There is a mystical magical landscape between Siena and the famous wine towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano. It lies in quiet repose, waiting for those curious and interested visitors who want to explore yet another beautiful corner of this storied land.
Welcome to the Crete Senesi.
The words ‘Crete Senesi’ translate to ‘Senese Clays’ and refer to the territory extending south of Siena. The landscape is unique and distinct from the classic patchwork views of vineyards, gnarled olive trees, and Medieval hilltop towns that are so familiar to visitors. The hills of the Crete Senesi are clay, barren in places, made fertile with fields of sunflowers and grain in others, descending to dense green pockets. Some describe the landscape as lunar but that description belies the long history sketched on these hills, all the way back to the Etruscans. You may be familiar with some of the towns found in the Crete Senesi such as: Asciano, San Giovanni d’Asso and Buonconvento. There are also the lesser-known, smaller gems like Montisi, Castelmuzio and Petroio.
The Crete can be explored by car, on road or mountain bike, or by foot, although for the latter we recommend a professional guide. Trails and roads are marked in Italian but signage is not consistently posted. A detailed map or online guide is helpful but, in our experience, it is extremely beneficial to travel in the company of a knowledgeable and friendly local.
Dining in the Crete Senesi is an unforgettable experience. Restaurants in the Crete tend towards the Trattoria and Osterie style – high-quality ingredients and careful preparation served up in simple honest settings. The fall-flavors tasting lunch at Osteria delle Crete is especially memorable. There you can find truffles, black olives and citrus, and winter squash each served with its appropriate pasta.
Truffles are one of the most exclusive products of Siena’s province. The delicacy can be traced back to it’ hub in San Giovanni d’Asso where a Truffle Festival takes places during the second and third weekends in November (as with all events in Italy, be sure to double check dates, etc. as their style of organizing and publicizing is decidedly local and casual). Visit during festival season for the opportunity to sample a variety of truffle-flavoured dishes and visit the local Truffle Museum.
Another local speciality, olive oil, is celebrated at Montisi’s local Olive Oil festival, held in late October (depending on the harvest). During this festival the picturesque streets of Montisi fill with local producers of olive oil offering samples of the oil from their newly pressed olives. Sample wines, cheeses, honeys and other local goods at stalls found throughout the village. You may even get the chance to help pick some olives.
For another authentic culinary experience, visit a local market. The Asciano and Buonconvento markets both host on Saturday, Montalcino and Pienza markets are on Friday (again, be sure to check for date changes, some of these are seasonal).
Finally, the area’s cultural high point is the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The 14th century abbey was constructed by Sienese Bernardo Tolomei in the form of a Latin cross. For most, the highlight of the abbey is the 35 frescoes that adorn the walls of the handsome cloister. The frescoes, which can be attributed to Sodoma, depict the life of St. Benedict and some say read as a reflection on the life of the monastery within. We suggest visiting the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore with the company of a guide so none of the enchanting history of the site escapes you.