The crete of Siena

We are in an area mainly covering the municipalities of Asciano, Buonconvento, Monteroni d’Arbia, Rapolano Terme and San Giovanni d’Asso, known as “Le Crete” (around here “creta” is synonymous with “clay”). An incredible place that is immense and bare, where nature appears to play with the surrounding elements. The countryside is almost lunar with occasional, red brick farmhouses and even fewer trees, particularly cypress trees that heroically stand out against the blue sky resting on barren hilltops. “Le Crete” can leave visitors disorientated, especially after seeing other Tuscan hillside areas covered in vineyards and dense woodland.

On the contrary, here man has always encountered one problem after another, since Etruscan times. So much so that today these areas have few inhabitants. Here, the land has always withstood the work of farmers; an arid, clay soil only cultivated under great strain, by continually tearing away a few strips of the ever sliding and self-transforming landscape. The land is definitely more suitable for grazing sheep than cultivation.

It almost appears hell-like, continually wounded by deep scarring created by the flowing water, and at times scattered with necropolises and ruins from age-old civilisations. And yet its terrible and equally charming appearance makes an impression on everyone.

It almost seems like God wanted to test His creative abilities in “Le Crete”, combining contrasting colours. The grey tones of the clay contrast with the dark green of the cypress trees or the red of the farmhouses, often in ruins, or the medieval villages. The yellow wheat plots irregularly extend among the dark, speckled woodland, culminating in the grey precipice of the “calanchi”, the grey, sliding land continually washed by the force of rainwater. A palette of dark colours, a clashing combination without a hint of shade, an incredible and fantastic jigsaw.

What’s more, the scenery constantly changes, so much so that visitors returning to the same place in another season can have difficulty recognising it as they remember it differently. In January you could walk the greenest hills among tranquil flocks of grazing sheep, yet in summer the same landscape is so burnt and arid that it appears almost desert-like; the same land that was possibly a flowing expanse touched with red poppies and yellow broom just a few months before. Not to mention the infinite tones and playful shadows magnificently appearing and disappearing during the day, each of which are unique.

An ocean of endless hillside in warm tones, conquered with great fatigue, and often covered in white, dusty roads. However, only the most astute and relaxed visitors get to see its incredible and unexpected treasures. These are first and foremost the magnificent artistic and historical villages, built from the same clay as the surrounding landscape. Places such as Asciano, still with its surrounding walls, palaces and medieval churches, and its museums, such as the Etruscan and Sacred Art Museums that are really worth a visit. The splendid Museum of Sacred Art, for example, boasts the age-old fortified village of Buonconvento, located on Via Francigena. Another valley, San Giovanni d’Asso, is overcome by the characteristic castle mass and conserves splendid Romanesque churches.

Another place well worth a visit is the amazing “Grancia” in Cuna, a truly unique and perfectly preserved example of a medieval, fortified farm. Another must is an attentive visit to the fourteenth-century Monteoliveto Maggiore Abbey, one of the most important monasteries in Tuscany, where you can still observe the religious life of the Olivetan monks, and perhaps, with monastic Gregorian chant echoing in your ears, you can admire the cycles of Renaissance frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma in the cloisters.

An infinite list of places, churches and castles, from Monteroni d’Arbia to Lucignano d’Asso, to Monterongriffoli… A list, perhaps, that is useless.
Here, more than anywhere else, it is pointless to set itineraries. You should just let yourself be drawn to the magic of this place suspended between heaven and earth. Tourists know that among every gathering of houses, inside every church, no matter how small, there is a wealth of things to do. Incredible and impressive nature is everywhere, and it is more alive than ever. It even breathes, as confirmed by the many spas particularly concentrated in Rapolano Terme.

It is therefore a land of treasure, but also simple and genuine aromas like Pecorino cheese made from sheep milk, sheep that are left to graze freely on the pastures. Crete olive oil received recent official recognition with its own quality mark and goes down well with traditional Tuscan “Fettunta”, a simple and tasty garlic “bruschetta” sprinkled with oil (giving rise to the Italian “fetta unta” or “oily bread slice”), perhaps accompanied by a good glass of wine.

However the real gem in this area is the highly appreciated truffle as the area is ideal for it growth and development. The castle in San Giovanni d’Asso each November hosts an important “Truffle Exhibition”, an event not to be missed for cooking enthusiasts.

A final thought before leaving you.
January is the start of a new cycle of months. Last December we parted by reminding you that for some years now the Festa della Toscana, celebrated on the 30th November each year, recalls how we were the first in the world to abolish the death penalty and torture, way back in 1786. A gesture of huge civility, something for which we are rightly proud. Our wish was for this event to be finally understood by everyone around the world, as happened for the Renaissance which began right here in Tuscany, so we would no longer have to witness such acts.

Unfortunately, the news over the last few weeks yet again denied our wish and annoyed us.
We have to admit there is still a long way to go. Yet, in Italy, the issue has been receiving considerable coverage, something that hasn’t happened for some time. Our country, which became a member of the UN Security Council a few days ago, has already officially presented a proposal for an international moratorium on the death penalty. A gesture we fully share, a small seed that we hope will blossom until it becomes a tree so big and dense that its foliage will cover a world finally at peace.

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