The Crete Senesi

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When speaking of The Senese Crete the first terms that come to mind to describe these landscapes are 'charm' and 'suspended'. The name of this area near Siena is linked to the material of which it was mainly composed of: clay (creta), indicating the prehistoric seabed - originally marine – which was originally here. Today, only the typical colour of the landscape remains of this geological past, which varies from season to season. Thus, the first of the Crete Senesi description is linked to its nuances: in spring the main colour is a beautiful and shiny emerald green, in the summer it manifests itself into a dazzling yellow; towards autumn, it turns into a grey shade that just reminds us of clay. 

Tuscany’s Crete Senese differs from the landscape of the nearby Val d'Orcia as it harbours a high number of clay gullies, known in Italian as calanchi e biancane. Calanchi resemble half open vertical fans, while biancane are domes covered with vegetation and a light coloured soil. These two elements make the area similar to a lunar landscape, suspended in time and described since the Middle Ages as the 'Desert of Accona'. Along the routes of the Senese Crete  one encounters barren hills and cypress trees along with stretches of woodland and solitary farms that dominate the landscape. You will be struck by the charm of the landscape, that varies between wooded areas and more green ones. 

Once you reach the Tuscany Crete Senesi region, what is there interesting to see in addition to these clay dunes? Be prepared to the view of castles, abbeys and charming medieval villages, we at toscanainside.com have many surprises for you!
There are five places to go and to discover along the Crete Senese: a map will surely be useful to find the best route of the Senese Crete on one of the state roads and in the open Tuscan countryside. Those among you who do not drive should get organized and just follow our precious advice.

 

ASCIANO. The Crete Senesi Italy are famous for their rich history and the presence of important historical buildings. In particular, Asciano is known for the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Before telling you about this interesting site, we need to dedicate a few words to the site transitoire of Asciano. Located in the heart of the Crete Senesi in Tuscany, the town seems to have Etruscan origins and is located about half an hour from Siena. Its historic centre is presented with the typical medieval traits and houses interesting churches, such as the Collegiate Church of St. Agatha and the Church of San Bernardino. The city, like other Tuscan towns, retains a strong connection with nature and traditions, whose highest expression is the Palio of the Donkeys, which takes place every year on the second Sunday of September. Among the places of the Crete Senesi, Monte Oliveto and Asciano are located in the territories richest in clay gullies: stop every so often to take some panoramic pictures from the road! 

The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore cannot be absolutely missed! This great monastic Benedictine complex is located atop a hill and is surrounded by a dense forest of cypress trees, pines and oaks. Do not miss a visit to this special place among your destinations along the Crete Senesi. The Abbey is one of the most important sites in Tuscany, as well as being one of the most famous thanks to its magical location. When you arrive at your destination, leave your car in the car park and be prepared to enter into a little world of its own and experience an atmosphere of silence and spirituality… So, turn off your phone and keep your voice lowered! The first thing you will see is a drawbridge and a large tower, from which you will pass by the sight of a red brick building. Continue and follow the avenue of the cypress trees until you reach the bell tower and the entrance to the 15th-century rectangular cloister. This houses a statue of St Benedict in the middle and frescoed walls on all four sides with Stories of St Benedict. These frescoes are the work of Luca Signorelli and Antonio Bazzi (known as Sodoma) and date from the period from the late 15th to the early 16th century. Among the masterpieces hidden from view in the Crete Senesi, these are definitely the most important and significant in the history of the Benedictine order. Continue the Crete Senesi tour through an atrium to reach the baroque church, the most interesting part is surely represented by the inlaid wooden choir by Fra 'Giovanni from Verona. After the church, there is still a minor cloister, the library and the refectory worth visiting…you will not always have free access to all areas of the monastery, but in any case you will be fascinated by every element of this great religious complex. After the tour you will find products of the abbey for sale, a historic wine cellar and an avenue in the countryside that will take you to the small cemetery of the friars.

 

BUONCONVENTO. Among the Crete Senesi walks and itineraries, the Buonconvento visit is dedicated to those who love the medieval villages and history. The village is located in the valley of Ombrone and owes its name to the two Latin words 'bonus conventus', which indicated a lucky and happy place. Its location near the river, in fact, gave it a fertile land and represents an important junction of the Francigena Route. There were many travellers who, during the Middle Ages, stopped at Buonconvento to find refuge. The history of this town began in the 12th century and, later, Buonconvento became famous because in 1313 the Emperor Henry VII was killed (it is said that he was poisoned by a monk) in these territories. The wall which you see still remains from the second half of the 14th century, a period when the city was still dominated by Siena. From 1559 the Medici included the Crete Senesi and their towns in the domains of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Once you arrive at Buonconvento, we suggest you visit the Old Town with the Praetorian Palace, the Kindergarten of the early 20th century and to devote as much time as possible to the churches and castles: the Castle and the Church of San Lorenzo (in Bibbiano), the Parish Church of Sant'Innocenza, the Oratory of the Archconfraternity of Mercy (located in Piana), Castel Rosi, Castelnuovo Tancredi and the La Torre Castle.

If travelling with children, the Crete Senesi will be very interesting thanks to the presence of these castles surrounded by green woodland! If, however, you prefer to explore the rural life of these places, in Buonconvento there is the Sharecropping Museum, where you can find all sorts of rural activity information. For example, you can discover the features and history of the Sienese grance, medieval barns located in the abbeys and protected by walls.

 

MONTERONI D’ARBIA. The next Crete Senesi tour is to Monteroni d'Arbia. This town will strike you immediately because of the presence of a large fortified 14th century mill. This town had developed at the behest of Siena as a prerogative of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Like other villages of the Crete Senesi, Monteroni was part of the strategic areas throughout the dominion wars between Siena and Florence. The verses of Dante made famous these territories. In particular, in the X Canto of Inferno in the Divine Comedy, you can read the description of the bloody Battle of Monteaperti in 1260: ‘lo strazio e ‘l grande scempio/ che fece l’Arbia colorata in rosso’. 
Once you have been around the old town , our advice is to explore the smaller towns surrounding hosting interesting churches and castles : the Church of San Giovanni Battista (Lucignano d' Arbia), the Chapel of Pieri Nerli (Quinciano) the Abbey of St. Giovanni Battista (Corsano), the Church of St. Peter the Apostle (Radi), the Grotti Castle and the Grange of Cuna. Fear not, the distances are short and well worth strolling along the streets to see the fantastic landscape !

 

RAPOLANO. Once you reach Rapolano Terme, Crete Senesi in Tuscany, Italy offers something more than the landscape. This spa town has two very famous sites: one surrounded by nature, the St John Spas, and the other near the village, the Ancient Querciolaia Spas. This area also is located near the town of Arezzo, we suggest you visit it! Before entering the thermal baths at 39 degrees, it is preferable to spend some time exploring the historic centre.
The first thing to note is the Porta dei Tintori, the ancient entrance to the village, built during the 14th century. Of particular interest is the Deanship of Santa Maria Assunta, with its famous Madonna of Milk, the Parish Church of St Vittore and the Church of St Maria in Ferrata in Poggio Santa Cecilia. The latter, also called the Church of Our Lady Ferrata, is a small property surrounded by woods located just before arriving in the village of Poggio Santa Cecilia. In addition to the beautiful landscape, this place is famous among the Crete Senesi for its mystical legend. It is said that two hunters, taken back from the wrath of a disappointing hunting foray, began to shoot at the image of the Madonna in the tabernacle. The gunfire, however, could not scratch the face of the Virgin, so that one of the men asked the amazed icon if it was made of iron. It is said that after the question of the hunter, the icon replied affirmatively declaring that evil would never have destroyed or damaged it. The miracle brought the two unfortunates to redeem themselves and to convert and a shrine was erected, turning the Madonna Ferrata into an object of worship and devotion for the whole city of Rapolano and beyond.

 

SAN GIOVANNI D'ASSO. Another inevitable stop during your  Crete Senesi tour should be San Giovanni d'Asso which is located along the river Asso and offers an incredible and famous park, the Forest Bosco della Ragnaia. However, try and visit the historic centre first, the church of San Giovanni d'Asso of medieval origin and the Church of San Pietro in Villore and, in Montisi, the Church of the Madonna of Snow, and the Church of Saint Lucia. This area is also not lacking in castles and smaller towns to see: Monterongriffoli, Montisi, Vergelle, Castel Verdelli and Castelletto Accarigi.
By now you have figured out what a trip to the Crete Senesi is like, basically a moving holiday! Do you want another great reason to come to San Giovanni d’Asso? the Truffle Museum!

 

WHAT TO EAT. The Senesi Crete are waiting to delight you with their local products such as: in Rapolano look for panella (bread dough fried in olive oil) and have a serving of pici al sugo or costoleccio (grilled pork ribs) during an outdoor summer festival. You want some souvenirs for your homemade dinners? It is also a great opportunity to stock up on pecorino sheep cheese, honey and Tuscan olive oil and do not forget a bottle of wine (such as the White Val d'Arbia) Then, you have to taste the truffles of the area! Exploring the local cuisine is undoubtedly a rewarding way to learn about the Crete Senesi!

 

WHAT TO SEE. The Crete Senesi area of Tuscany is an area of Tuscany with an original artistic and fascinating side: with a Crete Senesi map on your lap, you can add two alternate stages related to creativity and the natural landscape. As we said before, San Giovanni d'Asso boasts a 9-hectare very special park: the Bosco della Ragnaia. This particular site was designed by the American artist Sheppard Craige and is often referred to as open space for creativity. In these woods there is only one rule: let your imagination go free. The traveller’s curiosity is drawn through signs and signals hidden in the landscape: in some places of the forest, there are writings of an ironic and philosophical nature, such as in the case of the Tabernacle of Certainty , the Altar of Skepticism or the Oracle of Yourself. From time to time, the visitor to this garden that looks like it came from the world of Alice in Wonderland is faced with questions on existence that cannot be easily answered. This dreamlike and fantastic work, created in 1996 and still open to new creations, is definitely one of the most interesting things and should be included in your Crete Senesi tour. Have fun with the children looking for the hidden writing in the trees and try to make interpretations that stimulate their mind and yours, it is a unique opportunity! The symbol motto of the forest is: "If not here, where?"

 

Another stage dedicated to the art is on the Leonina hill, near Asciano, where you will find the famous Site Transitoire by the French sculptor Jean-Paul Philippe. Since 1993 this installation in the middle of the countryside is appealing to fans and others: a chair as a symbol of welcome for the traveller and a window oriented towards the sun. It's hard to explain the feeling you have at the sight of these surreal sculptures, and how the artist was able to interpret the landscapes of the Crete Senesi and the feelings they cause. With regard to his work, Philippe explained the relationship with light and space, "installing the stones I realized that I was painting in the light and space the limits of a house. A dwelling without walls with an invisible threshold. On the ground a few slabs, a chair to accommodate the traveller, a bench, a window and the sky as a roof. The shadow of this furniture of stone drew its passage on the ground thanks to the appearances of the Moon and the Sun. In the summer solstice the sun disappears in the plumb line of the window, while the first star and the lights of Siena are shining."