Siena and the Palio horse race, Montalcino, Pienza.
Graceful lines of cypress trees, hills dotted with olive trees, rows of grape vines which follow the rise and fall of the land. We are in the heart of Tuscany, immersed in a landscape where the city of Siena, with its magnificent cathedral, reigns supreme. Innumerable the places to visit within the city's medieval perimeter walls: first and foremost the immense central square of Piazza del Campo where, twice a year (on the 2nd of July and 16th of August), the famous Palio horse race is run. An impressive number of artistic masterpieces are housed in Siena's museums, including works by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini, Pinturicchio, and Jacopo della Quercia.
South of Siena, extending over some five hundred square kilometers, we find the stunning Crete Senesi. Travelling along the Via Laurentana towards Asciano, we pass through the ochre colored hillside from which the deep "sienna" yellow is obtained, a color which featured predominantly on the canvases of nearly all of Italy's greatest renaissance artists. Once within the 14th century perimeter walls of the town of Asciano, we have the opportunity to visit the Museum of Sacred Art and to admire Ambrogio Lorenzetti's splendid "St Michael killing the dragon".
Just 13 kilometers from Asciano, hidden away amongst a wood of cypress trees which opens out to reveal a stunning view of the Crete, lies the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore; where the devotion of the monks and the beauty of Renaissance art joined in the most exquisite expression of man's faith.
Journeying on towards the Ombrone valley, we make a slight detour so as to visit another abbey: that of San Galgano. Left roofless after its vaulted ceiling collapsed, San Galgano is one of those places, enshrouded in legend and mystery, which, once seen, are quite impossible to forget. Close by, there is a monastery and a chapel containing important frescoes by Lorenzetti.
A patchwork of olive and vine covered hills greets us as we approach Montalcino. The town, which has perfectly conserved its medieval plan, is known world wide for the production of the excellent Brunello di Montalcino. No tour of the town can be considered complete without having first paid visit to at least one of Montalcino's prestigious wineries. Eight kilometers from Montalcino, lies the Abbey of St Antimo, arguably the most important example of Romanesque architecture in the whole, of Tuscany.
Along roads which wind their way through the gentle Tuscan hillside we soon arrive in Pienza. This hilltop town is the result of Pope Pius II's desire to create a town built entirely according to renaissance principles of urban design. Bernardino Rossellino, pupil of the great Leon Battista Alberti, was the architect responsible for its completion. A number of viewpoints created along the walkway skirting the town, allow the visitor to enjoy breathtaking views over the whole of the Orcia valley.
Directly opposite Pienza lies the fascinating village of Bagno Vignoni, ancient spa town where Lorenzo il Magnifico frequently came so as to ease his crippling arthritis in the warm, sulphurous waters. In the center of the village there are the baths which featured in Andrei Tarkovsky's legendary film, "Nostalgia".
Travelling Southwards towards the Monte Amiata, we enter a lush green landscape characterised by thick woods of chestnut trees. Well worthy of visit, the three small towns of Abbadia San Salvatore, Radicofani, and Santa Fiora. Having skirted the mountain, we continue in the direction of Pitigliano. The town, constructed in the middle ages on a great spur of tufo, is home to a wonderful concoction of medieval and renaissance buildings. Not to be missed, Palazzo degli Orsini and the Jewish Ghetto.
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