Using the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore as our centerpiece (see part 1) let's explore of one of Tuscany's most alluring regions. To those of you who already know this area, we invite you to join us in sharing your favorite memories and places...
The hill town of Asciano, a 15 minute drive north from the abbey, basks in the astonishing landscape of Le Crete Senesi — the Sienese clay hills. The gently winding drives are spectacular. In winter when the valleys are submerged in the early morning mist, the hilltops and their solitary tufts of pine or cypress seem to float on cushions of air.
By early March the hills have turned a vivid emerald green in anticipation of spring. As summer yields to fall, a honey colored glaze spreads across the land turning everything into pure gold. No matter what time of year you go, drive. You won't regret or ever forget Le Crete. Asciano has dominated this landscape since Etruscan times. A collection of its oldest artifacts await you in its Museo Etrusco, as do major pieces of medieval art housed in the Museo d'Arte Sacra.
If you can, time your visit to coincide with the 2nd Sunday of any month — that's when heaven comes to town.The Mercatino delle Crete is a two-fold event. The local olive oil, truffles, wine, cheese and a host of other delicacies presented at this outdoor market are all 100% organic — not the insipid slogan-only stuff we are accustomed to. The Italian word for organic is biologico. You will find it everywhere you shop and you will marvel at the depth of aromas and flavors. The flip side of this monthly fair is a showcase of the best hand made pottery, wrought iron, copper and brass artifacts produced by the Garbati Ascianesi (the well mannered people of Asciano), as they have been called for centuries.
Which leads me to why I love this town. To be known as "well mannered" one must begin somewhere. Take a look at the youngest of Asciano's 7000 souls as you stroll in view of the city's ancient bell tower and Romanesque churches. In this modern age of virtual reality and hand held devices young Ascianesi welcome technology all the while reinforcing a tradition of healthy living and character shaping team spirit.
Asciano is divided into seven neighborhoods whose youth annually compete in the Corsa the Ciuchi. This simple donkey race held on the 2nd Sunday of September has the power to focus and mold this city's youth all year long. Dinners, events, outings, vacations and eventually weddings and families spring from the meaningful associations these admirable young people make in the course of keeping their city's most historic tradition alive.
Only one neighborhood (contrada or rione) will take home the coveted palio (banner) each year. The six other hopefuls must wait for another chance. The competition is fierce but friendly and the camaraderie lasts a lifetime. Maybe, its that mysterious vortex beneath the abbey that generates all this positive energy? Frankly, I don't think so.
Stay tuned for more unique places surrounding l'Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore.