Crete Senesi: the Siennese Clays
The Crete Senesi near Siena in Tuscany (literally the Siennese clays) are famous for their peculiar landscapes made of crags alternating with gentle rolling hills topped by isolated stone farmhouses and cypress-tree lined roads. The countryside of the Crete Senesi is one of the most photographed and rightly so: it is really spectacular. Describing what the Crete Senesi look like is almost impossible: no words can make them justice. Nature lovers definitely not miss this corner of Tuscany south of Siena.
The Crete Senesi are a photographer’s paradise. Artists return regularly in order to capture the beauty of the countryside that changes with the seasons: the bright green fields of the spring turn into gold in the summer, and then they turn all the shades of grey and brown in the fall until snow covers them in a white coat in winter.
These lands have preserved their ancient beauty over the centuries, and are home to beautiful hilltop towns such as Buonconvento, San Giovanni d’Asso, Asciano, and Rapolano Terme, which make for several interesting day-trips.
Over the years, we have met many people who thought that, since the towns are small and close to each other, you can see the area in just one day-trip. Actually each and every one of the towns would deserve a day on its own, and it takes much longer than one would expect to drive from one town to the next on the small winding country lanes of the Crete.
The best way to enjoy the area is to stop as frequently as one can: on the side of the road to take pictures or just to enjoy the breath-taking views, in the small alleys in the center of the towns, at the farmhouses which dot the countryside, or to indulge in the hot waters gushing out of some hot spring.
What to see in the Crete Senesi
The hilltop tows of the Crete Senesi are well worth a visit. Asciano boasts mythological origins: the legend says that Aschio, Remo’s son, founded it after fleeing away from his violent uncle’s Romulus in Rome. Truth be told the town was founded in the 7th century A.D. and flourished in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance thanks to the powerful Tolomei family and to its proximity to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. However, the remains of a mosaic probably belonging to ancient thermal baths reveals the existence of a prior Etruscan or Roman settlement in the area. Asciano has some beautiful buildings such as the churches of St.Francis, St. Agostino and St. Ippolito, the Basilica of St. Agata and Palazzo Tolomei and a lovely square, Piazza del Grano, where the remains of the old monastery dedicated to San Galgano are still visible. The Fonti Lavatoie, the fountains where people use to go to do their laundry, are interesting. There are two remarkable museums: Casa Corboli, a museum of sacred art which also houses local archaeological finds, and the Museum Amos Cassioli where visitors can admire Sienese 19th century paintings.
Buonconvento has a beautiful name: it derives from the Latin expression bonus conventus meaning a happy and lucky community/location. And certainly the people who live here cannot complain for the surroundings! Located on a strategic spot on the Via Francigena and near several rivers such as the rivers Arbia and Ombrone, it was a popular place among the travelers who needed to rest. The center of the town is very neat, with its old clock tower and the town walls. The old Asilo Infantile, a foster home for orphans, has an interesting courtyard.
Not far from Buonconvento, San Giovanni d’Asso is well worth a visit. It has a small castle and a beautiful square and still preserves its original medieval appearances and feel. The same can be said of Rapolano Terme: the remains of the castle which formed its original nucleus are perched on the top of a hill and overlook the valley. The town boasts also a beautiful church called Arcipretura di Santa Maria Assunta. The town is famous for its spas.
There are many smaller and pretty villages that leave unforgettable memories in the heart of the visitors to the Crete Senesi: Chiusure, a small village clinging to the side of a hill above some impressive “calanchi” (craigs), the fortifications of Lucignano d’Arbia, quintessentially Tuscan Lucignano d’Asso with its stone houses covered in ivy, pretty Montisi with its alleys, Serre di Rapolano with its beautiful gate “Porta dell’Apparita”, from where one can enjoy sunning views over the Crete countryside and Siena, and the beautiful self-contained hamlet of Poggio Santa Cecilia (privately owned).
There are also a number of countryside chapels and isolated stone houses in the countryside most of which are now either agriturismi or farmhouses. Casabianca is well worth a stop: it is mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy and represented in a fresco in the Town Hall of Siena by Lorenzetti. Other interesting sites in the area are the Tower of Montalceto, once a larger castle in the river Ombrone valley, and the nearby hot springs of the same name; the farmhouse of Montauto on the edge of some incredible calanchi, the beautiful villa of Monte Sante Marie, the medieval fortified mill of Monteroni d’Arbia, really a must see, the beautiful hamlet of Palazzaccio halfway between Asciano and the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and now a residence, the hamlet of Palazzo Monaci, once a monastery dedicated to San Galgano, Radi in Creta, once a castle then transformed in a farm with a parish church, the villa of Vergelle, and Ville di Corsano with the Castle of Grotti.
Many are the chapels and picturesque parish churches in the area, some of which in the open countryside. The Chapel of St. Fabiano and St. Sebastiano, near Asciano, is beautifully frescoed, but unfortunately, it is rarely open. Some other interesting churches in the Crete Senesi are the Church of the Madonna del Giardino is in Camparboli, near Asciano, Pieve of St. Andrea and Lorenzo in Serre di Rapolano, the Pieve di San Vittore in Rapolano Terme, the Pieve dell’Assunzione di Maria in Montisi, Pieve of St. Giovanni Battista in Corsano, the pretty Pieve di St. Andreino in Le Cave di Rapolano, the Pieve di St. Ippolito, S. Pietro in Villore in S.Giovanni d’Asso, and the ancient St. Vito in Versuris, probably standing on an old Roman temple.
A special mention should go to the beautiful Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The Abbey is still in use by Benedectine Monks who live and operate in the beautiful monastery. The church, the refectory and the cloister of the monastery are simply wonderful, with stunning frescoes. The original fortifications are still standing, and cypress-lined lanes cross-cut the park inside them. Last but not least, the Abbey is located in a very panoramic position on the top of a hill which dominates a large portion of the Crete Senesi.