Today I leave behind Florence and its inestimable wealth of Renaissance treasures to take to the back roads of Tuscany. The region abounds with medieval hill towns with their own important cultural heritage. Among them my favorite of Tuscan cities, Siena and her Piazza del Campo, regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. Just south of it lays the picture-perfect Val d’Orcia where vineyards and olive groves climb up sun-baked hills toward ancient fortified villages and country lanes lined with dark arrow-straight cypresses meander across rolling meadows toward apricot-colored farmsteads. This is a land that had me smitten at first sight, long before UNESCO recognized it a World Heritage Site for “its exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance time to reflect the ideals of good governance” and credited it for its profound influence the development of landscape thinking.
This classic medieval hill town is best known for its unique shell-shaped Piazza del Campo dominated by its Gothic town hall, the imposing fourteenth century Palazzo Publico. Beautifully preserved reminders of its thirteenth century grandeur, when it was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, can be found everywhere along its steep, narrow streets. Perched high on a hill, the Siena Duomo is a superb gothic cathedral with an intricately carved marble façade. The interior walls and the high pillars of the nave are clad in black and white marble stripes that soar to a vaulted ceiling of golden stars against an indigo sky. The adjoining Piccolomini Library is filled with lavishly illuminated choir manuscripts, its walls and ceiling are covered with striking frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the popular Fontebranda neighborhood (named after the most popular fountain in Siena, still in existence), the house of Caterina Benincasa, who became Santa Caterina, the patron saint of Italy, is well worth a visit. Although it had undergone many modifications since her death in 1380, it remains a serene retreat with a lovely Renaissance loggia and brick-lined courtyard.
Known since Roman times for its thermal waters, Bagno Vignoni is a tiny medieval hamlet clustered around a large rectangular pool fed from an underground aquifer of volcanic origins. The spa is said to have been attended by many eminent Renaissance personalities, among them Pope Pius II, the afore-mentioned Santa Caterina da Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although modern spas have sprouted in the vicinity to take advantage of the hot sulfurous springs, this charming Val d’Orcia hamlet appears mainly unchanged since then.
San’ Antimo Abbey
Another Val d’Orcia jewel, San’ Antimo was built in early the early twelfth century in a remote pastoral setting of ancient cypress and olive trees. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. It certainly is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved ones I have ever seen.
While Chianti may be synonymous with Tuscan wines in the mind of many and some of the area’s wineries are worth a visit, for me the ultimate Tuscan oenology experience is Montalcino, a delightful hilltop village that traces its winemaking tradition to the fourteenth century. It offers a commending view of the Val d’Orcia and rolling hills streaked to the horizon with the vineyards that produce some of Italy’s most esteemed reds, the Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. I have the good fortune to visit Altesino, a leading local estate, where I am treated to a tour of the entire production cycle from the neat rows of vines, each punctuated with a thriving rose bush for pest control, to the state-of-the-art aging cellars and bottling operation. A memorable tasting of Altesino’s prized vintages conclude the visit. Salut!
Visits of the Altesino Winery are by appointment only.