Val d’Orcia is the region surrounding Siena and its name derives from the river Orcia, which crosses through it. The region is characterized by picture-postcard landscapes and numerous charming villages, some of which are truly worthy of a stop. It is no coincidence that the whole valley has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site since it is an outstanding example of how the natural landscape was redesigned by man in the Renaissance era to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an image that is both aesthetically and ecologically pleasing. The landscape of the Val d’Orcia was, in fact, celebrated by the painters of the Sienese art school, and the way in which those artists represented the harmony of man with the nature of the area transformed the Val d’Orcia into an icon of the Renaissance and their techniques deeply influenced Italian art in the following years.
In Val d’Orcia you will have the opportunity to enjoy extraordinary views composed of rolling hills from which elegant and towering cypress trees stand out, planted to mark a certain place or to mark the roads that wave through the hill tops. The farms scattered here and there are tangible memories of the lifestyle that, until just over 50 years ago, characterized this area of Italy and of which the memory of our grandparents is still very much alive. I refer specifically to sharecropping, a term that has Latin roots and means “one who divides in half”. This word once defined an agrarian contract between the landowner and a farmer, who shared the products of the farm. The management of the company belonged to the owner, while the tenants cultivated the land.
Among the many villages that are located in Val d’Orcia, Pienza is the most famous and cannot be missed. This small town perfectly represents the ideal Renaissance city model as it was commissioned by the Sienese Pope Pius II following principles of rationality and harmony. The town of Pienza, which takes its name from the same Pius II, was built in about four years on the ruins of the village of Corsignano, where the Pope was born and where his family had been exiled from the Republic of Siena. Little remains of the old village since the architect Bernardino Rossellino completely redesigned the spaces following Renaissance rules and principles.
Walking through the streets of the village, you will be captivated by the charm of the old shops and the inebriating smell of the local sheep’s cheese, known as Pecorino di Pienza, which is on sale at every corner. The main square is the theater for numerous cinematic settings and is home to the main palaces of the town: the Duomo, the Piccolomini Palace and the Palazzo Pubblico. I recommend a visit to the Duomo to enjoy the beauty of the architecture and the 15th-century paintings still preserved inside. The Palazzo Piccolomini, which is the Pope’s summer residence, is wonderful too and still furnished in a Renaissance style and accompanied by a hanging garden overlooking the valley. Overlooking the main square, for art lovers there is also Palazzo Borgia, which now houses the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, where you’ll find priceless treasures of Medieval and Renaissance art.
After a walk along the main street, Corso Rossellino, and after exploring the characteristic side alleys overlooking the surrounding valley, you can continue your journey through the Val d’Orcia, but not before tasting a slice of Pecorino di Pienza, accompanied by a good glass of Tuscan red wine of course!
Leaving Pienza, you can travel a short distance by car to reach the village of Monticchiello. Built on top of a hill about 500 meters above sea level, it still retains its Medieval charm. Wandering through the narrow, intricate and steep streets, you can reach the Medieval church of Saints Leonardo and Cristoforo and the remains of the ancient fortress from which you can enjoy a different perspective of the Val d’Orcia. The village is small; it takes less than an hour to visit and the population is only a few hundred. But don’t be deceived – it is still very lively from a cultural and social point of view! Indeed, the locals, from the oldest to the youngest, have been organizing an annual theatrical show here since 1967 that deals with the social themes throughout history. This show, which takes the name of Teatro Povero, is staged almost every evening from mid-July to mid-August in the town square, attracting a large number of spectators (see http://teatropovero.it/ to find out more).
After leaving Monticchiello and taking the main road towards Siena, you can find an extraordinary and unique place in the Tuscan countryside. I refer to Bagno Vignoni, known since Roman times for its thermal waters and still a popular destination thanks to the reported healing qualities of the springs. It is also known for its charming main square, which is occupied by a huge thermal bath that is naturally heated to 52°C. Imagine the suggestive effect of the vapor that evaporates on the surface, especially in the cold winter evenings!
If you still have time available, stop in Montalcino, home of the fine Brunello wine. I will soon dedicate an article to Montalcino, because, given its importance, it deserves independent and in-depth attention.
I cannot recommend a particular season to come and visit the Val d’Orcia because every season of the year gives the landscape unique and seductive colors and nuances, and it is certainly not by chance that these places always attract artists, photographers and directors from across the globe at all times of the year.
If you would like to visit the Val d’Orcia on a custom Italian tour, contact us to find out more about our luxury Tuscany vacations. Call on 347-594-5500 or click here to send an online enquiry for a personalized quote.
By Benedetta Landi, Bellarome Tour Director (Siena and the surrounding area)