The Crete Senesi
The area to the south east of Siena, with its unique and at times lunar landscape, is known as the Crete Senesi.
The road that leads from Siena to Montalcino crosses the heart of the Crete and is among the most beautiful sections of countryside in Italy.
As the name implies, this terrain is particularly rich in clay. The landscape is made up of soft, rolling hills and winding roads, with here and there white, dune-like hillocks that give an almost other-worldly feel to the panorama. Those who first visit this region will be struck by its unreal quality and by the extraordinary changes that come over the landscape at different times of day and season, ranging from bright orange at sunset to grey.
The Crete Senesi abound in Medieval hamlets, churches, castles and fortresses, as well as many farms that indicate the strong peasant traditions of this area. Inhabited since the Etruscans, the town of Asciano is among the area’s loveliest hamlets and stands at a crossroads between a number of ancient roads such as the Via Lauretana, the Via di Rapolano and the Monte Sante Marie dirt road.
Sections of the fortifications are still standing and the interior of Asciano is a mesh of narrow Medieval streets and ancient palazzi. The Basilica of Sant’Agata contains works by Signorelli and Sodoma, while the gothic Church of San Bernardino houses the Museo Etrusco. Not far from Asciano, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore – founded originally by Bernardo Tolomei – is one of the most important monastic complexes of the entire Siena area.
The Crete Senesi are known for a number of prized agricultural products. The countryside here is ideal for grazing or for growing sunflowers, grain and vines. The legendary Brunello di Montalcino is produced in this area and the sheep milk of Asciano, which is milked from sheep that feed on the scented bushes of the Crete, is used to produce a unique brand of pecorino cheese. The area around San Giovanni d’Asso, which is the oldest hamlet in the entire Crete region, produces black truffles as well as the sought-after and costly white version. A truffle market fair is in fact held here in November and the basements of the ancient castle house Italy’s first Museo del Tartufo truffle museum.
Among the area’s other typical products are the Chiusure artichokes and Montalcino honey. Montalcino is also known for its grappa made from Brunello grapes and in recent years the Crete olive oil has increased both in quality and quantity.
All the area’s produce can be found at the Mercatino delle Crete Senesi, which is held in Asciano every second Sunday of the month and also features local crafts.
The area around Serre di Rapolano also has a number of travertine marble quarries. The first official mention of these quarries dates back to 1597, when the quarries are listed as having supplied the raw materials for the building of the Church of Santa Maria in Provenzano, in Siena. The same quarries later supplied travertine for the construction of the Church of San Biagio in Montepulciano and for the façade and bell tower of the Cathedral of Pienza.