Around Monte Amiata: A touch of rural Tuscany
June 23, 2019
by TeresaGlobalTravels Teresa Lynch
Leaving the beautiful village of Monticchiello, in the heart of the ‘UNESCO world cultural landscape’ of the Val d’Orcia Siena region, we made our way to the old volcanic lava dome of Monte Amiata. Our drive took us through the quintessentially beautiful countryside for which Tuscany is well known. Sunflower fields, golden grain swaying in the warm but gentle breeze making patterns on the fields, and rolled bales of hay presented a relaxed vacation feel to the countryside. The breathtaking scenes combine on a colourful canvas which includes small villages dotted among the rolling hills, quaint old stone houses, and modern Tuscan style farmhouses up cypress tree-lined avenues.
Picture pretty, this small hilltop town where we stayed for several days captured our hearts. Said to be more than 1000 years old, some of the best views of the surrounding countryside towards Montepulciano and the nearby hilltop town of Pienza can be seen from the viewing point just outside the town walls main gateway.
Inside the walls, the town is alive with restaurants, outdoor visual art displays, stylish accommodation and the locals enjoy gardens of colourful potted plants. The town square becomes an outdoor theatre for concerts starting late on the warm summer nights and an atmosphere of joyfulness pervades this town we made as our base for discovering Southern Tuscany.
Close by Monticchiello is the turnoff to the town of Pienza, the birthplace of Pope Pius II (elected Pope in 1458). Fashioned into a renaissance city starting in 1459, in 1996 it became a UNESCO world heritage site. A visit to this town is a must to view the renowned architectural monuments in the Piazza Pio II square, along with enjoying the wonderful local Tuscan cuisine.
The forested drive to Monte Amiata
The whole area has inspired many poets and artists, and the cypress trees added a touch of special magic to the area as we drove along the narrow winding roads through the natural gradient towards the towns along the foothills of the imposing massif of Monte Amiata. We continued driving through the beech, oak, and fir forests where, in many places, people were having elaborate family picnics in the forest by the roadside.
We took our picnic into the forest and enjoyed the nature on the lower slopes of this beautiful mountain. On this particular day, as we drove towards the top, through the ski resorts with pretty hotels and grassy picnic areas, we noticed a lot of people visiting the Monte–it turned out to be a public holiday.
At the top (1736 Mt), we intended to walk the short track to the ‘large iron cross’ and admire the view from the highest extinct volcano in Italy; unfortunately, the car park was full and there was nowhere we could stop.
We drove down the mountain via an alternate route, stopping to watch rock climbers scaling the sheer walls close to the road as cars, horseback riders, cyclists, and hikers passed by. There are many trails on Amiata. The longest, the 24km ‘Mountain Ring’ track circumnavigates Amiata from 1000-1300m above sea level, passing through the beautiful forests.
Along with organising educational and recreational activities, the park staff engage in the science of researching and preserving plant and animal species at risk of extinction. Along the nature paths, you can observe deer, stags, chamois, and wild sheep.
Volcanic region’s bounty
The Monte Amiata area is fascinating for its ancient history and the now extinct volcanic complex. Considered to be a ‘true mountain’ that had its last major eruptive episode about 300,000 years ago, it left behind fertile ground for the growing of chestnut, oak, fir, and beech trees. The mining of minerals has occurred in the past but the growing and making of wine, organic vegetables and olives, along with the thermal baths have continued in the wider area down the slopes and around the periphery.
Tourism, along with agriculture, timber, and mining endeavours, makes for a diverse region of sustainable economic ventures. For many kilometres around, the produce of this flourishing region is to be found in restaurants, bars, and in home cooking.
Abbadia San Salvatore – history and culture
Abbadia San Salvatore is the largest town on the slopes of Monte Amiata and has preserved much of the old culture in the museum-like Abbey and Crypt of San Salvatore. Founded in 750AD it is said that the Abbey is built where the ‘Trinity’ appeared to the Lombard King Ratchis under a white fir tree. Becoming the most important Abbey in Tuscany it is situated on the Pilgrim route from Northern Europe to Rome.
The Abbey houses the 16th-century Frescoes of Francesco Nasini and the thousand-year-old crypt is a ‘must visit’ where the 36 columns and 13 naves, each completely different, are lit by modern lighting. This underground cavern captures your attention with its stark beauty.
Housed in the crypt for the past thousand years (but now kept in Florence) was the world’s oldest manuscript copy of the sacred text of the ‘Amiatuinus Codex’, a very early version of the bible which was named after Monte Amiata.
Houses on the old narrow cobbled streets around the Abbey are adorned with decorated doors, torches, and medieval symbols. Nearby, cafes, small squares and bars have grown over time but the quaint feeling and charm remain. Abbadia was famous for the mining of cinnabar for mercury and the mining museum provides a view into this rich history.
Return to Monticchiello
After relaxing over food and a nice coffee in one of the bars, it was time to drive back along the base of Monte Amiata, through the colourful twilight of the Tuscan countryside, and return to Monticchiello. It had been a day full of experiences and visual delights.
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June 28, 2019
As always Teresa you have so eloquently described this beautiful area of Tuscany. Just makes me want to rush back to see and experience the charm of Old world Tuscany again.