Rising at the Southern end of the province of Siena between the Orcia and Chiana valleys, Montepulciano is an excellent base to visit the main art centres of Tuscany and Umbria such as Siena, Arezzo, Cortona, Pienza, Montalcino, Chiusi, San Quirico d'Orcia and Orvieto, as well as several areas of outstanding natural beauty including the famous Crete Senesi, the Trasimeno lake, the bird sanctuary of the Montepulciano lake and Mount Amiata.
This tiny village is a spa resort dating from the Middle Ages, but its hot sulphurous springs were already known in Roman times. The old thermal pool that all but fills the main square – now a listed monument and no longer in use – was popular with weary pilgrims on their way to Rome as well as with distinguished visitors such as St. Catherine of Siena and Lorenzo de' Medici.
Sitting on the slopes of the hill of the same name, Cetona still has the typical layout of a Medieval town with a network of lanes and alleyways climbing to the citadel. In San Michele Arcangelo it is possible to see paintings of the Sienese school, while the church of SS. Trinità has frescoes by Pinturicchio. Worth visiting are the prehistoric settlement of Belvedere and the Museo Civico per la Preistoria del Monte Cetona, with displays ranging from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age.
Arguably one of Italy's top spa towns, Chianciano is surrounded by extensive woods of oak, beech, holm and chestnut trees. The spa facilities rise next to the old Medieval town, whose Romanesque and Renaissance art treasures are now on display in the Museo di Arte Sacra located in the Arcipretura palace. The local "Delle Acque" Archaeological Museum houses remarkable Etruscan and Roman finds, attesting how the local thermal and mineral springs were already known and well appreciated in ancient times.
Located at the Southern end of the Chiana valley, Chiusi had its golden age in Etruscan times under the legendary king Porsenna. Important exhibits, found in archaeological excavations that are still under way, can be seen in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Etrusco, housed in an elegant Neoclassic building. Opposite is the Duomo, dating from the 12th C. but extensively altered in the late 16th C. – and the Museo della Cattedrale, with richly illuminated missals. Just as impressive is the so-called Labirinto di Porsenna, an intricate network of underground passages that present the visitor with a surprising stratigraphical sequence of monumental remains. The lake of Chiusi, in the valley below the city, is a popular spot for fishing and bird watching.
Home to the renowned Brunello wine, Montalcino dominates the Ombrone and Asso valleys and boasts a proud past as a free town-state allied with Siena. The civic hub is the Piazza del Popolo with the 14th-Century Palazzo dei Priori, while it was the Sienese who built in 1361 the mighty Rocca fortress, whose bastions offer stunning views. About 10 km away, the Benedectine abbey of Sant'Antimo is an outstanding example of 12th C. monastic architecture.
Montefollonico is a picturesque Medieval village built in the 12th and 13th Centuries as a Sienese stronghold, but the earliest traces of human settlements in the area date as far back as the Neanderthals.
The ancient castle of Corsignano became Pienza in the second half of the 15th C. as a tribute to pope Pio II, whose real name was Enea Silvio Piccolomini, and who commissioned Bernardo Rossellino to transform his native village into a real-life Ideal City. At the heart of the project is the stage-like Piazza Pio II, which is surrounded by the Duomo, the Bishop's Palace (now home to the Museo Diocesano), and the beautiful Piccolomini Palace. Below the town lies the Valdorcia natural, artistic and cultural Park, with gullies, rolling hills and the famous cretaceous crags.
SAN CASCIANO DEI BAGNI
Located near the boundary with Umbria and Lazio, San Casciano dei Bagni is a quaint village dominated by the mighty square tower of Palazzo Bologna. Outside the town centre – near the spa complex offering inhalation therapies, thermal baths and mud treatments – is the old church of Santa Maria ad Balnea, attested since the 11th C. but probably existing since much earlier.
The imposing square keep of the castle bears witness to the Medieval origins of Sarteano, which runs along a hill ridge overlooking the Chiana valley. The town boasts several interesting secular and religious buildings including the church of San Martino in Foro, the Collegiata, the Palazzo Comunale, and the Piccolomini, Goti-Fanelli and Cennini palaces; another jewel is the historic Teatro degli Arrischianti. Also worth seeing is the Museo Civico Archeologico, displaying important Etruscan and Roman exhibits. Every year on August 15th, Sarteano hosts the Giostra del Saracino, a thrilling horseback jousting tournament dating from the Middle Ages.
Originally an Etruscan hilltop settlement, over the centuries Sinalunga has grown towards the Chiana valley. The town has secular and religious buildings of outstanding beauty and an interesting Antiquarium with Etruscan exhibits.
TORRITA DI SIENA
This important town in the Chiana valley is attested since 1037. The town centre, once surrounded by elliptical walls, rises around the main square. Its main buildings represent the three powers: military (the tower), civil (the town hall), and religious (St Flora and Lucilla church). The nearby Teatro degli Oscuri dates from the 18th C. In the 13th C., Torrita was the birthplace of Ghino di Tacco, an infamous Ghibelline brigand whose character is still debated by historians. Late in June each year, Torrita hosts a famous blues festival.
Trequanda rose around the 13th C. Cacciaconti castle, of which only a mighty crenellated round tower still survives. The beautiful Romanesque church of San Pietro and Andrea overlooks a large and bright square and has an unusual checkered façade made of lighter and darker stone ashlars. The nearby village of Petroio is renowned for its terracotta factories.