Crete Senesi and the Val d’Orcia (18/08/2021)

Crete Senesi and the Val d’Orcia (18/08/2021)

Hello again! A little warning that this blog will have a ton of photos.

As we knew we had a day-and-a-half in front of us, we didn’t go for a walk in the morning. Instead, we left early and drove the route to Siena, past the starkly lovely Colle val d’Elsa. Rather than take our usual exit to head to Siena, we motored past that and on into the Crete Senesi. This is an unofficial region of which you probably already have seen if you’ve seen postcards of Tuscany. Rolling hills and winding dirt roads abound, lined with Cypress – everything you’ve seen is true. Then there are other parts which seem almost lunar – it’s a remarkable place.

However, we didn’t stray off the main roads, as you risk damaging your car if you do. The result was that we really didn’t see the best of it. In fact, what we did we didn’t thrill us any more than the surrounding area of Volterra: the Val di Cecina, Val d’Era etc. I would be tempted to say that those areas are actually nicer! Anyway, I didn’t take photos of the journey, as I was filiming instead – you can find the movie of this day near the bottom of this blog. We did see several signs with kilometer indicates to Rome – you know you’re heading south in Tuscan when you see those!

After winding our way through several towns, we stopped at Buonconvento – at first in the large pay carpark outside the walls of the old town, thinking it was the free carpark. The free one is in a small triangular section just beside it, so we moved the car just in case and had a wander around the old town.

It was lunchtime, so we checked Google where to eat. We passed by a couple of places that looked ok, including a bit of an oddity I’d never seen in Italy before: choose your noodle, then choose your sauce – a bit like the prescriptive menus you get in Chinese places. We skipped that as I thought you should be guided towards the right pasta for the right sauce.

Instead, we went for one of Google’s highest-rated places. It was outside the town walls, and when we got there it seemed to be a simple bar with a small menu. I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the best thing about the experience were the kickass soft drinks which were made locally. Niamh had a cola, and I had a lemon. The pasta dish Niamh and I both had was so-so (some sort of zucchini sauce), but the dry, bunless burger my brother had with undercooked potatoes was a shocker, to be honest. What a shame. Anyway, with our tails between our legs, I suggested we had the time to visit Pienza, little knowing the route we’d travel through to get there. Things were about to get better. So, to sum up – definitely travel to Buonconvento, but if you want a decent lunch, maybe actually stick to the old town!

Originally, I had in my head that we’d just travel around the Crete Senesi, maybe driving to another town or off-road to some of the more photographed. But then we blew through Buonconvento so quickly, and I happened to see that Pienza wasn’t a million miles away. I suggested it and it was accepted! Yay!

What I didn’t realise was that our road to Pienza went past what is possibly the most photographed section of Tuscany. In fact, one of the most photographed countryside scenes in all of Italy: the Cypress Circle in the Val d’Orcia. The first of my regrets of the day happened here – that I didn’t have a drone. Here are the photos. One of them is one of the best landscape shots I have ever taken.

There were about a dozen or so vehicles there, and so it was a comfortable number of people by the relatively new mirror monument. We saw tractors ploughing the land, and I’m pretty sure it was purely for aesthetics: the whole of the Val d’Orcia is a UNESCO heritage site.

How I wish I’d had a drone! It’s a stunning place. We only stayed 20 minutes, as it was murderously hot, and we wanted to have a wander around Pienza.

We got back in the car, ignored the one-way system out of the carpark (which was ok, as everyone else was ignoring it too!), and headed towards Pienza. On to the second regret: we blew past San Quirico d’Orcia, and there was a ton of parking space available. Ah well – apologies, San Quirico – maybe next time!

We arrived at Pienza, and found some free parking about a 5 minute walk outside the walls to the old town and wandered inside.

Pienza is a bit mad. It’s gorgeous, but was one of the first towns to ever have been replanned from the bottom-up by Pope Pius II. Pienza was his home town, and he suddenly had both the resources and clout to order it’s total redesign. So understated was the initial estimate by the architect (’twas ever thus!), that the Pope congratulated him on lying so convincingly so that the town was built and now the envy of the region… and gave him a bonus!

The whole walled town is a UNESCO heritage site, and so here and there you will find pockets of loveliness – but it’s also awash with tourists. I would not call Pienza a true representation of a lived-in Tuscan hilltown. Volterra is a better mix of a tourist site, mixed with real Tuscan life. I know I’m biased, but it really happens to be true in this case.

With such a high degree of tourism, you always run the risk of getting sub-par food and drink within a town, unless you do a little research. We were melted by the time we got into Pienza, that the first thing we needed to do was get some gelato. We just headed to the first place that was open. The gelato was so-so, but at least it cooled us down.

We went for another wander once we had cooled down.

We had to cool down again, as well as rest our feet, but had difficulty finding a bar with suitable seating. I also remembered that the artist who produced one of our favourite paintings in our apartment had her studio here, so we Googled it and off we went.

We found her working on a piece and managed to interrupt her. She knew me from Instagram, so we had a chat (her English is good) and we had a look about her studio and found this little beauty.

She had to spray it to protect the paint, and we’d have to come back. She started and the chemical smell from the spray was overpowering, so I asked her to recommend a bar at which we could sit, and she directed us towards Idyllium. We grabbed a seat there and had refreshments. The bar runs parallel to the wall which overlooks most of the valley. A camera with a good optical zoom would be a strong recommendation here!

After we finished the drinks, we headed back to the artist’s studio to find that she’d knocked a good 30% off the price of the piece. You should check her stuff out. I just found out she’s (she being Isabella Bisa) opened up a shop selling her work in Volterra! Anyway, you can check her out in Pienza or on her website.

We headed home then, having picked up our bonus artwork. We went a different way home, and so missed San Quirico again. I think we drove between Foiano della Chiana and Lugignano – towns I will blog about later, as we visited them during our return trip in October.

It was a long drive home, and you can see some highlights of the day in this YouTube video.

By the time we got back to Volterra, we were both hungry and thirsty, and so stopped at L’Antica Velathri Cafe for apperitivi.

The carbs didn’t end there, as we stopped for pizza. We found it hugely difficult to get a table anywhere, but we were shown down the back in Alla Vecchia Maniera. Afterwards, I had an obligatory stop in L’Isola del Gusto for a refreshing lemon sorbet. Then screenwatching and bed. An exhausting but incredibly fun day.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a like and a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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