Our guide to the Val di Chiana
The valley of the Chiana river stretches wide, extending from the Tuscan provinces of Arezzo and Siena to the Umbrian provinces of Perugia and Terni and taking in over 22 municipalities. Historically, much of it was a vast and marshy floodplain and it is not surprising that most of its beautiful cities sit high on the bordering hills and have magnificent views of the valley floor.
Historic drainage and land reclamation over the centuries successfully turned marshes into the wide fertile valley floor seen today where large farmhouses testify to thriving agricultural enterprises. Not surprisingly, the valley offers excellent grazing to the white cattle that bear its name – the Chianina, famed for its thick ‘Fiorentina’ steaks.
But there is more to the Val di Chiana than its flatlands; the gently rolling clay hills towards Siena, known as the Crete, are laced with white ‘biancane’ domes or jagged ‘calanchi’ gullies that add drama to the landscape and make it almost lunar in the moonlight.
Its Lakes of Chiusi and Montepulicano are a haven for water fowl and a mecca for families that bike or hike the lake shores.
And just as important is the water underground, for this area is famous for the thermal springs that have fed its natural pools and elegant spas for centuries.
Most of the towns that populate the valley slopes are the perfect size and distance for a day’s excursion and offer great variety. The Etruscan Age comes alive in the archeological museums of Chiusi and Sarteano, the Middle Ages are read in Lucignano’s elliptical city streets, and the Renaissance makes its stately presence known in the wide piazzas of Montepulciano and Cetona.
But the Valley’s charm is not only in its history – even small villages off the beaten path exude a relaxed hospitality that invites one to linger at a discovered restaurant or join in a home-grown festival. The Val di Chiana celebrates its well-being and is happy to share.
The Etruscans extensively settled the Val di Chiana but with deforestation and silt accumulation in the low river and stream run-off, the valley slowly became a marshy area rife with malarial infestation. Though begun by the Romans, significant drainage began during the 14th C. and in the 16th C. Leonardo di Vinci drew maps to help engineers’ work on land reclamation. Work on the man-made channel Canale Maestro, dug to reverse the direction of water flow, was completed in 1840. With the canalization of tributary streams, the valley became the fertile area with a thriving population seen today.
The hill towns surrounding the valley floor, however, were historically important. Chianciano Terme was the favorite hot springs of emperor Augustus, Montepulciano was Lorenzo the Magnificent‘s preferred spot to get away from city life, and Marciano della Chiana, near Arezzo, marked the defeat of the Republic of Siena to the Duchy of Florence in the famed Battle of Scannagallo in 1554.
Events in the Val di Chiana
Torrita Blues Festival in Torrita di Siena – 20-22 June
Going strong for 30 years, this Blues Festival held in Torrita’s Piazza Matteotti, is Italy’s capital of the Blues.
Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano – 15 August
The highlight of Arezzo’s folkloric festivals fills its Piazza Grande with costumed citizens and jousting knights in a medieval game of chivalry.
Tria Turris in Chiusi – 23-25 June
The name of this medieval festival refers to the city’s 3 districts who challenge each other in various competitions for the keys to the city.
Maggiolata in Lucignano – last 2 Sunday in May
For the past 80 years this joyous festival celebrates Spring with music, dance and floral floats representing competing town districts.
Festival dell’Olio Novo in Trequanda – 22 October
One of the first festivals that celebrates the autumn’s ‘new oil’, many gather to taste the golden green oil drizzled over toasted slices.
Bruscello Poliziano in Montepulciano – mid-August
This traditional Tuscan theatrical event, produced for over 90 years, features scenes of everyday life enacted by home-grown players.
Palio dei Somari in Torrita di Siena – On the Sunday after 19 March
Jockeys in eight districts in Torrita di Siena mount donkeys in this historic, but unpredictable, race celebrating St. Joseph.
Bravio delle Botti in Montepulciano – last Sunday in August
This uphill barrel race between the city’s 8 historic districts brings out the flags, muscles and pride of the local citizenry.
Sagra di Collo d’Ocio in Marciano della Chiana – in September
This festival which coincides with autumn threshing serves the traditional stuffed goose neck so prized by hungry valley farmers.
Palio dei Rioni in Castiglion Fiorentino – 3rd Sunday in June
This summer festival features a horse race run in Piazza Garibaldi, yet much of the fun is in the lead-up to the main event.
Sagra della Porchetta in Monte San Savino – 1st two weekends Sept.
This gastronomy festival features the most traditional of Tuscan dishes – Porchetta, a whole stuffed pork roasted on a spit over a wood fire.
Cortona Mix Festival in Cortona – 17-21 July 2019
This festival mixes music, cinema, theater, arts and literature, adds the best of regional wine and food and enlivens this ancient Etruscan town.
Things to do in the Val di Chiana
Walk the Vin Santo Trail from Torrita di Siena to Montefollonico, either joining a tour or following the medieval path on your own.
Explore the ‘Labyrinth of Porsenna’ beneath Chiusi. In what is actually the ancient Etruscan aqueduct, you may not find the king, but the adventure is guaranteed.
Go bird-watching near the the ancient lakes of Chiusi and Montepulciano, where herons and over 150 species come to nest, winter or savor the quiet.
Taste the ‘noble’ wines of Montepulciano – The grapes producing the illustrious Vino Nobile come from the fertile land below the charming city.
Slip into the Bronze Age in Cetona’s Archeodrome – here children & adults learn about the ancient past in this reconstruction of a Bronze Age village.
Towns & Sites
San Casciano dei Bagni
Famed for its thermal springs and encircled in lush forests and rolling green countryside, San Casciano dei Bagni has tended to foreign travelers since the 1400s. A charming town centre and a relaxed tenor of life add to the cure.
Taking its name from the slopes of the mountain on which it stands, Cetona offers visitors the gracious Piazza Garibaldi and fine restaurants as well as the Belverde Archeological Park and an ‘Archeodrome’ that makes history fascinating for all ages.
Sitting in the hills between the Val di Chiana and Val d’Orcia with views of two mountains and three area lakes, Chianciano Terme is known as the ‘town of well-being’. With several spas to provide healing thermal waters, this is where come for rejuvenation.
At the edge of the Val di Chiana and on a plateau in the breath-taking Val d’Orcia, Sarteano has been inhabited since pre-historic times. Its past can be seen in a fine archeological museum and its ‘orange flag’ status for welcoming tourism makes visiting a pleasure
One of the most important cities of the Etruscan empire, Chiusi invites modern visitors to enjoy exploring its labyrinthine underground city, an excellent Etruscan museum and the costumed Triaturris Junefestival of costumed tournaments and banquets.
Though its crenellated walls and an imposing defensive tower still stand, Trequanda is now a charming village characteristic of the Sienese countryside. Check out the fascinating ‘Molino a Vento Tower’ dovecote and, in nearby Petroio, a fine Terracotta Museum.
Civitella in Val di Chiana
Now a picturesque walled town perched in the pre-Apennine hills, Civitella in Val di Chiana has seen both triumph and tragedy. The church nurtured its prosperity, WWII brought deadly reprisal. Happily, peacefulness and good restaurants have the final say.
Just outside the confines of the Val d’Orcia, Montepulciano stretches along the hilltop overlooking the lovely Madonna di San Biagio church. Famous for its stately Renaissance palaces, Piazza Grande and well-respected Vino Nobile red wine.
foiano della Chiana
Foiano della Chiana is home to Italy’s oldest Carnival (since 1539), and while the celebration takes place in February, their famous floats are being built throughout the year. It is also home to works by many Renaissance artists, such as Andrea della Robbia.
Lucignano‘s elliptical rings leave no doubt as to its medieval origins. For at a time when its strategic position between Siena and Arezzo was critical and fought over, being able to see invaders from the any direction atop a hill was a decided advantage.
Food and Wine
Once the Valley floor was reclaimed, the fertile plains meant the Valdichiana from late 18th C. was called the ‘Granary of Italy’ – be sure to try Bico, the yeasty flat bread, often stuffed, typical of Piazze and in Cetona at the end of June/early July and Ciaccia dei Santi, a raisin and nut-studded bread related to All Saints Day, the 1st of November.
A favorite pasta dish is Pici agll’aglione, thick hand-rolled spaghetti featuring the giant garlic grown on historic farms in the Val di Chiana. Celle sul Rigo, near San Casciano dei Bagni received the Italian Touring Club’s award for the best Pici. Both garlic and bread finish in another local favorite – Ribollita, a delicious stew of black cabbage, chard, celery, tomato, cannellini beans, garlic & bread.
Wide pastures and shining lakes mean diners have both fish, fowl and meat to choose from. The succulent Chianina beef, served in as steaks, tartare or roasts, is the signature meat of the area, but the Sienese Cinta pork or Marchiano della Chiana stuffed goose neck is also celebrated. The most typical dish of Lakes Montepulciano and Chiusi is Brustico, fish fillets braised on the laurels or reeds of the lakes, seasoned with oil, salt and herbs. Casteglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno has a special Sagra festival dedicated to it in mid-July. For the vegetarian there is the delicious Pecorino cheese, its flavour determined by aging and various added ingredients such as peppercorns, chillies or truffles.
And for the sweet tooth, never turn down a Crostata, a lattice-topped tart featuring Scosciamonaca, a special plum from the Val di Chiana with violet skin and yellow pulp that produces a delicious jam. At the Monte San Savino sagra in early July try Gnocco Dolce, the sweet fried gnocchi filled with sweet cream and dusted with sugar.
Wines: To accompany these dishes any wine-lover will have to try Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, the Sangiovese-based (at least 70%) or the Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, both red wines, matured in oak barrels. The Strada del Vino Nobile gives details on where you will find them. At the end of the meal, a small glass of Vin santo is practically a must, and Montefollonico, near Torrita di Siena, is known as ‘The Village of Vin Santo”.
MONDAYS – Foiano della Chiana, Chiusi Scalo
TUESDAYS – Chiusi Centre, Sinalunga
WEDNESDAYS – Chianciano Terme, Monte San Savino, Badia al Pino-Civitella, Castiglione del Lago
THURSDAYS – Cetona, San Casciano dei Bagni (1° & 3° ), Montepulciano
FRIDAYS – Sarteano, Castiglion Fiorentino, Tuoro sul Trasimeno
SATURDAYS – Torrita di Siena, Cetona, Bettolle, Sinalunga, Città della Pieve, Cortona, Marciano della Chiana
- La Tavernetta – Lucignano, Tel: +39 0575 836568
- Le Logge del Vignola – Montepulciano, Tel: +39 0578 717290
- Osteria Ciriera – Trequanda, Tel:+39 0577 662054 (Vegan)
- Osteria del Merlo– Cetona, Tel: +39 0578 238299
- Locanda Antico Borgo– Civitella Val di Chiana, Tel: +39 0575 448051
- La Locanda dei Tintori– Sarteano, Tel: +39 0578 267096
- La Grotta– Cortona, Tel:+39 0575 630271
- I Capricci di Merlon ‘Antica Residenza’– Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Tel: +39 075 825002
- Ristorante Castello di Fighine– San Casciano dei Bagni, Tel: +39 0578 56158 (Michelin *)
- La Solita Zuppa– Chiusi, Tel: +39 0578 21006
- L’Osteria dell’Angolo– Chianciano Terme, Tel: +39 0578 321657
- Da Muzzicone– Castiglion Fiorentino, Tel: +39 0575 658403
- Mengrello– Foiano della Chiana, Tel: +39 0575 640581
- La Pigra Tinca– Castiglione del Lago, Tel: +39 075 3730036