International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
This is the landscape familiar from a thousand Renaissance paintings, the landscape we see when we dream of Tuscany, as if precisely ordered for the maximum aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps that's why it seems a bit weird: its openness, its perfection. The sensation is of being in a picture while looking at it. The particular nature of the countryside makes it ideal for walkers (there's a fine walk signposted from the road at San Martino in Grania) and cyclists.
Thirteen miles from Siena along the S438 is Asciano, a lovely town on the River Ombrone, with a splendid 19thcentury pharmacy and the Romanesque collegiate church of Sant'Agata. In June, Asciano holds the Sagra della Ranocchia, a festival that celebrates the frog as a gastronomic delicacy.
As Le Crete and now the S451 move a further 11 miles south towards the town of Buonconvento, which is tucked in behind massive 12th-century walls, the landscape begins to become more conventional. Dense woods take over from the beguiling hills, and olive groves replace the fields. It may be less striking than the barren landscape of Le Crete proper, but the beauty is no less.
For information on sightseeing, events and accommodation in Le Crete, visit cretesenesi.com (some parts in Italian).
Where to eat
La Brace in Asciano serves simple lunches from hand-written menus (from around £16; 00 39 0577 718056; Via Mameli 9, Asciano; Wed-Sun).
Where to stay
Located in Montepulciano, an attractive hill town south of Asciano, Agriturismo Ardene, a working farm, is the perfect base for exploring Le Crete and beyond. The elegant rooms have antique furniture, while fruit and jams served at breakfast are home grown (from £110; 00 39 0578 758648; agriturismoardene.it; Via di Valardegna 7, 53045 Montepulciano).
Montalcino: Best for wine
'To get the best quality wine, you have to start with the highest quality grapes, and that means the healthiest vines. And that means working with nature, not against it.' Francesca Padovani is an intense young woman when discussing her wines, but she breaks into a ready smile that illuminates the gloom of the cellar at Fonterenza like a shaft of Tuscan sunlight.
Francesca and her twin sister, Margherita, make Brunello di Montalcino. In the world of Italian red wine, Brunello di Montalcino has a certain cachet. More than a certain cachet. It is one of the most sought-after and expensive wines produced in Tuscany. And among producers of Brunello di Montalcino, Francesca and Margherita are remarkable, not only because they are young women in an industry dominated by older men, not only because 'we knew nothing about making wine when we started 10 years ago,' but also because they are producing all their wine from biodynamically (a kind of super-organic standard) managed vines. And that goes for their olive oil, too.
Their winery, Campi di Fonterenza, lies at the end of a dusty track that winds its way through thick woods below one side of Montalcino, a pretty hilltop village. Montalcino is all about wine. Neatly regimented lines of vines roll up to the very base of the houses. You can see where the wines are made in the cantinas in the surrounding countryside. You can drink it at any number of bars such as Campi di Fonterenza, Fiaschetteria and Fortezza in the narrow streets. And you can buy it at enotecas such as Pierangioli, Bruno Dalmazio and Di Piazza.
Brunello, itself, is a locally-specific clone of that classic Tuscan grape, Sangiovese. Its production methods are exacting - no Brunello will reach the market less than four years old, although there is the lighter and fruitier Rosso di Montalcino for more youthful, less expensive drinking.
A good many of the cantine - wineries - including Fonterenza, have tasting programmes. And should the spirit need refreshing after exploring the delights of the wines, the monks at the exquisite Romanesque Abbey of Sant'Antimo, just outside Sant'Angelo in Colle, a few miles down the road from Montalcino, sing the hours of service in Gregorian chant.
The tourist office, on Costa del Municipo 1, Montalcino, has maps, lists of vineyards and will help book hotels (prolocomontalcino.it, in Italian).