The Orcia Valley
Discover this wonderful area of Tuscany in a Journey that will take you back in time.
When you think of Tuscany, what do you imagine? Do you see hill-top villages, rolling hills and valleys, dramatic skylines, punctuated by rows of Cypress trees? This image is the epitome of Tuscany … picture-perfect Tuscany … and this is what you will find in the Val D’Orcia, South-West of Siena. Many visitors to Tuscany base themselves further North and miss out on what has become firmly established as the iconic landscape of Tuscany. Even if you are based in or around Florence, it is still easy to visit Val D’Orcia on a day-trip, but better yet, try and make the Siena area your base for a few days so that you can properly immerse yourself in the Orcia valley, where life is a little slower, people are a little friendlier and the food is just amazing.
It is important to have your own transport here. Public transport is very scarce, especially during Summer when even the school buses do not run, and the closest railway station is far from the scenic areas. Driving here is a pleasure – not much traffic, plenty of places to stop and take photos of the breath-taking scenery (Several movies have been made here in the valley; The English Patient and Under the Tuscan Sun, to name just a couple) and of course the freedom to visit the enchanting villages along the way or pop into a local trattoria for lunch. If you are choosing a base in the area, San Quirico d’Orcia, right in the middle, would be perfect, and you could travel in a different direction each day to gain a real feel for the place. However, if you can only spare one day to visit the Valley, I would like to recommend the following as a possible itinerary.
I would commence my exploration in Pienza; (you can reach this delightful town in about 2 hours from Florence, so make an early start). Pienza, which has a strategic position on top of a hill, was extensively re-designed by Pope Pius II into what was meant to be a “perfect” city which would cater to the needs of all its inhabitants. The result is an extremely pleasing lay-out where the buildings complement one another perfectly. There is plenty to see here; the Duomo, or Cathedral, the octagonal bell tower, and do not miss the view from the hanging gardens of the Palazzo Piccolomini – here you can look across the Val D’Orcia valley, from Montalcino to the imposing Mount Amiata in the distance. The town is charming to walk through with shops selling all the local specialities. Be sure to taste the special Sheep Pecorino produced here; it is unique. If you time your visit carefully to coincide with the Fiero del Cacio (festival of local produce) in September, you will be able to taste all the delicacies for free! Pienza would also be a great place for lunch, but there is still so much to see.
From Pienza, drive West towards San Quirico; make sure to visit the icon of the region, the Chapel of Vitaleta en-route. San Quirico used to be a very strategic town in Roman times as it was on the pilgrimage route, the Via Francigena, which connected Northern Europe to Rome. There is plenty to see here, including the Church of San Francesco, where you can see the famous Madonna by della Robbia, which was originally in the Vitaleta Chapel. San Quirico also has some amazing gardens to explore including the Horti Leonini, a great example of a geometrical Italian renaissance landscape; there is also a rose garden in the town.
From San Quirico you should proceed West to Montalcino, another of Tuscany’s fairy-tale hill top fortified villages, now famous for its’ prestigious Brunello wine. The town is virtually still as it was hundreds of years ago, and from here you once again get to view the incredible spectacle of the Orcia Valley – vineyards, olive groves, sunny hillsides and lonely, isolated cypress trees along the hill tops. There is plenty to see in the little town and it should not be missed. When you are leaving the town, follow the road signs to the nearby Abbey of Sant’ Antimo, a beautiful abbey dating back to the 12th century.
If you still have a little time, try and visit Castiglione d’Orcia, a very ancient town with still more commanding views of the valley.
I can guarantee you will not want to leave this magical part of Tuscany; maybe next time, you will stay for a few days and enjoy some of the other things the valley has to offer such as Golf, Thermal Baths, Spas and, of course, more wonderful food and wine. It is also a great place for a cycling holiday, as the villages are quite close to each other, and also an absolute paradise for the serious photographer.