The Val d’Orcia is essentially “postcard Tuscany“, it is all you expect to find here: rolling hills, lunar landscapes that change colour throughout the year, from the bright green of the spring grass to the red patches of the early summer to the earth colours of the summer; lonely stone houses on the top of a hill with winding cypress-tree-lined roads leading up to them; medieval hilltop towns like Pienza, Montalcino and Montepulciano; castles overlooking vineyards like the Banfi Castle; old abbeys in the heart of an unspoilt countryside like Sant’Antimo; a small church framed by cypress trees; or the most photographed landscape in Tuscany: a group of cypress-trees standing along in the middle of the hills. This is the Val d’Orcia, one of the most beloved areas of Tuscany.
The Val d’Orcia is, as its name says, a vale located to the north-east of the Monte Amiata. It occupies part of the territory of the province of Siena and part of the territory of the province of Grosseto. The area takes its name from the river responsible for this amazing landscapes, the river Orcia, that runs lazily through it before flowing into the river Ombrone, the river of the Maremma. The Val d’Orcia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage area in 2004 because of the excellent preservation of its territory, which influenced many Renaissance artists.
The main towns in Val d’Orcia are Montalcino, Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia, Castiglion d’Orcia, Monticchiello, Bagno Vignoni, and Bagni San Filippo. Many people associate Montepulciano with Val d’Orcia, even if this town is actually in the territory of the Val di Chiana. The symbols of the Val d’Orcia are the cypress-trees that dot the countryside.
The area is also famous for its products, such as the pici, a type of thick spaghetti, the Brunello red wine produced in the area of Montalcino, the Nobile produced in Montepulciano, and the pecorino cheese typical of Pienza.
The character of the Val d’Orcia was also shaped by the fact that it was traversed by the Via Francigena, which, given the large number of travelers crossing it, lead to the creation of a system of castles, fortresses and fortified towns that are among the most beautiful evidence of life in the Tuscan Middle Ages.
What to see in Val d’Orcia
Castiglione d’Orcia is the highest town in Val d’Orcia, perched on the slopes of the Monte Amiata. From the town travelers can enjoy breath-taking views over the valley. It has a lovely central square with a well of the early 17th century. There are also two lovely churches, the church of Santa Maria Maddalena and the Church of the Saints Stefano and Degna. The most interesting buildings in Castiglione d’Orcia are however the ruins of the Rocca Aldobrandesca and the Rocca a Tentennano (rocca means fortress).
Near Castiglione d’Orcia, the village of Rocca d’Orcia is worth visiting for its lovely churches: the Pieve di San Simeone (13th century), the church of the Compagnia of San Sebastiano and the Church if the Madonna del Palazzo, which is a private residence now. Campigliola d’Orcia is also neat, with its medieval plan. Near the village there are the ruins of an ancient tower called Torre di Campigliola.
Montalcino is one of the most famous hilltop towns in Southern Tuscany. Made famous by its red D.O.C.G. wine, Brunello, it is dominated by its medieval fortress (1361), now a wine bar. Walking throughout the center is a lovely experience: the town hall with its high tower, the Gothic Loggia, the shops with ceramics and other crafts, makes a visit to Montalcino an unforgettable experience. The views of the countryside from the village are stunning. The town churches are also worth mentioning: Sant’Agostino and Sant’Egidio. In Montalcino there is also a museum housing interesting paintings and sculptures made between the 14th and the 20th century and some ceramics by Della Robbia.
Some winding roads running through the vineyards lead from Montalcino to the neighbouring villages of Torrenieri, Sant’Angelo in Colle and the Castle of Poggio alle Mura (also known as Villa Banfi, one of the major producers of Brunello).
Visitors to this area should not miss the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Tuscany. The Abbey is famous for the Gregorian Chants as well.
Pienza takes its name from Pope Pius II Piccolomini. He had it designed as his “ideal city” on the place of the Castle of Corsignano. It is a Unesco World Heritage site. In 1458, Enea Silvio Piccolomini decided to transform his home village in the perfect Renaissance town. The main buildings in Pienza were built over three years, between 1459 and 1462: the Cathedral, Cattedrale dell’Assunta, housing works of art by the most important artist of the time, Palazzo Piccolomini, which has a loggia from which visitors can enjoy amazing views over the Val d’Orcia, the Town Hall, and the Bishop Palace, now housing a museum. Some medieval buildings remain: the Church of San Francesco and the Pieve di Corsignano, already existing in 714.
Near Pienza, other villages well worth a visit are the fortified village of Monticchiello, with its walls, the medieval buildings, the fortress and the 13th century church and Montefollonico, an village on a high hill with wonderful views over the valley, stretching far as Cortona, which also has an excellent restaurant called Il Medioevo.
Radicofani is also an interesting place. It has the most massive fortress in Southern Tuscany. The fortress, with a high tower, protected the border of the Grand Ducato di Toscana and the Stato Pontificio for centuries.
The fortress was built before the year 1000 on a previous Etruscan-Roman site, and the fortification was strengthen in the 16th century to make it more resistant to the new weapons. From the tower one can see the Val d’Orcia, the Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, the Bolsena lake in Lazio, Monte Amiata and the Apennines. Near Radicofani, the medieval village of Contignano is well worth a stop.
San Quirico d’Orcia is on the northern border of the Val d’Orcia. It developed around the medieval hamlet of Osenna and it is still a perfect example of a medieval settlement. The center is enclosed by the town walls and contains the beautiful church called Collegiata of the Saints Quirico and Giuditta which has beautiful early Gothic portals. Another interesting building is the church of the Misericordia, and the Palazzo Pretorio , Palazzo Chigi, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, the old Ospedale della Scala and the church of Santa Maria di Vitaleta are also worth visiting.
For lovers of gardens, San Quirico d’Orcia has the beautiful Horti Leonini, Italian-style gardens designed by Diomede Leoni around 1540. The gardens often host contemporary sculpture exhibitions. Another lovely garden is the “rose garden“, il Giardino delle Rose.
Near San Quirico, lovers of hot springs should not miss Bagno Vignoni, a medieval spa center renowned for its “piazza d’acqua” (literally “water square”). Another interesting sight for those who are interested in “water-related attractions“, is the Parco dei Mulini (the mill park), a park dedicate to the techniques used to use water for different purposes in the Middle Ages.
Montepulciano is a beautiful hilltop town, often associated with Montalcino and Pienza in the list of the must-see in Val d’Orcia. The town is actually in Val di Chiana. However, it is very close to Pienza and a combined visit to the two towns makes for a wonderful daytrip from Casina di Rosa.
Banner photo by Frengo2.0. Some of the photos on this page were taken by: angler70, Candido33, Fulvio Varone, uzzituzzi1, Robert Crum, Tim Brown Architects, mightymightymatze, mookiefl, francie1978, fondelli.nadia. mava, Paolo Sanmichele, aldoaldoz, argo_72, and Siepert77.