As I lie enveloped by the hot thermal waters of the spa in Chianciano Terme, a feeling of relaxation gradually envelops me as well. Relaxation - of the body and mind - is indeed the premise behind the mini-vacation I’m taking in the beautiful Val di Chiana, a fertile valley in the province of Siena, dotted with charming villages, Sangiovese vineyards and olive groves.
Chianciano Terme, which lies on the gentle hills that divide the Val di Chiana from the Val d’Orcia, is the ideal base to explore this area, known - and enjoyed - since Etruscan-Roman times for the healthy benefits of its thermal waters. So there's no more appropriate way to begin my two-day break than at the Terme Sensoriali, a spa whose guiding principle is naturopathy. Here, you can choose among four treatment packages designed to restore your physical and mental balance by working on the five elements we are made of - water, fire, earth, air, ether - which correspond to the different areas the spa is divided in. The 20 blissful treatments include hot water pools with hydromassage, multi-sensory showers, saunas and Turkish bath, aromatherapy, chromotherapy, music therapy, melmarium (mud room - the ladies' favorite!), ice crash, the Kneipp path and more.
In addition, since what we eat is very much a part of our well-being, the Terme Sensoriali spa offers a further “treatment”, which revolves around taste: a menu that energizes the five senses through healthy and tasty recipes of the Tuscan tradition, with fresh, organic, locally sourced products, relying heavily on colorful vegetables and cereals like farro (the seasonal menus are devised by an expert nutritionist, professor Nicola Sorrentino).
[Photo: Hot water pool with hydromassage at the Terme Sensoriali in Chianciano Terme.]
Pampering seems to be the keyword of this trip as, later that night, I’m treated to a stellar Tuscan dinner at Palazzo Bandino, an agriturismo just outside Chianciano managed by the same family for six generations. In the rustic atmosphere of the farm, my traveling companions and I are welcomed by the current owner, Signor Valeriani, and his daughter Marta, who proudly give us an overview of the food traditions of the area, which, of course, include wines like Chianti, Rosso and Nobile di Montepulciano, and extra virgin olive oil; we taste those produced at the farm and they are excellent. Plus, I discover that the Tuscans have this wonderful habit of starting their meals with “crostini”, slices of grilled Tuscan bread (pane toscano) with different toppings, from a simple splash of olive oil to tomatoes, from mushrooms to truffle. After all, l'appetito vien mangiando.
[Tuscan crostini at Palazzo Bandino - yum.]
The following morning, on a perfect autumn day with warm temperatures and blue skies, I set out to explore two little jewels of the area, Montepulciano and Pienza.
Built on the crest of a tuff hill between the Val di Chiana and the Val d’Orcia, in a highly evocative setting, Montepulciano is a typical Renaissance town. The lavish palaces and buildings in the historical center recall the power and wealth of the noble families who resided here in the 14th and 15th centuries; under the Medici family in the 16th century, Montepulciano was at its most splendid. Montepulciano was also the birthplace of Agnolo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, one of the major humanists and poets of the Florentine Renaissance, and a close friend of Lorenzo Il Magnifico. The best way to enjoy Montepulciano is to leisurely stroll through its cobblestone streets going up and down. The heart of town is Piazza Grande, with the Town Hall and the Duomo. There are several viewpoints from where you can admire the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
[Piazza Grande, Montepulciano.]
Next stop is Pienza, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, even before the entire Val d’Orcia was inducted in 2004. Pienza too boasts an illustrious son, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II in 1458. A Renaissance humanist born into an exiled Sienese family, Piccolomini had his native village, which originally went by the name of Corsignano, rebuilt as the "ideal Renaissance town". Intended as a retreat from Rome, it represented the first application of humanist urban planning concepts, which would be adopted by other Italian and European towns. This is evident in the lovely central square, Piazza Pio II, with its well-proportioned shape, which gives greater majesty to the buildings that surround it: the Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Piccolomini Palace and the Episcopal Palace, positioned to recall the necessary balance between secular and religious power. Take the time to wander Pienza’s charming streets, with romantic names such as Via dell’Amore (street of love) and Via del Bacio (street of kiss).
[The "ideal Renaissance town": Pienza.]
You can’t leave Pienza without tasting one of its most famous products: Pecorino di Pienza. I was lucky enough to try it at one of the best local producers in the area, Fattoria PianPorcino (the drive to get there, with views of the vineyards ablaze with the warm yellows, reds and oranges of the autumn season, would be worth the trip alone). Winner of the best Italian pecorino, Fattoria PianPorcino produces more than 30 types of the Pienza variety: fresh or aged, plain or seasoned (red pepper, black pepper, saffron, garlic, etc.), sweet or pungent. The entire transformation process takes place at the farm, from the breeding of the animals to the processing to the final sale.
The Pecorino di Pienza tasting is simply a “stomach-opener”. Lunch is at Azienda Agricola La Cignozza, a winery specializing in the production of Chianti. We enjoy lunch in the company of the entire Del Buono family, who manage and have lived on the estate for many generations. After the classic crostini, the highlight of the meal is pici with ragù di chianina, all washed down with the winery’s excellent reds.
[Sangiovese vineyards at La Cignozza, producer of delicious Chianti.]
My trip is nearing the end, but there is time for one more dip into thermal waters, this time at the Piscine Termali Theia, back in Chianciano Terme. The seven pools (4 outdoor and 3 indoor) are fed with the water from the Sillene hot spring, the same that the ancient Romans used for their anti-inflammatory and nourishing properties. As the temperature of the water is between 33 and 36 degrees, I choose to bathe in one of the outside pools, so I can admire the lush greenery around me as the sun sets. The Romans are said to have invented thermal bathing, our modern-day spas. As with many other things they came up with, they surely got it right.
Silvia visited Chianciano Terme and the Val di Chiana as a guest of Consorzio Chiancia-Sì.
Where to enjoy your spa break: Terme Sensoriali di Chianciano.
Where to enjoy the food and wine specialties of Tuscany's Val di Chiana:
Agriturismo Palazzo Bandino, Chianciano Terme (SI) - with apartments for rent and spa.
(Pecorino di Pienza) Fattoria PianPorcino, Loc. Pianporcino, Pienza (SI)
(Chianti) La Cignozza, Chianciano Terme (SI).