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The Merse River and its environs offer a perfect place to cleanse away the stress of modern life. But don't be fooled: Not everything is placid here.

We have spent a fair amount of time in Italy over the past decade but had never visited Siena. Thus, we did not realize until after committing to a two-week rental of a house located on Via Pizzicore that "Itch Street" was not in a suburb of Sienna but rather in the village of San Lorenzo a Merse, about 10 miles to the southwest of Siena.

By the time we left for Italy, we had learned some more about the town:

We would arrive there July 1, the day before the famous Siena Palio, a colorful horse-racing festival.

We learned there were thermal springs in the area; since I have rheumatoid arthritis, this was welcome information.

We also learned that the town appears on few maps and that no one in our extensive group of Italian friends had ever heard of it.

And we had not yet learned why our address was "Itch Street."

We steered our little rented Fiat Punto through the gates of Rome, expecting a 2{-hour drive north. We had been told that San Lorenzo a Merse was close to Monticiano (not to be confused with Montalcino, Montepulciano, Montepescine, Montebuccio, Montalcinello or Montecchio).

After five hours on the road, we had enjoyed our trip and the hospitality of several of the aforementioned towns, but we had not chanced on our destination. The swallows were swooping in the sky when we at last soared past San Lorenzo _ the town is home to only about 100 families and is off to one side of a wooded road. Soon we were driving up a cobblestone street through an ancient arch into an enchanting, quaint village.

The story of the apartment is a long one. We wound up in a much less desirable apartment than the one on Via Pizzicore, but we could not have itched more. The greatest culprits were the mosquitoes that breezed in hungrily and droned out sated through the picturesquely grated and shuttered _ but not screened _ windows. There were other little nippers lying in wait in the furniture.

We couldn't park at the apartment because of the narrowness of the street, but the tiny piazza and area beyond the walls proved convenient and safe. But not everything is smooth and modern in the other Tuscany, as we call this region, and its people and treasures more than compensated.

San Lorenzo a Merse lies near the western boundary of Siena province on the river Merse. There are vineyards and olive groves, but much more land produces wheat, acres of beaming sunflowers and even rice. The rich farmland also supports the flocks of shaggy sheep responsible for pecorino cheese and the beautiful white Chianina cattle that provide the famed La Fiorentina steaks of the region.

Huge expanses are thickly forested and home to the wild boar, hare and other animals that historically have constituted a large portion of the hearty Tuscan cuisine. The area close to and lying between the Merse and Farma rivers is ecologically unique and protected to large degree by the Italian government. It is home to Italy's 100 or so otters.

We became addicted to just driving through the hills and mountains for the beautiful diversity of the area. There were medium-size walled towns perched on the hilltops, like those in the chianti classico areas and Umbria. Villas stood alone in the midst of carefully tended farmland, each parcel marked by a row of Italian cypress. Small vineyards offered wines and often meals to the public. Then we would plunge into deep, cool forests. The major roads were well-paved, but many of the routes we followed, although well-maintained, were for the most part dirt or rock and excruciatingly narrow.

We have found that if you investigate an area spontaneously, you are sure to find interesting and unusual activities. For instance: Siena has market day on Wednesday mornings; Abrezzo has a huge antiques fair the first Sunday of the month; little Tuscan villages have all kinds of festivals, usually including music and dance and lots of food; farms sell wines, olive oils, cheeses, vegetables and ceramics to the public. Most of these local diversions are advertised on the bulletin boards found in town piazzas.

The Merse Valley is close to historic San Gimignano, the Cortona of Under the Tuscan Sun, sublime Asissi and the classico chianti region. It is also in the middle of Etruscan country, and a fine museum is located in Murlo, only a few miles from San Lorenzo. Boredom was never an issue for us.

We discovered the joys of the hot waters of Terme di Petrioli our second day in San Lorenzo a Merse and visited them every day thereafter. Gentile da Foligno first wrote about the healing springs in 1200. Later medieval baths were constructed, and amazingly intact ruins stand on the spot, along with pools built from the surrounding rock by the locals.

The bather has three options: One is a beautiful hotel/spa on the prow of a scenic hill overlooking the river, which pumps the waters up to its sumptuous pools and offers massages, therapies, diets and medical regimens. The second is a small spa built at stream level, which offers massages and therapies. A small inn of 14 rooms and a tiny restaurant nearby welcome those who want to sleep over. But the third option was the one we loved.

Every day we would drive the five miles to a section of the river hidden deep in the forest. We would pull off the road and walk a few feet to the river banks. The river itself is shallow and a beautiful creamy blue.

The "public baths" consist of shallow tubs scoured out of rock and in some places built up by hand with smaller rocks. Channels smoothed out by the 110-degree water connect all the tubs and their flows, and temperatures can be diverted by simply damming up canals with rocks. Each is a different depth, temperature and shape. My husband's favorite was shaped like a bathtub in which he could stretch out with head resting on a curved rock. The river itself is great for wading or swimming in as a cool refresher after the baths.

All of this paradise is absolutely free. My arthritis improved dramatically, but I make no medical claims other than to assert that the waters pamper overwrought minds and bodies as well as heal, with incredible speed, the itchy bites of insects.

We had heard that close by, near the town of Chiusdino, was Tuscany's most beautiful gothic abbey, the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano. We visited there expecting to find a functioning church. What we discovered was the ghost of a building that still breathed a kind of holiness from its roofless top and its unpaned windows.

The abbey was constructed between 1218 and 1288. In his later years, the knight Galgano (1148-1181) retired as a hermit to this spot, and with religious fervor, plunged his sword into a rock. After his death, a small round church was erected on the spot, constructed of concentric bands of red brick and white travertine. Even the small round domed top is striped. Set in the floor of the church and covered by glass is a rock in which is embedded an ancient sword.

There is an intimacy to this small, simple church. It is set on rolling hills of wildflowers and grasses, and it inspires a feeling of spirituality, a deep sense of holiness that is sometimes missed in some of the opulent Roman churches. Thorny problems seem suddenly clear and uncomplicated.

Cistercian monks from France constructed the church here, impressed by the availability of fresh water from the Merse, plentiful wood and game from the thick forests and rich farmland. But the monks ultimately moved to the protection of Siena, the lead roof was sold, and the abbey gradually fell into the condition in which it is found today.

Its massive walls stretch to the open heavens, and its beautiful gothic windows appear to reach into the clouds. The glass is all gone, but the delicate stone tracery is largely intact.

Excitement at the Palio

Our first day in San Lorenzo _ which was also the July 2 Palio _ found the locals either heading out for the excitement of Siena or glued to TVs in their homes to watch the festival. We opted for the city and experienced one of our most enjoyable days in Italy.

The Palio is a horse race that is run twice a year around Siena's huge central piazza. But to call it a horse race is akin to calling Christmas a birthday party. Its traditions and rituals are rooted deep in Sienese society and the contrade, or tight-knit communities, dating to the late 12th century.

The city's 17 contrade are districts of the city where each community flies its distinctive banner, gathers around its own fountain in the evening, worships in its own church. Each contrada is run democratically by volunteers, and its children are schooled in its history and pride. The banners sport different colors, designs and symbols or mascots (Goose, Eagle, She Wolf, Giraffe, Dragon, etc). A contrada bears some resemblance to an American high school with its history, traditions, colors, mascots and rivalries.

The greatest glory a contrada can win is to be victor in the Palio.

Palio rules are precise and ritualistic. The procedures for selecting competitors, choosing and assigning horses, flying the banners, setting the track and starting rules are all very old and well understood by any Tuscan. However, the race itself is a free-for-all. Jockeys clad in their contrada colors ride bareback, armed with bull phallus crops that may be used on their horse or on other horses and jockeys.

The winner triumphantly carries off the coveted Palio, or specially painted standard, amidst the wild rejoicing of the contrada. The banner of the winner is hung from the Palazzo Pubblico, and the partying begins.

To fully appreciate the race, one should become familiar with the rules and purchase tickets ahead of time. We had done neither, but the day embraces much pageantry beyond the race itself. We arrived in the city early and had no trouble parking at the Medici fortress. It cost $10 for the day, but the efficiency and convenience were well worth it. We walked easily to the piazza, where the building excitement was almost palpable.

The last bleachers were being set up, and huge contrada banners hung outside the palazzo were snapping smartly in the brisk breeze. The lower row of 10 banners represented the contrade that would run; the upper row displayed the seven that will automatically run next July.

We wandered the streets until noon sampling sweets. Ceramic items and banners sporting contrada symbols were being sold to tourists. It seemed as though everything was for sale except the bleacher tickets, which had been long sold out.

(We were warmly invited to observe the race from the center of the piazza with 40,000 other spectators, but we had been warned that this is a less-than-ideal arrangement. Having entered the piazza at race time, one is obliged to remain until the race is completed. This can be a matter of hours standing in the hot sun without water, breathing room or even a view.)

We stopped for cool drinks of water at public fountains, where costumed people and horses were beginning to gather. After a lunch of pizza, we wandered the quaint streets. Everywhere excitement and energy were building.

At the sound of approaching drums, we positioned ourselves next to a huge stone bench and watched in delight as contrada after contrada approached, performed and marched on.

First appeared two pages, each bearing a huge banner on a pole. Following them were drummers and others in medieval costume. Behind them, led by a squire, was a beautifully caparisoned horse with a knight astride.

When the pages were positioned before the massive doors of the palazzo, the procession halted. The drummers began beating furiously, and the pages began twirling and flourishing their banners in a synchronized display. As the drumming increased, the banners were furled, thrown into the air to a height of some 30 feet and adroitly retrieved. It was a magnificent display, with prizes are awarded for comportment and drumming ability.

At the end of the parade came an oxen-drawn cart bearing the Palio. The parade entered the piazza where eager crowds were taking their places.

We turned the other way. We stopped at a store for a bottle of spumante to celebrate our own Palio back at the TV in San Lorenzo, which we reached long before the race began: The parade was still winding around the track, and the unlucky folks in the center were sweltering in the sun. When the race did begin, we had the best view in the house. And lest anyone miss the fun, the television station ran and reran the race non-stop for 48 hours.

RuthAnn K. Harper is a freelance writer who lives in Bakersfield, Calif.