A short drive south of the lush vineyards of Chianti and the elegant towns of San Gimignano and Siena, lies a stunning green and yellow stretch of countryside known as Valdichiana Senese. Here you’ll find pretty hamlets, producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and some of the most renowned thermal centers in Tuscany.
Valdichiana Senese looks like a painting. Its luxuriant green hills and yellow wheat fields lead from one pretty village to the next, while filling your eyes with all the beautiful shades of the Tuscan countryside. It’s definitely the ideal choice for those seeking a holiday in a peaceful and scenic location.
Here’s a little tour of Valdichiana Senese that starts from Montepulciano and brings you through less-travelled, fascinating villages immersed in a pristine countryside.
Montepulciano is the main municipality in the area, a true architectural gem steeped in history, culture and tradition. From the imposing Porta al Prato, the northern city gate, it’s a walk uphill to Piazza Grande, the main square and the highest point in town. Besides being the place where Bella saves Edward from the Volturi in New Moon (I’m sure Twilight fans like me will appreciate this info), this iconic piazza is dominated by the Gothic façade of the Palazzo Comunale and lined with stunning buildings, including the cathedral and the Well of Griffins and Lions. Not to miss are the XVII-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with masterpieces from the Sienese school, the Town Hall, where you can climb to the top of the tower to enjoy beautiful views, and the Church of St. Augustin, with a pretty white stone façade and a beautiful array of artworks inside. Oh, and of course you can’t leave Montepulciano without a glass (or two) of Vino Nobile, the high quality red wine produced here.
About 25 km south of Montepulciano you’ll find Chiusi, a charming town perched on a hill at the border between Tuscany and Umbria. This place dates back to 1000 BC and was once a key settlement of the Etruscan empire. Definitely a must see for archeology lovers, who will be amazed by the fantastic findings on display at the National Etruscan Museum, one of the most important collections of Etruscan remains in Italy. And even if you’re not really into ancient history, I’m sure you’ll enjoy exploring the vast network of tunnels and passageways stretching underneath the village known as Porsenna’s Labyrinth, from the name of the legendary Etruscan king of Chiusi. Also, just 4 km from the old town centre is the pretty Chiusi lake, where you can immerse in nature and enjoy some bird-watching.
A short drive from Chiusi leads to Cetona, a quintessential Tuscan village located at the foot of the homonymous mountain. It’s all about charming paved streets, stunning villas and beautiful panoramic spots (check out the views from via dello Steccato). Things to see in Cetona include the XI century Church of San Michele Arcangelo, the frescoes by Pinturicchio in the Collegiata of Santissima Trinità and the Belvedere Archeological Park with caves that were once used as places of worship and burial. Another interesting site is the monastery founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1212, where you can explore the grounds and then dive into a unique (but expensive) dining experience at La Frateria, the restaurant created by Father Egidio. Fun fact: Cetona is very popular with VIPs and jet-setters who come here for its beauty, the peaceful atmosphere and the high quality of life… it doesn’t surprise me at all, Cetona is truly a little gem!
Next stop is Sarteano, a tiny yet very lively village worth exploring. It’s dominated by the massive XI-century castle perched on the top of the hill, from where you have extraordinary views of the whole of the Valdichiana. Despite its small size, there are lots of interesting sights to explore here, including the stunning medieval loggia in the central square, the magnificent XVII-century Arriscianti Theater, the Church of St. Martin in the Forum with its extraordinary works of art, and the historic Bologni pharmacy displaying ancient pharmacopoeias and herbals. Sarteano is also home to one of the most beautiful Etruscan tombs in Tuscany, the IV-century Tomb of the Infernal Quadriga. In this delightful Tuscan hamlet you’ll also find renowned thermal baths where water flows naturally at 24°C!
Time to hit the spa! Just a short drive north of Sarteano, Chianciano Terme is a popular spa town, whose healing thermal waters have been well known since Etruscan times. Surrounded by century-old oak trees and olive groves, this is a place of beauty and relaxation that can easily be used as a base for exploring the treasures of Valdichiana – think relaxing dips in thermal waters after a day out exploring! Apart from its spa parks, Chianciano has also a pretty medieval old town with some interesting sights, such as the works of art on display at the Collegiate Museum of San Giovanni Battista, the Archaeological Museum inside a former granary and the medieval Clock Tower with great views over the surrounding countryside.
Montisi and Castelmuzio
Driving further north through lush green hills and yellow wheat fields, you’ll reach two picturesque villages you probably haven’t heard of before but that are truly unmissable: Montisi and Castelmuzio. Montisi is a vibrant hilltop village adorned with the colorful flags of its four contrade (districts). It features one of the world’s smallest functioning theatres and the famous Piccolo Accademia conservatory which draws harpsichord teachers and students from all over the globe. Castelmuzio is an enchanting hamlet of 200 souls with one of the most beautiful panoramic terraces I’ve ever seen! Far from the glamorous Tuscan resorts you often see in magazines, this is an atmospheric, ‘untouristy’ corner of Tuscany with just a bunch of sloping streets, one (excellent) bar/restaurant and a tiny supermarket. It’s so peaceful here that the only ‘noises’ you’ll hear are birds chirping and bell ringing from the church!
I suggest to visit Trequanda at dusk and head straight to Conte Matto restaurant http://www.contematto.it/it/index.php to dine (weather permitting) on the fantastic terrace overlooking the valley, surely an unforgettable experience! Trequanda is another off-the-beaten-path Tuscan gem where life is centered around the piazza dominated by a Romanesque church featuring a unique brown-and-white-checkered façade. The entrance to the village is still partially guarded by the remnants of the ancient Cacciaconti Castle, with an imposing cylindrical tower.
- For this trip I stayed at Casa di Castello in Castelmuzio, a fantastic holiday home which proved to be a great base for touring the Valdichiana Senese
- Food and wine are an essential part of each trip to Italy and when in Valdichiana you shouldn’t miss pici, Tuscan-style hand-rolled pasta served either all’aglione (a garlic and tomato sauce) or with wild boar ragù sauce, pecorino cheese and Chianina meat, all washed down with some good Vino Nobile di Montepulciano red wine
- Restaurants I can recommend in this area are Conte Matto in Trequanda, Locanda di Casal Mustia in Castelmuzio and Da Roberto in Montisi
Until next time,