A weekend in Tuscany. My body relaxes and my heart and mind collectively smile. Just saying it aloud causes a collective sigh from anyone within hearing distance. Now, those of you who know me know that I am not one to romanticize Italy. In fact, I recently guffawed at a dramatically idyllic New York Times article written by a man who had just honeymooned through Italy with his wife in their vintage rental car. Italy can be magical (especially if you have an unlimited budget), but like most places, it does have its flaws. But Tuscany, the Val D’Orcia region in particular, is a place where I feel magical. A sort of weightless ease that I’ve found only once before: on the porch of the house I grew up in.
I fell in love with the Val D’Orcia the first time I stepped foot out of the car at the agriturismo we frequent. It was so quiet that it was almost unnerving, the air so fresh that my then cold-addled head didn’t know which way was up. But, my Italian was adamant that I would enjoy this weekend in Tuscany, for my 29th birthday, even with a raging head cold. He was right.
Known for the production of some of Italy’s most sought after wines, the Val D’Orcia stretches south from Siena to Monte Amiata and is characterized by its famous landscape. So famous, in fact, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004:
The landscape of Val d’Orcia is part of the agricultural hinterland of Siena, redrawn and developed when it was integrated in the territory of the city-state in the 14th and 15th centuries to reflect an idealized model of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. The landscape’s distinctive aesthetics, flat chalk plains out of which rise almost conical hills with fortified settlements on top, inspired many artists. Their images have come to exemplify the beauty of well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscapes. (via the UNESCO website)
When you think Tuscany, I guarantee the picture in your mind is of rolling hills in hues of brown and green, and the winding roads lined with Cypress trees that are splashed on every postcard and travel guide you have. In fact, the first time I watched the sun rise from our bedroom at the agriturismo, I thought as though Mr. Darcy would crest that low hill with his brooding brow and high-waisted pants. The glowing light would hit him just perfectly from behind so that he appeared other worldly. You know what I’m talking about ladies. The end of the otherwise snooze-worthy Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice was decidedly the best part.
Whenever we have guests visiting us in Rome, we make it a habit to spend a short two-day weekend in this region. Over the last two years we’ve gone so many times (my Italian has been frequenting these places for over a decade), and delighted so many friends and family, that I thought I should put it down on paper and share the wealth. I’ll let you know where to stay, what to visit, and most importantly, where to eat! Other than that, get yourself a GPS when you rent your car and just follow the beautiful winding roads wherever you feel you are being taken!
Where to Stay
When we spend the weekend in Tuscany, we always stay at Agriturismo Podere Agogna. This charming, still-working farm is off the beaten path. Literally. The small dirt and gravel road that leads you deeper into the country eventually veers off to the left and ends at this magnificent property (at night you are likely to see some wild boar and porcupines cross in front of you on the road). Don’t come here looking to relax by the pool with a drink – there isn’t one. But that’s the beauty of it. This is the kind of place where you sit at the large table on the porch with your friends, a bottle (or two) of wine, playing charades until the early hours of the morning. Bruna and her husband Pasquale are delightful hosts, greeting you at any time of the day when you arrive and making sure your stay is nothing short of remarkable. Ask them for a tour of the grounds and you’ll see Via Francigena, the old trade route running from France to southern Italy, right in the backyard (it’s been common to spot hikers, backpackers, and others finding their way down the road, offered coffee and other refreshments by Bruna and Pasquale). Make sure to check out their cellar, which they carved into the side of a rocky hill, that contains their homemade marmalade, wine, and other goodies. Do I even need to mention how magnificent breakfast is? You’ll enjoy a multitude of homemade cakes, marmalade, and coffee on the beautiful outdoor porch.
Where to Eat
Terrace at Osteria La Porta (photo credit: restaurant website)
It’s hard to pick a favorite of anything, let alone a favorite restaurant in a country admired the world over for its culinary traditions. But I can say, without a doubt, that Osteria La Porta is my favorite restaurant in Italy. Quite possibly the world. I kid you not. And lucky for you it just happens to be in Monticchiello, a small town in the Val D’Orcia, less than two miles from the agriturismo I mentioned above. To be quite honest, I have very few pictures of Osteria La Porta or its delightfully delectable food. Why? Because I’m too busy stuffing my face. The menu changes seasonally, but some things they do exquisitely all of the time: roasted piglet, braised boar cheek, roasted pigeon, and my Italian swears by the savory pie of porcini mushrooms with pecorino (a regional specialty cheese) and truffle.
Daria, the owner, is welcoming and very accommodating. She speaks several languages and makes sure to take every order personally, allowing her to interact with people from all walks of life. She is delightful. Make sure to ask her to recommend you some wine (she is also an experienced sommelier), they have a huge selection, but make sure it’s one of her brother’s wines. He is a vintner in nearby Montepulciano and makes some fantastic Tuscan reds.
Osteria La Porta is closed on Thursdays, and because it’s a small place, with an even smaller terrace, make sure you book in advance whether you are going for lunch or dinner. Do I even need to tell you to book a table on the terrace? I mean, look at that view.
What to Do
The really nice thing (ok, one of the really nice things) about this region is that you can easily reach a weekend full of destinations without driving for more than thirty minutes in any direction. One of the must-see Renaissance towns in the Val D’Orcia is Pienza, a cheese-lovers paradise where pecorino is the name of the game. Pienza has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and its small side streets, unique local-made goods, and overall sense of warmth, make it a welcoming addition to any weekend in Tuscany. Make sure to stop in to the Duomo to look at the cracks that run the length of the major foundation walls, created by the slowly sinking hillside. This church is a survivor!
If you happen to be in Pienza at lunchtime, make sure to stop into the utterly delectable Sette di Vino for a flavor-filled meal of bruschetta (make sure to order the sheep’s milk ricotta with spring onion), grilled pecorino with pancetta (Italian bacon), local cheeses and meats, and one of the best house red wines you’ve ever had. Sette di Vino is a small place, with an even smaller kitchen, and is closed Wednesdays. Make sure to get there early for a nice seat in the Piazza!
Pienza is a captivating town to see, so after lunch just wander the streets and take in the Tuscan way of life.
Phew! I’m exhausted just thinking about all of this awesomeness! It’s obvious that there is much more to do in Tuscany than what I’ve proposed here, but I’m more interested in really immersing myself in the Val D’Orcia and you really can’t do that if you’re rushing from one stop to the next. Spend your time really taking everything in, enjoy relaxing outside at the agriturismo, spend four hours at dinner, go for a walk, and most of all ENJOY!
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