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Val d'Orcia

The Val d’Orcia is a ravishing rural area running into le Crete Senesi, but within sight of hulking Monte Amiata. For many, this is the loveliest area in Tuscany, with Unesco-listed countryside, perfect hilltop villages, remote abbeys and evocative castles. Foodies, walkers and spa-lovers will take to the thermal spas, rustic inns, myriad wine trails and meditative walks. The Val d’Orcia represents quintessential Tuscany, with clusters of cypresses, ribbons of plane trees, vineyards on the slopes, and farms perched on limestone ridges. But it was not this alone that won the area Unesco World Heritage status – it’s also about the harmony between the Tuscans and their landscape, shaped by their mellow way of life. Once depopulated, these medieval villages are now enjoying a belated renaissance. San Quirico d’Orcia may be the gateway to the area but Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano also make delightful stepping-stones to scenery landscaped since time immemorial.

Val d'Orcia

Top Ten Things to Do - Val d'Orcia

These are our Top Ten Things to Do, from gentle drives to soporific spas, from strolls in moody hamlets to medieval abbeys and the vintage Nature Train – all set in Unesco-listed countryside.

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Eating & Drinking

The charming Val d’Orcia villages abound in family-run inns and bars in atmospheric settings. The best inns offer Slow Food ingredients, such as prosciutto di cinta senese (cured meat made from an acorn-snuffling, wild-boar-like breed of Sienese pig). Salami are on the menu everywhere, maybe flavoured with wild fennel. This is Sienese territory so expect the stubby pasta known as pici, in every kind of sauce, including game. In autumn, mushroom and chestnut dishes are on the menu, a reminder that the fertile slopes of Monte Amiata are not far away. As for dessert, look out for ricciarelli, Sienese biscuits, tasty, lozenge-shaped almond and candied orange-peel biscuits, a variant on macaroons. These may be served with Vin Santo, Tuscany’s celebrated dessert wine.

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Shopping, Parking & Getting Around

The Val d’Orcia is a foodie hotspot so shopping often focuses on edible produce, including speciality foodstuffs that can be taken home or, more likely, devoured in your villa. Expect to be waylaid by tempting small cheese shops, wine-producers and enoteche (wine bars that may double up as wine shops) especially around Pienza. Stock up on local Rosso d’Orcia to quaff overlooking your Tuscan pool, as well as virtually local Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and full-bodied Bruncello di Montalcino. Speciality food shops often follow the seasons in displaying the best mushrooms (funghi porcini), chestnuts and truffles, along with saffron, olive oil and local cheeses. Allow yourself to be tempted by pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese, whether sold by Pienza cheesemakers or even local Sardinian peasants.

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Montalcino

To outsiders, it’s the prestigious Brunello de Montalcino wine that defines this tiny Tuscan outpost.
From a distance Montalcino looks like a medieval Sienese painting, so little has changed since its heyday. The town is bathed in a russet glow at sunset but changes with the seasons. In spring, the surrounding countryside area is lime green, but yellow rape seed, poppies, sunflowers and grapes soon add different hues. To many, Montalcino is the most Sienese town in the province and the locals are treated with particular respect. Its history is a microcosm of all Sienese history. The town has been known as “the last rock of communal freedom” since its time as the Sienese capital in exile between 1555 and 1559. After the fall of Siena, exiles gathered around the Sienese flag. As a reward, Montalcinesi standard bearers have the pride of place in the procession preceding the Palio in Siena.

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Montepulciano

Montepulciano is effortlessly civilised and makes a beguiling base should you have a villa nearby. Its appeal lies in the mellow mix of Renaissance palaces and moody wine bars made for sipping Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Like all quintessential Tuscan towns, it is built on a human scale so designed for strolling and relaxing on a Renaissance stage set, with set-pieces around every corner. Architecturally, Montepulciano is “the Pearl of the Cinquecento” so shaped by the Renaissance. The town is Antonio da Sangallo’s masterpiece, just as Pienza belongs to Rossellino. While Pienza was perfectly planned, Montepulciano developed more freely so has an asymmetry and spiritedness that Pienza lacks. Even so, there is a loftiness about Montepulciano that makes itself felt in the noble palaces and equally noble wine. Even the citizens consider themselves superior, somehow above the fray. But ultimately Montepulciano is a smooth operator, delivering the true Tuscan lifestyle.

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Pienza

Pienza is an exquisite Renaissance doll’s house, almost too perfect for its own good. Pienza’s popularity has been boosted by its Unesco recognition and by its attraction as a film set. More heretically, visitors flock to the town almost as much for its superb array of Pecorino cheeses as for its perfect Renaissance architecture. The future Pope Pius II was born here in 1405. He commissioned Bernardo Rossellino to rebuild the village of his birth as a model Renaissance city. The result is what locals call a città d’autore, a city inspired by one vision.  After strolling around Pienza’s city walls for splendid views of Monte Amiata and Val d’Orcia, few can resist retreating to a quaint inn for lunch. Expect Pecorino sheep’s milk cheeses to be on the menu. The scenery around Pienza is equally lovely, with the town framed by chestnuts and cypresses, olive groves, poppies and sunflower fields.

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