From our Tuscan base in Siena, we went for a day-long drive through the Val d’Orcia to experience a taste of la dolce vita in Tuscany. This valley is included in UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Landscapes. It is a must-visit if you are in Tuscany. We hired a car with driver for the day, but this is an easy self-drive tour.
Asciano and Postcard Views
Our driver Sergio got us from our hotel promptly at nine. He took us first to Asciano, a commune just south of Siena. Here you get expansive views of the Crete Senesi, the gray clay of Tuscany. We visited in the fall, after harvest, and the clay was completely bare. We stopped at a turnout, to look into the distance at the city of Siena and the beautiful countryside around us. It was wonderful to see in person the postcard views of the rolling hills and the cypresses snaking across the landscape.
We were parked under an olive tree, in a tranquil spot. Sergio told us his mom cured a large quantity of olives each year and that they pressed their own olive oil! He had us taste an olive off the tree to prove to us how bitter they are before being cured.
Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore
Our next stop was the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a large monastery in Asciano. The exterior is a beautiful mellow red. The interior contains beautiful frescoes celebrating St. Benedict. The colors are vivid and the detail breathtaking. Some of the frescoes were done by Luca Signorelli, a Renaissance painter renowned for his work in the Duomo di Orvieto. If you visit at the right time of day, you can listen to Gregorian chants by the monks in the abbey.
The abbey produces wine and olive oil, and there is a tasting room where you can sample the wine. You can also visit the wine cellar underneath the cloister with its big barrels of wine.
The hill town of Montalcino
Next we drove to Montalcino, one of the three hill towns on our itinerary for the day. Montalcino is located on a hill, with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. The town has a pentagon-shaped fortress, which is reported to have held its own against the armies first of Siena and then of Florence, when they attacked the little town.
Today the town is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wine, made from Sangiovese grapes grown in the vineyards surrounding the town. When we visited in the late morning, the streets were still deserted. We wandered around the town, admiring the warm colors of the buildings on both sides of narrow streets.
Abbazia di Sant’Antimo
We then drove a short distance to the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture. The abbey is set in the midst of olive groves and vineyards, in a location difficult to beat for beauty and serenity. It is a gorgeous building, and it is difficult to believe that it had decayed to the point of being used as a stable before the Italian government restored it in the late 1800s.
Here too you can listen to Gregorian chanting by the monks of the abbey at several times during the day. The grounds are lovely, with a large lone cypress by the building and a pomegranate tree in the back. The interior is beautiful in its simplicity.
Two famous Tuscany landmarks
After we left Sant’Antimo Abbey, Sergio drove us to a spot from where we could see the Capella della Madonna di Vitaleta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful little chapel set in the midst of the Tuscan countryside is one of the most photographed sites in Tuscany. We only saw it from a distance, and I would have loved to have spent some time exploring it from up close.
The second site is a famous grove of cypress trees known as the Cypresses of San Quirico d’Orcia. They look stunning in the midst of the gray clay of Tuscany.
Pienza, the “ideal” Renaissance town
Following our restful visit to the Sant’Antimo Abbey, we headed to Pienza. Pienza was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Prior to our visit to Italy, when I was researching our trip, I had read a lot about the beauty of Pienza. My expectations heading into Pienza were therefore sky-high, and the first view of the pretty hill town did not disappoint.
We had lunch in Pienza. We ate individual pizzas with extremely thin crusts topped with local pecorino cheese and drizzled with the rich fruity local olive oil. Rustic, but very flavorful! After lunch we went in search of gelato artigianale and found Fredo, a charming little gelateria.
Pienza, originally called Corsignano, is the creation of Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II. He wanted the town of his birth to become the “ideal” Renaissance town, and invested the money to transform it. Worth seeing are the Duomo di Pienza, the Piccolomini Palace, and the main square, the Piazza Pio II.
Pienza is famous for its pecorino cheese, which can taste from mild to assertive depending on how aged it is. The little shops sell pecorino, olive oil, local wines and pici, the local pasta. We enjoyed wandering the streets, pausing to take in views of the surrounding countryside, and browsing the little shops.
The hill town of Montepulciano
Our last stop for the day was the picturesque little hill town of Montepulciano, with its narrow uphill streets and beautiful palaces.
The lion column in one of the the main piazzas — the Colonna del Morzocco — is gorgeous. We also came across an interesting old wall with carvings. Like Montalcino, Montepulciano is famous for its red wine, the Nobile di Montepulciano.
The little shops along the streets of Montepulciano were fun to browse, with their wares of local wines, pastas and cheeses. We picked up some of the rich olive oil we had tasted at lunch, to take back home.
Sergio brought us back to our hotel in Siena in the early evening. We thoroughly enjoyed our day trip through the Val d’Orcia. If you haven’t yet been, you must add it to your itinerary for Tuscany!
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