Long avenues of cypress trees, centuries old olive groves, and great expanses of vines which cover the hills and valleys with a soft carpet of intense color. We are in the heart of Tuscany, in the midst of a marvellous landscape where the historic city of Siena rises up supreme. Built on three hills, the Cathedral and Santa Maria dominate the cityscape. The things to see are many, but it is the Piazza del Campo, the immense square which provides the theatre for the great Palio horse race held here twice a year (2 July and 16 August) which has, perhaps, the most appeal. The Palio influences every aspect of life in the city, not only during the period of the races when the sentiment for the contrada reaches its colourful and boisterous climax, but throughout the whole year. A great number of artistic masterpieces are housed in the various museums of Siena; works by artists of world wide fame, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini, Pinturicchio and Jacopo della Quercia.
To the South of Siena, the Crete Senesi extend out across some 500kmsq. of land. Travelling along the via Laurentana in the direction of Asciano one comes across the characteristic ochre colored hills from which the 'earth of Siena' is derived and which has characterised some of the most famous paintings of the renaissance period. Once at the little village of Asciano and beyond the 14th century walls one can visit the Museum of Sacred Art where to admire "St Micheal killing the dragon" by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Just 13kms away, immersed in a wood of cypress trees, there awaits a site of great beauty: the Benedictine 'abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, in which the gentle spirit of the Benedictine order mingles with the artistic culture of the Renaissance.
Travelling on towards the Ombrone valley, it is well worth taking a detour so as to reach another abbey, this time that of San Galgano. The enchanting abbey, left roofless after the collapse of one of its principal vaults, impresses a lasting image. The arches seem to join the green carpet of grass growing over the paving with the blue of the sky which has replaced the roof. Close by there is a monastery and a small church containing important frescoes by Lorenzetti.
Hills covered with olive groves and vineyards greet those travelling along the road which leads to Montalcino. The name of the town, of Medieval origin, has for years been linked with that of the famous Brunello di Montalcino wine made from the grapes grown in the surrounding countryside, and few are the visitors to the town who depart without having first tasted a glass or two of this fabulous red potion or taken part in a tour of the cellars belonging to the towns' legendary wine producers. Eight kilometers away, lies the abbey of St Antimo, one of the most important pieces of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany.
Proceeding along the road which winds through the undulating countryside, one reaches the gentle landscape of Pienza. The town is a fine example of architectonic harmony; inspired by a renaissance model of town planning and realised by the architect Bernardino Rossellino, pupil of Leon Battista Alberti, by wish of Pope Pio II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini). From certain vantage points, one can enjoy a magnificent view over the whole of the Orcia valley.
Clearly visible from Pienza, is the enchanting village of Bagno Vignoni, the ancient spa town where it is said that Santa Caterina mortified her flesh in the boiling waters and the slightly less pious Lorenzo il Magnifico, simply treated his arthritis. At the center of the village there is a large bath of sulphurous water, which featured in one of the most magical scenes of Andrei Tarkovsky''s film, "Nostalgia".
Travelling southwards, the landscape changes, becoming greener as it transforms in ever thickening woodland towards the majestic form of Mount Amiata. Dense chestnut woods encircle what was once an active volcano. Not to be missed; a visit to the towns which skirt its green slopes, towns such as Abbadia San Salvatore, Radicofani, and Santa Fiore.
Having circumnavigated the mountain, our journey continues in the direction of Pitigliano. As if by magic, the spur of tufo to which the old medieval town clings appears suddenly before us. The enchanting landscape and the clusters of renaissance buildings grafted on to the ancient medieval structure of the town make this place quite unique. Palazzo degli Orsini and the Jewish Ghetto are more than worthy of visit.