A great source of info for the whole area can be found here
Sunday - Pool Side
The area south east of Siena is known as The Crete - an area of rolling clay hills that creates the classic Tuscan image of bare ridges topped by a solitary cypress tree flanking a medieval farmhouse.
Picture © Alex Donnelly
There are some delightful roads to discover and the whole area is unbelievable picturesque, but I began the week with a relaxing day by the pool, soaking up the rays :o)
Monday - San Galgano & San Gimignano
Liam spurred us all into action and suggested a trip to San Galgano - the site of a ruined 13th century abbey. Carlo, who was local to the area and had offered to guide us a little, had also been in contact with us and proposed that we meet there.
We set off in the brilliant sunshine along some wonderful roads. As we approached San Galgano we saw a small sign directing us to the abbey. Unfortunately this turned out to be a bridle way that was not particularly suited for Elises, so we were forced to do a U-turn back to the main road.
Picture © Liam
Once safely on tarmac again, the skies got blacker and blacker and it eventually started to rain. Tut (the fair weather driver) decided that was too much for him and peeled off to look for some dry roads. As we reached San Galgano we hastily erected roofs/shower capes and took shelter in a cafe/bar with a coffee until we all had all dried out and the shower had passed.
St Galgano, a local soldier, had a vision of St Michael on this site and then began his life as a hermit. The Cappella contains a sword in the stone which was thrust there (as legend has it) by San Galgano after a visit by his relatives trying to persuade him to return to normal life. (More info about the site here).
After we had wandered around the abbey and the cappella it was decided to push on for San Gimignano, Carlo lead us over a wonderful route - sadly he couldn't stay with us any longer that day, but agreed to meet up with us again later in the week.
Picture © Copyright Top Art
San Gimignano has been described as a a medieval Manhattan, as fourteen towers are contained within the walled town (originally there were seventy!). Although a rather pleasant place that called out to be explored, for me it was spoiled by too many tourists and tourist related shops. It would be interesting to stay the night there and explore after the coaches had left.
Tuesday - Florence
This was my second visit to Florence, so I chose to avoid the queues for the Duomo and wandered the streets instead, taking in the monumental buildings and statues on every street corner. Followed by a walk across the Ponte Vecchio and along the opposite riverbank, concluding with a rather excellent Gelato :o)
Wednesday - Siena
According to legend, Siena was founded by Senius son of Remus, and the symbol of the wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus is an often repeated image. After a day in Florence, I was prepared to be a little disappointed with Siena. How wrong can you be!
For a century Siena and Florence fought each other as part of the war for political, religious and cultural dominance between the Guelph and the Ghibellines (or Papacy v Empire). The wars were only really concluded when the Black Death hit Italy, and was responsible for the death of two-thirds of the population of Siena - even today the population has not recovered.
Wednesday was market day in Siena, so we spent some time exploring the markets before heading back to further explore the city.
Siena was a little less crowded with tourists than Florence (especially surprising as it was market day), it was a maze of medieval back streets, and had a very relaxed atmosphere all of its own. The relatively small size of the city really does concentrate the fascination and overloads the senses.
The main piazza (Piazza del Campo) fronted by the Palazzo Pubblico with its 88m Torre del Mangia was suitably impressive; but the Cathedral was just astounding - even the richness of the external decoration did not prepare you for the interior. In most cathedrals the eye is drawn upwards, but in Siena it is difficult to take your eyes away from the magnificent marble paving. During most of the year various areas are covered for protection, we were lucky and it had all been uncovered. The frescos in the Libreria Piccolomini were amazing too.
Around about lunchtime we passed a sort of butchers shop. Inside were various hams, sausages and salamis hanging from the ceiling. I couldn't resist sampling something, and chose a roast pork that had been stuffed with garlic and herbs, it certainly wasn't subtle but combined well with the local unsalted bread. Yummy!
Central to Sienas culture are the neighbourhoods (called contrade). Siena has the lowest crime rate in the western hemisphere, and the culture of the contrade has fascinated sociologists in recent times.
That evening we had a BBQ by the pool and Carlo joined us once again.
Thursday - Pienza, Montepulciano & Montalcino
First off was to Pienza - Carlo guided us along some more spectacular roads. Pienza is an amazing example of Renaissance architecture perched high on a ridge with a sweeping view of the Orcia valley. Pope Pius II was born in Pienza and decided to turn the town into a monument . We had an excellent lunch at a restaurant just outside the city walls, I decided to sample the local pasta - pici - a rough, thick version of spaghetti.
After lunch it was off to Montepulciano - the highest of the Tuscan hill-towns, built on a narrow ridge of volcanic rock. Cellars from some of the buildings bury deep down into the rock. Of Etruscan origin, Montepulciano later became a Roman winter encampment.
A main centre of the valley, it has a fortress dating back to the 8th century and medieval "palazzi" or residences from the 13th century which recall the history of the comunes. Montepulciano has been called "Pearl of the 1500s" thanks to the numerous works created by famous Renaissance artists. The main square "Piazza Grande" is surrounded by magnificent buildings such as the Palazzo Pubblico, the Cathedral (with its unfinished facade) and several other residences.
Wine is the most famous product of the land around Montepulciano. Most of the wine cellars dug into the ground under the town are of historical interest
Click here for further info about Montepulciano.
After exploring Montepulciano, I just had to visit Montalcino - a 13thC town of labyrinth medieval streets & the home of the great Brunello wine (one of my favourites :o)
Georgie (who was my passenger for the day) navigated us to the city, but once within the labyrinth of the old town we were quickly lost (it didn't help that we had no map at this point). Luckily a local spotted our plight and guided us back out to the main road.
Montalcino remains the centre of an agricultural community located in the shadows of Mt Amiata, a large extinct volcano. The agriculture practised today is much the same as it was 500 years ago when the present city was built (other than wines which are now Montalcino's major source of contemporary fame). Montalcino was a satellite of Siena, and protected Siena's government in exile from the Florentine army, the two cities are still close friends. Tourism hasn't had much of an impact on the city's culture and image.
Click here for more info on Montalcino.
Friday - Montalcino, Sant' Antimo, Bagni San Filippo, & Bagno Vignoni
After the brief visit to Montalcino the previous day, I wanted to go back and explore the area further. This time I avoided entering the old town itself, and headed instead towards the Abbazia di Sant' Antimo. On the way I saw for myself one of the famous via cave - sunken roads carved into the rock by the Etruscans for some still unexplained reason.
Abbazia di Sant' Antimo is a 12thC church, notable for its simple and unusual grandeur - it's thought that Charlemagne founded the original monastery in 781. Architects from around the world travel to San Antimo to see the architecture for themselves; it's the prototype of elegant Romanesque architecture, and even the setting of the church is beautiful. After the extravagance of the religious buildings of Florence and Siena, the simplicity of this building was rather refreshing - and none the less impressive for its lack of gilding. The stone carvings on the tops of the columns inside, and some outside, depict various fantastic animals (typical of the Romanesque style).
Next I was determined to sample one of the local spa's. The most famous spa of the region is at Bagno Vignoni, but unfortunately it is no longer permitted to use the spa (apart from in a local hotel that offers some courses). So instead, I set off for Bagni San Filippo, where it is actually possible to sample the naturally hot sulphurous water. So I set off once again, and found some wonderful twisty winding roads that gave some brilliant views across the local countryside.
I was wearing my swimming costume (with shorts!) whilst driving anyway, so I was well prepared for the spa at Bagni San Filippo. It is possible to sample the waters from the hillside itself for free, but for 10 euros I used the rather luxurious hotel spa centre, which comprised of a large pool and several waterfalls that where built into the rock face Being pummelled by hot sulphurous water was rather pleasant after all the driving :o)
Skin softened by the waters, I then drove on to see Bagno Vignoni, which was was a roman spa town. Ruins of the old spa can be seen on the outskirts of the town, and hot sulphurous water can be seen bubbling up in the picturesque pool built by the Medici in the towns main square. The spring water was reputed for its effectiveness in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism as far back as Roman times. Houses cluster around the old swimming pool - flanked, on one side by St. Catherine's Portico, a reminder that the saint is said to have come here at the end of her life.