We arrived back in Greenwich yesterday afternoon from a most wonderful 3 weeks in Italy. Frankly, I was far too busy to blog given the hectic pace of our travels (even I was surprised to find we had logged some 2,600 miles). When I find a few minutes, I will try and capture the wonders of this special part of the world called Tuscany.
Although we lived in Rome for two years, I am sad to acknowledge that we barely touched the surface of the stunning Tuscan landscape, which both God and man have shaped into a piece of art that daily brings joy to those who experience its captivating beauty.
Far more eloquent writers than I am have written about the beauty of Tuscany, so I really see no need to regurgitate their accolades. Sheila and I have now spent three solid weeks in Tuscany, but I think it is fair to say that we have barely scratched the surface of a world that continues to thrive yet remains faithful to its proud and often turbulent heritage.
Geography of Val d’Orcia
Anyone who has spent time in Tuscany knows that the roads are narrow, curvy and often best suited for slalom skiers. Many of the roads were probably goat paths and probably pre-date the Romans, since none of the roads seem to be in a straight line. In my opinion, southern Tuscany (where Montepulciano is located) appears to be more cultivated and less severe than the northern mountainous landscape surrounding Florence. Nevertheless, driving – with or without GPS – is demanding.
The Val d’Orcia is one of the most beautiful parts of Tuscany. The distances do not seem great – Montepulciano is only 16 km from Pienza and it is another 10 km to San Quirico d’Orcia. However, driving along these narrow roads, exploring Pienza, San Quirico and other surrounding medieval towns is a full-time job. Fortunately, we managed to recuperate at wonderful restaurants that were serving seasonal Tuscan fare. As some of the travel guides often point out, “it is the journey and not the destination.”
Pienza is probably the most well-known town in the area. Singled out by UNESCO, Pienza is referred to as the “touchstone of the Renaissance.” It is a wonderful town, with many streets to explore but there are plenty of other examples of great medieval and Renaissance towns in the area. The main square is dominated by a huge Cathedral commissioned by Pope Pius II in 1459. Sadly, the Cathedral was built on clay and its foundations are often undergoing restoration. Nevertheless, in the Cathedral “museum” has a small but wonderful exhibit of illustrated religious sheet music.
Sheila insists that I mention that you should walk along a lovely terrace immediately behind the Cathedral for stunning views of the countryside.
We dined twice at a small restaurant just off the main square called Trattoria Fiorella. While there are more highly ranked restaurants in town, I had one of the best antipastos I have ever eaten (see image above): A small cone of local polenta served warm, infused with pecorino and topped with funghi porcini. There were also a few morsels of ground pork at the base of the polenta. WOW! Just a mother and two sons running this smallish restaurant (we recommend sitting in the balcony above). There are other wonderful items on the menu – including a plate of melted pecorino that you scoop up on bread – but like most restaurants in the area, the fare adjusts to the season.
San Quirico d’Orcia
We loved this small town. It featured a small cathedral with Bach gently playing over a sound system. It is quite amazing the difference that music makes in cathedrals. I would be more prone to visit churches more frequently if Pope Francis would issue an edict mandating Bach, Vivaldi and other Vatican-approved music in all Catholic Churches. It creates a warm and embracing mood in otherwise cold and distant religious buildings. Without being sacrilegious, I believe that God would welcome appropriate music in a House of Worship.
We almost gave Osteria del Cardinale a pass when the sign indicated that the restaurant was 500 years old. Generally, we prefer dining only in 15th century establishments, but we made an exception here and I am most happy that we did. Inside, I found the following quote from Sir Thomas More (who tragically lost his head while defending the sanctity of marriage): “The tradition is not to conserve the ashes, but to feed the flame.” I am sure he refers to religious fervor, but I find it a most fitting tagline for a restaurant. Space does not permit me to tell you what we ate, but I had one of the best soups I have ever eaten (didn’t realize that chickpeas taste so good). Others dined on white truffles and cinghiale ragu tagliatelle. It was a sacrifice, but only my waistline has suffered.
We were unsuccessful in our attempt to visit the gardens of La Foce which closed for the season on November 1. This location is featured in a lovely book by Iris Origo called War in Val D’Orcia, which chronicles the lives of a remarkable Italian couple who sheltered some 22 children and many Allied pilots during the German occupation between 1943 and 1944. The drive to this historic home was certainly worth the effort and the book is a loving testament to the courage of many brave Tuscans during a particularly brutal phase of the war.
We experienced a delightful visit in Italy. My heart goes out to friends and family on this side of the pond who suffered through the last few weeks of listening to clueless “Talking Heads” sort through flawed polls to spin the latest “news.”
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