5 things to do in Val D’Orcia
Recently we were lucky enough to spend a spring holiday in Tuscany with my Scottish family. We had a wonderful time ( I mean, I don’t think anyone who has ever started a sentence with ‘I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany’ will then go on to say ‘we had an awful time’. It is simply impossible. Tuscany is too beautiful and my family is too lovely. I am blessed like that).
We stayed in Val D’Orcia, which is a part of Tuscany that is very close to my heart. I have spent so much time here since I was a baby, that it is practically a second home to me. It is also the place where Mr Ioweittospaghetti and I got married. But that is a story for another day.
Tuscany is undoubtedly one of the prettiest spots in the world, and Val D’Orcia is undoubtedly one of the prettiest spots in Tuscany. Although pretty seems like a diminutive when presented with the outstanding landscapes of Val D’Orcia, its stunning architectural heritage, and its unique wine and food culture. As a matter of fact, this area is so incredible that since 2004 it has become a Unesco World Heritage Site for Outstanding Universal Value. So, although I am slightly biassed in my descriptions, I am not alone in being awed by this magical region. If you are looking for a holiday in the ideal, typical, Tuscan landscape, Val D’Orcia is the place for you. Here is a wee guide to five of my favourite places to visit if you happen to be in this part of the world.
Val D’Orcia means the Valley of the Orcia river, which runs through this territory. The area historically developed around the mercantile city of Siena around the 14th century, when it became a stronghold of the Italian Renaissance. The agricultural landscape that developed around Siena looked pretty similar to what you will see now, which is rather extraordinary. This is a city like no other you have ever seen. The centre of Siena looks very much as it did during the Renaissance, and if you walk in the city centre on a hot summer afternoon you might even believe that you are stepping into a different time! This is when the Palio is on (2nd July and 16th August) – a horse race in the middle of Piazza del Campo where ten horses and riders (fantini) from Siena’s different contrada (or city district) compete. There are seventeen contrade in Siena, and when you walk around the city, you will notice that each contrada has a different symbol and flag. It has been like this since the 14th century, and it is probably, thankfully, not going to change any time soon.
Unmissable things to see in Siena: Piazza del Campo, Palazzo Pubblico, Torre del Mangia,Piazza del Duomo.
Pienza is another jewel of Italian Renaissance architecture. It is actually the birthplace of town planning, since it was designed as the città ideale, the ideal city, by Pope Pio II and his architect Bernardo Rossellino. Have a walk around the trapeizodal Piazza Pio II and you will see the Duomo, Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Vescovile and the Palazzo Comunale. If you follow the alleys at the side of the Duomo, you will also have a stunning view of Val D’Orcia, especially at the golden hour.
Unmissable things to do in Pienza: eat Pecorino! This town (and most of Val D’Orcia) is famous for Pecorino cheese. It would be a sin to leave without sampling some.
San Quirico D’Orcia
A personal favourite – while San Quirico doesn’t have the majestic splendour of some of the other villages in Val D’Orcia, is still definitely worth a visit. On a sunny day the Horti Leonini gardens (which you can enter from Piazza della Libertà) are a sight to behold. They were designed in 1580 by Diomede Leoni and to this day they represent a great example of Italian style gardens.
Unmissable things to do in San Quirico: get a table at Trattoria Osenna, one of the oldest restaurants in town and you will eat proper traditional tuscan food in the most idyllic of settings. Make sure to order pici (a type of pasta typical of this region) with wild boar ragù. You’ll thank me later.
Another personal family favourite (my parents got married here) and another wonderful place. Beware that Montepulciano is probably one of the hilliest towns in Val D’Orcia, so take that into consideration if you are concerned about accessibility. Piazza Grande is the main square of the town, and from here you can walk up to the tower of Palazzo del Comune, to have truly stunning views. You can also have a walk (and a tasting) through several historical cantine (wine cellars), since this area is worldly famous for its wines.
Unmissable things to do in Montepulciano: the Temple of San Biagio, just outside Montepulciano, and dating back to 1548, is not only a stunning piece of architecture. Apparently, the Madonna of San Biagio fresco inside, has miraculous powers. Never one to miss a miracle opportunity, I always light a candle, just in case. You never know, do you?
Fancy a dip in a natural spa? Have a soak in the hot springs of Bagno Vignoni, just like the Romans used to do! These waters have healing properties, but if you don’t feel like going in, it is still a lovely spot for a walk and a picnic.
Unmissable things to do in Bagno Vignoni: a walk in the main Piazza, and a stroll (and a dip) through the Parco dei Mulini.
How to get there
You can fly to Firenze, Pisa, Rome or Bologna. Italy has excellent train and bus services, but I would recommend renting a car as this gives you more flexibility, and half of the pleasure of a holiday in Val D’Orcia is driving through its wonderful landscapes.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels in this region, but if you are looking for a truly immersive experience you should stay in an agriturismo. Our favourite is from our friends at Fattoria del Colle. This is the stunning place where Mr Ioweittospaghetti and myself got hitched, and it is one of the most incredible and prestigious wineries in the world. And, if that wasn’t enough, it is also a female led winery (you can read more about Casato Prime Donne and the extraordinary Donatella Cinelli Colombini here).
So, what do you say, pronti a partire?