and the city of Piombino on the other side. On clear days, you can even spot the skyline of the French island of Corsica.

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Populonia today. Photo © Valentina Dainelli

Buca delle Fate, where the mermaids sing

Last but not least, if you come to the Gulf of Baratti I recommend you visit the magical bay known as “Buca delle Fate,” literally the Fairies’ Bay. This hidden bay is located just below the city of Populonia and can be reached by walking through the woods along the CAI hiking trail 301, about a twenty-five minute walk.

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Buca delle Fate, the Fairies’ Bay. Photo © Valentina Dainelli

The bay’s name comes from an old fishermen’s story. Legend has it that local fisherman were attracted by the songs and laughs of the mermaids who lived in the bay together with dolphins. One day a young fisherman named Valerio wanted to see the mermaids with his own eyes, because he didn’t believe the stories the other fishermen were telling.

He sailed alone to the bay and was captured by the mermaids, who decided to turn Valerio into their slave. His fiancé Mariuccia was desperate and cried every day and night in front of the sea. One night, a dolphin came to her to comfort her and transformed her tears into precious pearls. When the mermaids saw the beautiful pearls, they wanted them all and agreed to exchange the pearls with Valerio’s freedom. He happily returned to his village and married Mariuccia.

Buca della Fate is certainly an enchanting place with crystal clear water, ranging in colors from dark blue to light turquoise, dark rocks, and peaceful corners of nature.

Tourist information

The Archaeological Area of Baratti and Populonia is open year-round with shorter hours in the low season (from late October to late March). It offers activities for children and guided tours, as well as night openings in summer.

Combo tickets at reduced prices are available for families or groups, and include the Gulf of Baratti and other attractions in the Val di Cornia Parks. You may find all the information on the official website here.

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