Siena is one of the most incredible cities of art in Italy, famous for its architectural treasures, delicious pastries and, needless to say, the Palio. Siena has always been a “human-size” city and has been able to preserve its uniqueness over centuries . In the city centre there are practically no cars due to strict traffic restrictions and the distances between cultural sites are very short: you can easily get to know the city by foot while breathing in the medieval atmosphere. There are, however, plenty of efficient parking spaces outside the historical walls, with escalators connecting them with the city centre, allowing the visitor to arrive comfortably right to the heart of the city with their own car.
A city that has never lost its original charm, Siena is full of narrow, characteristic little alleys that unmistakably lead the visitors to discover the true heart of the city: Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped, medieval main square where the famous horse race, il Palio takes place twice a summer. Il Palio is an event without comparison, a unique moment that brings all the citizens together and allows the spectators to relive the glorious days of the Republic of Siena that fell under the rule of Florence and the Medici family in 1559. The Palio is something truly unexplainable: it is certainly not a mere tourist attraction, nor a simple sporting event, but the very heart and soul of the city and its long history. It is a world of its own and without a doubt the most important moment of the year for the people of Siena, but also a big part of every day life throughout the year. It is a peculiar phenomenon that makes Siena one of a kind.
But there’s more to Siena than just the Palio: there are hundreds of places and monuments to discover within the city walls. Behind every corner there is something fascinating – it is a bit like walking in a living museum. Piazza del Campo, the Cathedral with its museum of the Opera, the Academy of chigina, Palazzo Pubblico and the main tower Torre del Mangia are the must-sees, not to mention all the other beautiful churches and monuments. An art lover will also find a great number of museums and art galleries with collections ranging from medieval paintings to modern art. And while walking and admiring the city, why not take a break and discover the “true works of art”, the various local pastries that have made Siena famous: the “panforte”, the “ricciarelli”, the “cavallucci”…
The area of Val d’Orcia, named after the river running through its beautiful fields, lies at the feet of the Mount Amiata, in the southern parts of the province of Siena. It is one of the most characteristic areas of Tuscany, a true postcard landscape with endless green hills and cypresses surrounding the medieval villages built on strategic, panoramic heights: it is the perfect mixture of art and nature, to discover by driving along its curvy country roads, perhaps stopping every now and then to admire the view and to take a picture. Between the hills, villages and extraordinary historical monuments the landscape is characterized by vast forests, olive groves and vineyards that are home to one the most famous and prestigious wines in the world: Brunello of Montalcino. Guarding the valley from the west, there is the majestic Mount Amiata, an extinct volcano rising up at 1800 meters.
It is a precious resource for the valley, offering a cool refuge during the hot Tuscan summers and becoming a perfect place for skiing in the winter when the snow covers its hills. But for thousands of years Amiata has been known and appreciated for one thing above all others: its sulfuric thermal waters rising from the heart of the volcano, splashing out as waterfalls and hot springs, allowing the visitor to enjoy an all-natural health spa in absolutely beautiful surroundings.
This ancient village is a true gem of the Val d’Orcia. Its history is strongly tied to that of the Piccolomini family, a famous Sienese family, and especially to that of Enea Silvio Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II in 1458. Inspired by the humanistic ideals of his time, the Pope wanted Pienza to become the “ideal town”, turning it into a true archeological jewel. Walking on the streets of the city the visitor can admire the beautiful fifteenth century buildings, such as the Cathedral and the Diocesan Museum, which houses works of Sano di Pietro and Sodomia, or the beautiful Palazzo Piccolomini designed by Bronzino and Beccafumi.
Besides the undeniable beauty and artistic landscape, Pienza also offers the unique possibility to taste the famous “Pecorino di Pienza, a cheese made of sheep milk, one of the most appreciated delicacies in Italy. In the past, the young girls learned the art of making Pecorino in order to honor to their families and to offer there ability as a dowry when marrying into a new family.
Situated on a beautiful hill overlooking Val d’Orcia and the Val D’Arbia, Montalcino rises at 564 meters above sea level. From its old fortress you can admire a breathtaking panorama that extends for tens and tens of kilometers over the Tuscan hills. Montalcino is surrounded by over three thousand acres of vineyards that produce Brunello, one of the most popular and famous wines in the world. Montalcino has perfectly preserved the charm of an ancient medieval village. Its territory, a part of the Artistic, Natural and Cultural Park of Val d’Orcia, is covered by vines, olive groves and forests.
The historic center of Montalcino is small and inviting, with narrow streets filled with craft shops and wine bars where you can taste the Brunello wine and other local products. You can also visit the former convent of St. Augustine with the Civic and Diocesan Museums that hosts vast collections of paintings by great masters. Another “must-do” is a visit to Rocca, a fortress built by the Sienese and theater of the last defense against the imperial troops of Charles V. Inside the fortress there is an excellent wine bar, a truly ideal place to taste vintage Brunello and other prestigious local wines.
The last Sunday of October, Montalcino celebrates the “Festival of the Thrush”, an event in which the quarters challenge each other in a competition of archery!
Abbazia di Sant’Antimo
Located in Montalcino, the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo is a monastery of great importance and also a perfect expression of the Tuscan-Romanesque architecture.
South of Siena and Tuscany lies the central area of the Crete Senesi, a landscape dominated by barren but undeniably beautiful clay hills eroded with time. The ocher color that dominates this area, framed with cypress and pine trees, leaves the visitor stunned. The area is dotted with ancient towers, castles and abbeys that seem to disappear into the vast “desert moon”.
One of the centers of Crete Senese, Asciano, is an ancient town and home to Sienese art and little-known but important buildings such as the Minor Basilica of Sant’Agata, the church of San Francesco, the museum of sacred art with works by Simone Martini and Sano di Pietro, or the fifteenth-century fountain in Piazza del Grano, and many others. Asciano is also the scene of one of the most characteristic local markets, the “Market of Crete” and also of a local version of the Palio of Siena, the Palio of Donkeys!
Rapolano Terme, instead, is a renowned centre of spas and hot springs ever since Roman times, surrounded by many archaeological sites nearby. The hydrothermal vents, the same ones that gave rise to the famous travertine marble, are now the heart of thermal spas such as the Baths of Antica Querciolaia. Not to miss: the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, the fascinating and mystical Benedictine monastery upon a hill.