Last Thursday I drove south to Buonconvento, about 45 minutes from Castello di Casole. I had driven by Buonconvento several times and I had always looked curiously at that imposing stone wall wondering what lies behind it. But I was always rushing to get somewhere else and, quite frankly, it seemed a bit ho-hum compared with all of the intriguing castles, abbeys and churches dotting the hills of the beautiful valley south of Siena called the Val d’Orcia. This time, however, I was on my way to meet a friend of a friend I had connected with via email a few days earlier.
So when Anna Lisa Tempestini led me to the wall, through the gate and down a few lanes, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an adorable little village buzzing with activity. We stopped for an espresso and poked our heads into a few nice clothing and leather shops and everywhere we went the townspeople greeted Anna Lisa warmly. She pointed out her favorite restaurant, Osteria di Mario, and we agreed that during a future visit we would enjoy a long, leisurely lunch on the patio.
Anna Lisa and her husband and children live in an old monastery complete with its own centuries-old chapel and a breathtaking view of Montalcino. She has her own little vineyard where she grows mainly Sangiovese grapes for her boutique wine called Martin del Nero, producing only about 4,000 bottles of each year. Anna Lisa has built a business around the things she loves most- wine, food, and introducing people to the treasures of the Val d’Orcia. The joy she finds in her work comes through in her blog, http://www.fattoriaresta.blogspot.com/ which she keeps for clients and friends.
She and her husband have a deep appreciation for the origins and history of their home. In the cellar there is an inscription that was chiseled by the builder, Martin del Nero, in 1573 in which he asks god to bless the part of the cellar where the wine is stored and expresses his hope that he has done a good job building the monastery. They chose to honor this humble man with a fondness for wine who created their beautiful home by naming Anna Lisa’s wine after him.
Anna Lisa also has a passion for cooking and picks organic vegetables from a neighbor’s garden whenever she wants so lunch was quite a treat. We started with a light chicken salad and layers of eggplant and tomatoes that had been slowly cooking on the stovetop, followed by homemade ricotta cheese with a delicious wholegrain bread we dipped in olive oil pressed from olives grown on her land. We shared stories over lunch and a few glasses of a light and fruity Laura Aschero Vermentino from the Ligurian coast. Then we made a brief stop at the Altesino winery where Anna Lisa's latest release of Martin del Nero is finishing it fermentation in a big stainless steel tank and paused for a photo on their lovely grounds.
After lunch, I retraced our steps back to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The trip was worth it for the drive alone which winds around vineyard-speckled, tree-topped hills that seem to bubble right out of the land. The stunning Benedictine abbey perched atop a cliff was founded in 1319 by three Senese noblemen who apparently decided to give up their wealth in favor of living according to the rule of St. Benedict. It was built from 1393 to 1526 and you enter the grounds over a drawbridge. The gothic church is wondrous but the highlight is the series of 36 beautifully preserved frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma depicting the life of St. Benedict that decorate the four walls of the main cloisters. The abbey still produces honey and distilled herbal spirits made according to ancient recipes that are sold in a little shop. Monks live on the premises and they hold masses with Gregorian chanting daily. The best view of the abbey is from the town of Chiusura where there is also a great restaurant Anna Lisa recommended called Il Pozzo di Chiusura.I think a perfect daytrip from Castello di Casole would start with a visit to Buonconvento in the late morning while the museum and shops are open, followed by a leisurely lunch at Osteria di Mario. Then a drive through the countryside, maybe stopping in medieval San Quirico d’Orcia and Bagno Vignoni and with its 11th-century castle famous for its thermal springs frequented by Romans, ending up at the Abbey at around 4pm or 5pm. If you really want the full experience, evening mass and chanting starts at 6:15pm.