Val di Merse
Val di Merse is one of the regions of the Siena area. It is halfway between Siena and the Upper Maremma and it is famous for its unspoilt nature. The territory is comprised between the rivers Farma and Merse and it is covered in woods dotted by medieval hamlets and castles. It is an area rich in waters known for their healing powers, such as the Petriolo hot springs.
Val di Merse is the ideal destination for nature lovers. The hiking trails through the woods – such as the one which leads from the village of Monticiano to the beautiful Abbey of San Galgano – offer the opportunity to enjoy the sounds of nature and the peace of an area which has changed very little over the centuries.
An excellent way to explore the Val di Merse is to go horseback riding. Through silent and peaceful paths, you come across abandoned castles, towers clinging to crags and ridges, hermitages secluded in the woods, wild animals and breathtaking views. You can visit mediaeval villages approaching them as medieval knights used to do in bygone times. Brenna, Torri, Lestine, and farms in the Tuscan countryside such as the Fattoria di Montestigliano appear from the woods and provide moments which are hard to forget. Beautiful rides are those along the rivers Farma and Merse and through the woods of the Montagnola Senese.
The Villages of the Val di Merse
There area several beautiful villages to visit in Val di Merse, such as Monticiano, Chiusdino, Murlo and Sovicille. Monticiano is a medieval village with incredible views over the valley of the river Merse.
Chiusdino is also in a superb location on a hilltop overlooking both the valley of the river Merse and the Metalliferous Hills of the Maremma, home to the great town of Massa Marittima. The village has the structure of a fortified castle and dates back to the 9th century. In Chiusdino you can visit the Church of San Martino, the Prepositura di San Michele next to the house where Saint Galgano was born and the church of the Compagnia di San Galgano where there is a beautiful bas-relief depicting the saint cutting the stone with his sword. Near Chiusdino the ancient castle of the Della Gherardesca Counts, the 11th century hamlet of Frosini, is well worth a visit and so are Luriano , Castelletto and the Montalcinello castle.
Murlo is a very old “castle-village” built in the 12th century. Buildings of note include the Bishop’s Palace, which houses the Archeological Museum, the cathedral and the old prison.
Murlo is located on a high hill which overlooks the wooded valley of the river Crevole. This part of the Val di Merse is on the border with the Val d’Arbia in the Crete Senesi area. Murlo is of Etruscan origin and remains of the Etruscan settlements were found at Poggio Civitate and Poggio Aguzzo.
Near Murlo, we recommend a visit to Vescovado, whose peculiarity is that of having been created by the fusion of the villages of Andica and Tinoni, still separated at the beginning of the 19th century. In the village church visitors can see a painting of the Holy Virgin by Benvenuto di Giovanni (15th century).
Sovicille is approximately 10 km west of Siena on the old via Maremmana, the road which linked Siena with the coast of the Maremma. This area has been inhabited since the Stone Age and archaeologists have found remains of prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman settlements. Sovicille and its surrounding area are rich in historic-artistic treasures: abbeys and Romanesque parish churches such as those of San Giusto a Balli, Pernina, Molli, Ponte allo Spino, San Lorenzo a Sovicille and Torri where visitors can admire the beautiful polychromatic cloister in the Abbey of Santa Mustiola (13th century). There are also some remarkable villas such as Villa Cetinale (17th century, designed by Carlo Fontana), Villa Celsa with its beautiful gardens and Villa Linari (18th century).
The Museums of the Val di Merse
The Val di Merse houses some interesting museums such as the Antiquarium di Poggio Civitate Archaeological Museum in Murlo. In the museum visitors can admire some important finds from the Poggio Civitate area. These treasures greatly helped our understanding of Etruscan civilization thanks to the excavation of a noble palace (7th century BC) and a craftsman’s workshop, which opened a whole new window to this people, who until that point were studied mostly through the excavation of villages and tombs.
The Museum of the Wood in Orgia is also very interesting. It is located in an old barn and it houses objects used by woodsmen and charcoal burners which describe in a very effective manner the life of this area as it was until 50 years ago.
The museum proposes five walking itineraries: the Charcoal Burners (4 kilometres); the Hermitage (5 kilometres); the River (4 km), and Castiglion che Dio sol Sa (21 kilometres) which are perfect for people who love to hike. It is a journey through anthropology, botany, fauna and landscape which provides a good insight into the life in the woods and related activities. There are also some theme visits such as “The wood as laboratory” which consists of a visit of one of the itineraries with a more detailed explanation of aspects relative to the plants, animals, and territory of the Val di Merse. Detailed maps are also available.
The museum and the hikes will be of interest to those interested in pre-industrial archaeology who want to know more about a very important profession in this area, the work of charcoal burners. You can learn about the “palaioli” who cut the poles, the “vetturini” who transported the timber with the aid of tireless mules, the “charcoal burners”, blackened men who lived in huts, from time to time selecting the most suitable areas for the production of charcoal. They knew the ancient art of transforming timber into charcoal through a slow burning process that took up to 5 days. The vetturini then came with the “imballini”, the men who put the charcoal in balle, big hemp bags, and checked their exact weight. Of course, the new industrial production methods and the exploitation of other sources of energy have condemned this ancient profession to a rapid decline.
If you are interested in the way people lived in this area in the past, a walk through the woods of the Val di Merse will be of great interest. In the area of the rivers Farma and Merse, there are many visible remains of mills that in the Middle Ages exploited the waters to produce energy for their pre-industrial productions. In the Chiusdino area, after the year 1000, castles were built, like the one in Miranduolo, where people specialised in exploiting local mineral deposits and rich monasteries like those of Saint Galgano or at Saint Maria di Serena built dozens of corn grinding mills and fulling mills for working wool. Numerous mills were owned by monasteries and aristocratic families. In the 13th century the abbey of Santa Trinità di Torri and the Municipality of Siena worked together to build a series of large mills along the river Merse between the villages Brenna and Orgia, to supply Siena with flour. Near Murlo, metal has been worked since the Etruscan age, and near Monticiano, along the river Farma, on territory governed by the municipality of Roccastrada, several ironworks built from the late 13th century onwards are still visible.
Val di Merse has also a long culinary tradition. Cinta senese pork, from the breed of the same name, minestraccia, a soup typical of the cucina povera toscana (the Tuscan cuisine based on ingredients that even poor people could afford), and all the mushroom dishes are a must in this area. Upon request, we arrange cooking classes, olive oil tasting and wine tasting tours.