Extending from the hills south of Siena to Monte Amiata, the Val d’Orcia, or valley of the Orcia River, is one of the most picturesque regions of Tuscany. Its gentle cultivated hills marked by deep gullies and ribbons of cypresses make it the subject of many a photographer pulled off by the side of the road. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004, its ancient landscape is pictured in Lorenzetti’s 14th C. “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” and in subsequent Renaissance paintings. Not surprisingly, the film industry has found it an evocative backdrop for films such as The English Patient, Gladiator, Fellini’s 8 ½,and MidsummerNight’s Dream.
The valley is not densely populated; its small towns and villages are perched high above wide swathes of wheat fields and vineyards. Within the region are Pienza, a Pope’s ‘ideal town’, and Montalcino, whose Brunello wine is one of Italy’s most prestigious. Yet be prepared for places you have never heard of to take your breath away.
The view of the Val d'Orcia from Pienza takes in the emerald fields in Spring and the rise of Monte Amiata.
In 1155 the German Federico Barbarossa arrived in San Quirico d’Orcia to finalize discussions with the Pope’s emissaries to become become Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In Castiglione d’Orcia the mid-13th C. saw the rise of two citadels, the Rocca degli Aldobrandeschi and the nearby Rocca di Tentennano, which speak to the frequent battles which swept the valley and the need for defensive lookouts. In the 13th C. Radicofani was the headquarters of Italy’s Robin Hood, Ghino di Tacco, the gentleman thief who always left his victims enough to live on. In the mid-15th C. Pope Pius II’s architect Rossellini transformed the sleepy village of Corsignano into the ‘Ideal Renaissance town’ now known as Pienza. In 1555 Montalcino became the Siena Republic’s last refuge as hundreds of noble families took shelter, resisting for four years the dominion of the Florentine Medicis.
When modern warfare invaded the valley centuries later Iris Origo’s first-hand memoir ‘War in Val d’Orcia‘ is a fascinating account of how the populous dealt with the events of World War II.
Held within the ancient fortress at the top of the town and conveniently near the enoteca, jazz rules on summer nights. International stars bring horns, guitars or a swinging voice and perform solo, in trios or with a full orchestra. Seven nights of music begin at 9:45 p.m. and while for a couple of nights the venue shifts from the Fortezza to the Castello Banfi winery, concert-goers know they will sample both good music and fine wine. The 2019 programme.
This costumed archery competition between the town’s 4 districts coincides with a celebration of the Song Thrush. Likely the most important event of the year for Montalcino residents, this festival has been held for over 60 years and evokes the medieval banquets held following the meeting of archers and migrating birds. Song birds are no longer on the menu, but the Maremma's traditional dishes and the town's famous wines are always appreciated.
The marriage of art and natures preside when contemporary sculpture appears in the 16th C. Horti Leonini garden. Started by Italian artists in 1971, these annual 'Shapes in the Green' exhibitions now feature sculptors from around the world. The Italian garden, designed by Diomede Leoni and based on Michelangelo's drawings, brings together static and organic art forms and are a relaxing place to stroll in a museum al fresco.
Within the autumn Chestnut and Mushroom Festival on Monte Amiata the Woodcutter's Palio is no doubt the highlight. This competition consists of teams of six sawing one log (60 cm dia.) into six parts to make six chairs, and another trunk (25cm dia.) to make six bowls to contain polenta. The competition ends when all six competitors from a district are seated at a table with their bowls full of polenta. The prize: the Palio, a banner painted by a local artist.
Pienza’s 6 districts vie for who is best at rolling its cheese closest to the target. As Pienza is Tuscany's centre of pecorino-production there are plenty of cheeses at hand and a 'seasoned' pecorino is firm and smooth and makes for excellent rolling. Each team participant has three rolls to do their best to reach the target. Happily, once the winner is declared, all ends with a dance in the main piazza of town centre.
In the charming village theatre opera is the order of the day, for 10 days of concerts and master classes. Italy has long had a strong relationship with Opera and many works of its native composers still fill concert halls and theatres world wide. In the delightful Teatre dell Grancia international artists bring their arias to festival concert-goers and the streets of the medieval village soar with music. View the 2019 Programme and return once the 2020 is soon published.
Re-enactment of trade, culinary & community traditions feature harvesting, cheese making, bow building and much more. For two days the village harkens back to the medieval days of native son Ghino di Tacco, Tuscany's Robin Hood, and villagers pay tribute to how daily life used to be. They thresh grain with traditional machinery, wash clothes with ash, tan leather and share their crafts with visitors. A fascinating look to the past, happily with traditional menus to keep all fed and happy.
Storytellers and musicians wander town & country to bring luck in the coming year. For their efforts they receive food and wine. Maggiaioli are those who celebrate May in story and song, often with spontaneous verses dedicated to the leaders of the community, housewives or newlyweds. Accompanied by traveling musicians with accordian, fiddle, guitar or flute, they are thanked in the age-old manner with trays of bread, meats and cheeses and glasses of local wine. Those who come to listen and applaud are also invited, so not a bad idea to follow this wandering band of minstrels.
For decades local actors and villagers have produced theatre reflecting the history and present conditions of their town. The theatre was born in the 1960s out of a project attempting to deal with the upheavel Tuscan villages experienced as they shifted from the mezzadria sharecropping system to an industrial culture that often reduced village population by half. So popular were the plays, annually written and performed by villagers, that audience still come to the open-air theatre in the village square to reconsider what has been lost to the advances of the modern age.
Medieval transformation of the town as 4 districts race to Piazza San Pietro with containers once used to carry eggs.
Music and street plays commemorate the day Duke Frederick Hohenstaufen, Barbarossa, arrived and changed San Quirico.
Prized white truffles are displayed and bargained over and visitor learn about this tuber in the town’s Truffle Museum.
Ride a vintage steam train through the clay hills around Siena and the outer Val d’Orcia. Traveling slowly on the Treno Natura thru this landscape is the best way to go.
Taste the Val d’Orcia’s premium wines. Montalcino’s Brunello and Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile are not inexpensive, but a sip or two will tell you if their fame is justified.
Sample pecorino at a cheese factory near Pienza. Not only will you learn something, but product sampling on site is practically a meal.
Go truffle hunting at the edge of the Crete Senesi. Tours with guides and their dogs are normally followed by tastings or a light lunch.
Enjoy concerts in evocative places. The Incontri in Terra di Siena concert series will take you to churches, gardens and stately homes in this beautiful area.
Bathe in the thermal springs in Bagni San Filippo. Among Tuscany’s many hot springs, Bagni San Filippo are some of the most dramatic, easy to access and free!
Named after the Pope who re-created it according to Renaissance principles, Pienza has both splendid architecture and sweeping views of the Val d’Orcia. As the pecorino cheese capital of the region it is also delicious place to stop for a meal.
Dominated by a vast fortress that now hosts an excellent enoteca offering visitors the chance to taste the area’s prestige red wines, Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, Montalcino is a charming town with spectacular vistas.
Sprawled on a hilltop between the Val d’Orcia and the Crete Senese, Montisi is small village with a large heart. Off the beaten tourist track, it provides a glimpse into the life of a vibrant Tuscan community that knows how to entertain itself.
Located on the ancient Roman Via Cassia, San Quirico‘s medieval walled town centre boasts the beautifully adorned Collegiata of the Saints Quirico and Giulitta, as well as the Horti Leonini gardens, a setting for contemporary sculpture exhibitions.
With its large pool at the heart of the hamlet, Bagno Vignoni has been a spa destination for centuries, visited by popes, saints and Lorenzo de Medici. Modern visitors cannot dip their feet in the pool, but they can bathe in the Parco dei Mulini springs nearby.
On the boundary between Val d’Orcia and the forests of Monte Amiata, Castiglione d’Orcia‘s picturesque centre evokes its medieval past. Its citadels mark the horizon and the nearby hot springs at Bagni San Filippo make for a wonderful day out.
The town of Radicofani rests at the foot of the hill on which the imposing Rocca fortress was built in 978 and repeatedly restored over the centuries. Known as the headquarters of Ghino di Tacco, Italy’s ‘Robin Hood’, the town honors its history & present.
Just outside the confines of the Val d’Orcia, Montepulciano stretches along the hilltop overlooking the lovely Madonna di San Biagio church. Famous for its stately Renaissance palaces, Piazza Grande and well-respected Vino Nobile red wine.
Set against a backdrop of olive groves on a gently rising hillside, the Romanesque Benedictine Abbey of Sant’Antimo is but 10 km. from Montalcino. Built of golden travertine in the 12th C., its origins date to the time of Charlemagne. A balm for the weary.
Built originally in the 15th C. as a hospice for pilgrims and traders traveling the Via Francigena, the La Foce estate was purchased in 1924 and restored by Iris and Antonio Origo, who with Cecil Pinsent created its fine gardens.
The landscape that causes visitors to pause to admire its beauty also plays a role in some of the region’s finest ingredients. The gently-rolling clay hills are home to the flocks of sheep whose milk becomes Pecorino, the versatile cheese whose flavour is determined by its aging and various added ingredients such as peppercorns, chillies or truffles. From the forests on and around Monte Amiata instead come Tartufi, truffles, and the Porcini mushrooms which appear with Pici, the thick hand-rolled spaghetti popular in this area.
Further bounty of the woods are Castagne, chestnuts; while they are roasted over the fire and sold during the cooler seasons in most town centres, they are also incorpoated in stews and meat dishes and the flour contributes to Castagnaccia, a chestnut cake featuring pine nuts, rosemary and raisins.
Other menu favorites include Ribollita, a thick soup utilizing leftover bread, beans and vegetables and Fiori di zucca ripieni, zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs. Of course, in summer ordering Fritti delivers a variety of lightly battered and fried vegetables to the table, some of which will be unrecognizable until eaten.
Occasions at which to try these dishes and others include: Montalcino’s Sagra del Tordo in mid-August and Honey Week in mid-September, Vivo d’Orcia’s Polenta Festival in July or Mushroom and Chestnut Festival in early October, and San Giovanni d’Asso’s White Truffle Market in November.
Those with a sweet tooth will likely favor Ricciarelli, the lozenge-shaped almond and candied orange rind biscuits or chewy Panforte, the spicy cake utilizing fruit, nuts and Montalcino’s famous honey.
Wines: To accompany these dishes trying the Val d’Orcia’s famed Brunelli di Montalcino or Rosso di Montalcino or Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile or Rosso is almost a given. There are so many valid wineries and enotecas that tasting is always just round the corner. The Consorzio di Vino Orcia provides excellent suggestions for wine-lovers seeking an itinerary.
MONDAYS – San Giovanni d’Asso (1st Monday of the month)
TUESDAYS – Monteroni d’Arbia, San Quirico d’Orcia (2nd & 4th)
WEDNESDAYS – Siena
THURSDAYS – Montepulciano, Radicofani (2nd & 4th)
FRIDAYS – Pienza, Montalcino
SATURDAYS – Buonconvento, Asciano, Vivo d’Orcia (2nd)
Sette di Vino– Pienza, Tel: 0578 749092
La Bandita Townhouse Café– Pienza, Tel: 0578 749005
Dopolavoro La Foce – Near La Foce – Pienza, Tel: 0578 754025
Re di Macchia– Montalcino, Tel: 0577 846116
Le Logge del Vignola– Montepulciano, Tel: 0578 717290
Osteria La Porta di Sotto– Buonconvento, Tel: 0577 808386
Osteria La Porta– Monticchiello, Tel: 0578 755163
La Locanda del Castello– San Giovanni d’Asso, Tel: 0577 802939
Ristorante Da Ciacco– San Querico d’Orcia, Tel: 0577 897312
Da Ciacco – San Querico d’Orcia, Tel: -577 897312
Il Loggiato– Bagno Vignoni, Tel:0577 888973
Trattoria le Ginestre dall’Ada – Radicofani, Tel: 0578 55918