Visit Crete Senesi
When you think of Tuscany with its rolling grassy landscapes, exposed white ravines, traditional Tuscan farmhouses and long driveways lined by tall cypress trees all set under the Tuscany sunshine, it is quite possible you are thinking of the Crete Senesi region to the south of Siena.
The most picturesque part of the region, along the Val d'Orcia has now been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
You can explore the highlights of Crete Senesi in a couple of days if you must - although there is plenty to enjoy if you spend a week here walking and cycling and also take a trip to the beautiful city of Siena, for example, or just want to allow time to enjoy relaxing in the Tuscan sunshine.
Exploring Crete Senesi
The Crete Senesi region (also known as Le Crete) is characterised by its landscape, with the gently rolling landscape interspersed by woodlands and steeper white outcrops - these outcrops are actually exposed areas of white clay. You will also find numerous small traditional villages to explore while you are here.
Towns and villages of Crete Senesi
There are five principal places in the region: Asciano, Buonconvento, Monteroni d'Arbia, Rapolano Terme and San Giovanni d'Asso. Each of these 'communes' also contains smaller villages, many of them interesting to discover.
If you have limited time available you should at least try and explore the medieval village of Asciano to see the basilica with Renaissance artworks by Signorelli and Sodoma; the village of Buonconvento, listed among the 'most beautiful villages in Italy'; and the Etruscan Museum in the Church of San Bernardino.
Visits to the extensive historic centre of Montepulciano, where both medieval and renaissance style palaces and monuments can be seen, and to Pienza with its town centre listed as a heritage site by UNESCO, are also highly recommended.
Last but not least try to also find time to visit the nicely preserved walled town of San Quirico d'Orcia and the castle and village of Montalcino (and the nearby Abbey of Sant'Antimo).
...and if you have the good fortune to have some more time available you will also enjoy exploring villages including Buonconvento, San Giovanni d’Asso and Rapolano Terme. The first two of these are traditional fortified villages while Rapolano Terme, as you might guess from the name, is best known as a thermal spa town - as it has been for the last 2500 years!
Most of the notable historic monuments in Crete Senesi are in the towns mentioned above, and many of the villages also have churches of interest. One particular highlight outside a town or village is the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.
Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The principal religious monument here is the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, on a raised clay ridge to the south of Asciano and featuring many impressive renaissance works of art..
This Benedictine abbey dates from the first half of the 14th century and is largely built in red brick. It has been substantially modified and restored over the centuries and is in very good condition. This explains why some parts are gothic in style, some baroque, and others romanesque or more recent - although the ensembe creates a very harmonious whole.
When you first enter acros the drawbridge you pass a red-brick palace dating from the 15th - 16th century, then continue along a cypress lined path to reach the abbey church and the cloisters..
As well as the impressive exterior, inside the abbey and cloisters you can see several very notable works of art including works by Signorelli and il Sodoma in the cloister vaults and showing events from the life of Saint Benedict (founder of the Benedictine order of monks) that are generally considered to be a masterpiece of the Renaissance period.
You will see further paintings and frescoes in the middle cloister and along the stairs leading to the pharmacy and library, and a visit is a highlight of your tour of Crete Senesi.
See www.monteolivetomaggiore.it for visitor details and information.
Garden enthusiast will certainly want to also visit the gardens of Villa La Foce near Pienza and Montepulciano. The villa itself dates from the 15th century, although the beautiful gardens are essentially an ealy 20th century addition.
The gardens also have extensive views across the Tuscan countryside to Monte Amiata, further adding to their charm and are generally considered to be one of the most beautiful Tuscany gardens (although competition is fierce, for example some of the Medici villas around Florence have exceptional gardens...!)
If the opportunity and your wallet permit, be sure to also sample the local speciality product of the Crete Senesi: white truffles! Black truffles are also found here and slightly less expensive.