There’s more to Tuscany than wine. After many years of traveling the wine roads of Chianti on SS222 under the looming gaze of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero, symbol of the Chianti Wine League) I was ready for a change. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing more thrilling than traveling along the twisting Via Chiantigiana (SS222). Fields of sunflowers and hillsides of vineyards and olive trees pass by and the glow of burnt umber, olive green and red wine color the landscape with breathtaking beauty. You can easily spend a week wandering down the winding roads from this town to the next eating salumi, crostini and wild boar, searching for the perfect ribollito, stopping to sample the classic wines of the region, developing what I refer to as that “Tuscan Glow”.

crete-senesi

But on this trip I was in search of another Tuscan treasure, the aromatic white truffle (tartufo bianco) found in the woods near the town of San Giovanni d’Asso, south of Siena and along the way pay a visit to a terme, one of the many natural hot springs that can be found in the Tuscan countryside.

The village of San Giovanni d’ Asso is in the heart of the Crete Senesi. The Crete Senesi (pronounced KREH-teh seh-NEH-seh) is a rolling panaroma of wind swept hills and isolated farmhouses south of Siena. It is the parallel universe of Chianti and attracts travelers seeking the elemental Tuscan experience. The rolling hills are dotted with cyclists and the woods that straddle the Crete and the Val d’Orcia are the perfect place to find the legendary tartufo bianco.

On the road less traveled, among the clay hills of the Crete, most travelers would need to think outside the box to visit here. But if they do they know they have arrived at a place that is very special and are then confronted with an age old question, should I or shouldn’t I. Should I or shouldn’t I tell everyone I know about this wondrous, magical place of food and earthy delights, home of the Italian white truffle and a locanda (country inn) with a ristorante whose food is memorable and wine selection impeccable. Well maybe not everyone, but to a select few who will appreciate the unique nature of this small (938 inhabitants) medieval village, tell them and they will sing your praises and forever be in your debt.

229_white_truffle_2

Named after the Asso River torrent from which the village rises, S. G. d’Asso is near some of my favorite places in Tuscany as well as those that most Tuscan tourists want to visit. The wines of Montalcino with its famous Brunello and the Vin Nobile of Montepulciano are waiting to be tasted and the towns of Siena, Pienza, Buonconvento and Rapolano Terme are a short distance away. The abbeys of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Sant’ Antimo are all within driving distance and Florence is 80 km.

But in November in San Giovanni d’Asso, it’s all about the Italian white truffle, tartufo bianco. Italian truffle hunters and their dogs take to the nearby woods in search of the “white diamonds of Italy”, to bring to S. G. d’Asso’s Annual Fall Truffle Festival. Held the 2nd and 3rd weekends in November, you can buy local products, eat local dishes made with truffles and arrange to watch truffle hunters at work. You can also visit the Museo di Tartufo, Italy’s first museum dedicated to the truffle. You will definetly want to visit the unique exhibits that allow you to get up close and personal with the prized fungus. There’s even an “odorama” exhibit that allows visitors to experience the heady aromas of dozens of different kinds of truffles.

The veranda at the locanda
The veranda at the locanda

Located in a 13th century castle, the museum is next to La Locanda del Castello, a country inn with an equally powerful effect on your senses. Your sense of taste, touch, smell and vision are all heightened by the atmosphere created by the owner Selvana, her son Massimo and innkeeper, Fiorella who make you stay at the inn very special. You arrive at the locanda piazza where a series of contemporary sculptures are on display then walk through the Castello drawbrige and into the castle courtyard.

 

The intimate ristorante downstairs from the inn (very convenient) is rustic-Italian chic with a private veranda that overlooks the landscape of the town and valley below. When ordering, I would willingly take the advice of chef Enrico whose Nouveau Tuscan cuisine and artful presentation was fantastici. I ate a delicious pici pasta with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) one night and another night a wild boar ragu’ that was both delicate and bold. The caprese salad was a favorite and an antipasti of assorted salumi included Lardo di Colonnata, a protected Tuscan delicacy that is particular to the region. My room was decorated with 19th century Italian country furniture combined with touches of French toile fabric to create what I would imagine to be the style of day when traveling from locanda to locanda.

My final day in Tuscany was spent at an Italian terme. Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtures of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. On last year’s trip I got “my feet wet” at Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena. The town itself is built around a central thermal pool with a thermal stream you can walk through. The ancient Etruscans and Romans knew about these hot springs and pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena Road on their way to Rome stopped to rest in the waters. Pope Pius II, St. Caterina of Siena and Lorenzo Medici all bathed here. But now it is very casual, with mostly Italians on holiday taking the waters at one of the two thermal centers in town. Not yet ready to take the plunge, I took off my sandals and felt the warm, rich volcanic water run across my tired feet and for a moment knew what it must have been like to be weary pilgrim on their way to Rome.

This year after tasting truffles in San Giovanni d’Asso, I was ready to get my terme on and decided the best place to loss my inhibitions would be at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme. There are other popular termes in Italy,Montecatini and Saturnia come to mind, that are more tourist oriented, but I like to travel like an Italian so this type of terme appeals to me. It is small, family oriented (yes, Italian children come with their parents) with 3 large pools rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. I spent one memorable afternoon in September languishing in the thermal waters of Antica Querciolaia under the Tuscan sun knowing that this was another reason why Italy is the best place on earth.

About the author: Cositutti, a travel and lifestyle resource for All Fine Things Italian, was founded by Pamela Marasco in 2005. With an Undergraduate Degree in the Biological Sciences and a Graduate Degree in Education, Pamela is committed to farming practices and educational programs that ensure the true flavors of Italy are protected and preserved. You can learn more about products available through Cositutti’s on-line store and her travels in Italy at www.cositutti.com .

This article by guest writer Pamela Marasco is a mouth-watering and inspiring account of travel in Tuscany.  November is host to the truffle festival in San Giovanni d’Asso, which is discussed here.

Sign up here to receive future blog posts in your inbox