Adventures in Italy: Day 6 Montepulciano, Pienza, Val d'Orcia, San Quirico d’Orcia, Chianciano


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April 10th 2017
Published: April 10th 2017
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Italy Day 6, Sunday, October 9, Pienza

On our way to Pienza we stopped at Montepulciano in the Province of Sienna. Sun peeked through the fog on a chilly 60 degree day and I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck desperately trying to warm up. There are many hot water sulphur baths in this volcanic mountainous region and boy would that have been a great time to try one out! Besides the spas and great water, this region is known for its wine, olive oil, truffles and truffle sauce.

We drove up the cypress lined avenue to the Church of San Biagio in Montepulciano, considered one of the finest buildings of the Renaissance. As I stepped out into the brisk but now sunny morning I began to take in the expanding views from this hilltop. The church, designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, with its commanding presence, is perched high on a hill with expansive views of the valley below. Built in travertine between 1518 and 1545, this imposing church is more austere than many we have seen, with less decorations inside and out and yet the altar features a beautiful frieze. A unique and lovely floral altar decoration with a combination of fresh oranges and white roses, white baby’s breath and fresh green grapes was likely created from the local harvest and added a uniquely human touch. The origin of this church is based on the story from 1518 of two women and a shepherd who passed in front of a fresco of the Madonna and child and claimed to have seen the eyes of the Virgin move following them as if she were alive. The church on this hilltop was blissfully peaceful both inside the church and out.

I was especially glad of the visit to Montepulciano because I stopped in the Galleria d’Arte San Biagio across from the church, although I wished I had seen it sooner because I would have spent more time (and money) here. Inside this shop was a plethora of pastas, local foods, cheeses, vinegars and my favorite Montepulciano wine (at a discount!) but the joyful discovery here was the artist whose wonderful paintings covered the walls of this shop. She was delightful and I am sure I would have bought a painting had I time to really look, but I did buy a hand painted tile from her of sunflowers and wine. I later discovered along with the tile she had included some Italian seasonings, a hand painted card and a carved scented soap into my bag. With barely enough time to thank and pay her I was off running (again) to catch the bus.

Ben, to help us get into the spirit of Tuscany, played some Italian music on the bus and gave us some information about the region and town we were about to invade. He described for us the flavor of this region’s wines and olives that come from the heavy clay soil and the plants and herbs growing in the area which imparts a heavier taste that is an exceptional accompaniment for meat, also more popular in northern Italy. In contrast, the southern part of Italy has volcanic soil that is lighter than clay and therefore creates a lighter taste better suited for fish which is more readily available there. When he was finished we were all salivating as we watched iconic Tuscan scenes pass by our window.

Beautiful Pienza is a town and “comune” in the province of Siena between Montepulciano and Montalcino. Pienza was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. This town of 1200 people proudly claims famous views of the Val d’Orcia (a UNESCO World Cultural Landscape since 2004). Pope Pius II, who was born Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini in Corsignano in 1405, had the entire village rebuilt as the perfect Renaissance town and renamed it Pienza. With the direction of Leon Alberiti using the designs from architect Bernardo il Rossellino, the project took a mere 3 years to construct the Cathedral dell’Assunta, the Piccolomini Palace, the Town Hall and the charming central square. It was the Pope’s intention to use Pienza as his retreat from Rome. The Pope indeed hit on perfection. You couldn’t help but feel that you were walking into a Renaissance painting.

When I began to explore Pienza my first impression of this beautiful, clean town was to be pleasantly assaulted by the smell of pecorino cheeses and a chorus of church bells. Of course I later learned that Pienza is also the city of cacio, which means cheese! Meandering down the narrow cobbled streets flanked by the tall warm yellow-orange stone buildings of Pienza I soon came across the Duomo de Pienza or Cathedral dell’Assunta, built in the 1400s. The church is large and somewhat empty of icons and relics because it is under restoration. The church is cracking because the architects did not calculate the effect of the weight of the cathedral and the future impact on its foundation and the hillside upon which it sits.

The Duomo was filmed in Robert De Niro’s movie about the Medici family. I left the church to take in the expansive views of the Val d' Orcia under the low clouds, beyond the walls of Pienza. So many streets tempted me to leave these views for later when the sun burned off the fog.

Located adjacent to the Pienza Duomo I had intended to visit this beautiful palace and its ancient gardens so I paid for the entrance to the gardens in the Palazzo Piccolomini, the renowned Pope’s Palace, to explore Italy's first Renaissance garden that just happened to be overlooking the famed Val d'Orcia. Palazzo Piccolomini was used by Franco Zeffirelli to film scenes of his famous Romeo and Juliet in 1968. The fog began to lift offering a spectacular view that I could imagine the Pope and his Cardinals would have cherished.

I left the formal gardens and walked the perimeter of Pienza until I found a long graveled walk overlooking the now sunny Val d'Orcia. As I was marveling at the view before me a charming older Italian gentleman, dressed for Sunday in a black hat, bright red sweater, a tie and blazer came up to me and began to describe the mountain, the villages and spas in the distance, in Italian. He told of the history of the region but since all of his conversation was in rapid Italian I can only surmise that he was describing these things to me. Before we said our goodbyes he informed me, by drawing in the sand, that his age was “88+8”, or at least I think that is what he meant!

Our group reconvened at the charming little Ristorante La Mensa Del Conte across from the town’s main park. Our group was served sliced zucchini, with parsley followed by a salad with thin ribbons of pecorino cheese and fresh local olive oil. For our main course we delighted in a small plate of tender homemade pici pasta in a light creamy tomato sauce. We finished with a delicious walnut torte filled with apricot and a hint of orange. So amazingly delicious!

We left Pienza as the sun began to warm the colors of the stone buildings and of course I had wished we could have lingered a bit longer to better appreciate (and photograph) Pienza as it awakened to its true beauty.

On the way back to Chianciano we stopped in the tiny medieval hamlet of Bagno Vignoni in San Quirico d’Orcia to dip our toes in a warm Roman thermal spring overlooking the beautiful Val d’Orcia below. Thanks to the Via Francigena, (Way of the Pilgrim) the main route of the pilgrims venerating Christ on their way to Rome, these ancient Etruscan and Roman hot water springs were rediscovered and became a main destination for these weary travelers. They also became a popular destination of such famous visitors as Pope Pius II, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who spent part of 1490 here, and St Catherine of Siena. Pope Pius II made the Piazza delle Sorgenti (square of springs) his summer retreat. In addition to the springs’ therapeutic effects, the waters were also used for milling, hence the name the Park of the Mills.

Thankfully, despite fires and wars that frequently occurred here during the Middle Ages, the area is essentially untouched preserving a perfect representation of a village from the Middle Ages. Perched high on a hill, the ancient springs enjoy a splendid view of the valley of the Orcia River that flows south of the village.

The buildings surrounding the pool were built in the 16th century and are now being used by Albergo le Terme as a spa. The pool, walled in on three sides by buildings with a chapel in the middle, designed by Bernardo Rossellino in honor of Pope Pius II, is testament to Medieval plumbing techniques and construction developed at that time. There were areas designed specifically for women to be able to bathe separately from men. The waters flowing through here are said to be around 52 degrees Celsius.

It was a rainy, chilly evening back in Chianciano as four of us set out to find a restaurant that actually served meals before 7pm. After doing some research that entailed asking anyone we met on the street and peering into closed restaurants to ascertain hours of operation, we finally found the hip Le Fonti Bar (I have no idea if it is related to our hotel because it is not physically close). This place was hopping with young twenty and thirty somethings and I soon saw why: free food from the plentiful Italian tapas style bar as long as you purchased a beverage. Salads, pizza, cheeses, marinated vegetables, chips and dips of all kinds just to name a few of the selections, and all the while Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers and other famous bands were featured on the huge flat screen TV. A bargain for sure! Plus we had a real opportunity to see how the younger locals hang out.

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