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In the shadow of the towers

Alta Val d'Elsa

Fattoria di Fioreta - Abbadia a Isola, Municipality of Monteriggioni
Fattoria di Pignano - Castelvecchio, Municipality of Gimignano
about 38 km
7 - 8 hours; best done in two legs


We travel down country roads and trails that wind in the shadow of Tuscany's towers amidst historical vineyards of Vernaccia, the first Italian wine to be awarded an appellation. Alta Val d'Elsa symbolizes a silent Tuscany whose atmosphere, flavours and pace are governed by its rural heritage.


1° Leg

Distance: 12,4 km
Duration: 2 - 2 and a half hours

This itinerary uncovers the magic of Alta Val d'Elsa, a land that offers unforgettable views from atop a saddle. It departs from Fattoria di Fioreta, near Abbadia a Isola, whose name recalls the marsh that once surrounded the lower part of the village so that the fortified abbey seemed to rise up like an island. This is one of the most ancient stretches of the historical Francigena road. The existence of the monks that inhabited this powerful abbey began to change as the fortified village of Monetriggioni progressively developed. In 1376 the abbey was surrounded by fortifications to protect it from pillaging bandits who infested this strategic territory. Having crossed Strada Provinciale 74 and the Petraio ravine, we head toward Villa del Casone. The light and atmosphere change as we enter a dense oak wood and reach the tiny stone hamlet of Acquaviva. From here, by following a crest and the Fosso di Strove we reach the municipal road linking Cerreto to Santa Giulia. A rest stop at the Casagrande and Pietreto farmhouses is followed by a descent on the other side, toward Caldane di Gracciano, an important place to become acquainted with in Val d'Elsa. Few realize that the Elsa river springs forth in the Montagnola range, in Molli. It has no perennial springs, and is fed solely by its tributaries until it reaches Gracciano, where a perennial spring considerably increases its volume. It's understandable why the initial stretch of the river, including where it crosses Colle Val d'Elsa, is known as Elsa Morta. In Gracciano the area around the river was once known as Bagno di San Marziale for its thermal springs, which had been used for bathing since Etruscan times. Today the only remnant of the baths is a large pool surrounded by stone walls to collect the clear spring water. The baths were destroyed in 1260 by Sienese troops following the battle of Montaperti and were rebuilt by the inhabitants of Colle Val d'Elsa in 1440. In 1600 the area fell into disrepair, from which it was saved just a few years ago when volunteers removed centuries of debris to reveal the ancient structure.


2° Leg

Distance: 22,8 km
Duration: 4 - 4 and a half hours

Having reached Caldane di Gracciano, we cross Strada Provinciale 541 for Follonica and we cross the Elsa river, leaving the Pieve ad Elsa church on the right. This is one of the most fascinating parts of Val d'Elsa, where even a simple ride becomes an adventure. The itinerary continues toward Podere Montoro and climbs to reach Fontediaccia. After crossing the woods, we take the dirt road toward Fabbrica - Fonte Sant'Antonio, then proceed for Fonternaccia. Having crossed the road from Colle to Casole, we head toward Coneo. It's worth stopping here to visit Badia a Coneo, built in the 12th century in blocks of travertine marble. Its isolated location lends it a timeless quality. The journey continues by leaving hoofprints on winding country roads through tilled fields up to Campiglia dei Foci, the old mill of Aiano on the Foci stream and up to the Torraccia di Chiusi farmhouse, where each single step leads through a valley with a breathtaking view of San Gimignano's towers. The itinerary leads back into the shade and silence of the woods, reaching an ample olive grove near Villa del Piano. The next few kilometres pass through a great variety of landscapes that represent the multiplicity of Terre di Siena: country roads, centuries-old olive trees, woods and rows of cypress trees climbing the hillsides. The subsequent landmarks are the Voltrona, Ciliegeta and San Donato farms. Now the dirt road takes us to the Castelvecchio nature reserve and the village of the same name. Just a short way from San Gimignano, this reserve is made up of Mediterranean brushland and a particular microclimate which allows for the existence of ice age tree species such as the yew (Taxus baccata) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) at an unusually low altitude. The ruins of Castelvecchio are an unmissable feature of this trip and afford splendid panoramas, as well as a chance to spot the rare migrating rapacious bird known as Biancone (Circaetus gallicus) between March and September as it builds its nest on rock outcroppings. The ruins of the Medieval castle are one of the most enchanting sights in the province of Siena. The village, two towers, ruined dwellings and the Romanesque church of San Frediano still display their Lombard origins.


3° Leg

Distance: 3 km
Duration: 30 - 45 minutes

Having risen out of the Castelvecchio ravine, the road may be followed as far as Fattoria di Pignano, located right at the border with the province of Pisa and surrounded by the fascinating hills of Volterra. This ancient castle dates back to the 10th century, and later became the estate of the Marquis Incontri di Volterra, together with the Pieve di San Bartolomeo. The group of buildings was constructed on an outcropping of travertine marble, once used by the Etruscans for funerary urns and later in Romanesque architecture.


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