Val d’Orcia: hot baths and culture
Located in the heart of Tuscany, the Terre di Siena is an area of great beauty where an almost perfect and enchanted landscape can be explored alongside the area’s rich cultural, artistic and historic heritage. The Val d’Orcia is the incredible result of the close ties between Tuscany’s naturalistic beauty and centuries of agricultural and human settlements. The reddish-copper colored earth is one of the most incredible characteristics of this area, creating a landscape that has been celebrated and loved for centuries. This is in addition to the soft hills of the countryside which is scattered with medieval hamlets and small towns, olive groves and vineyards.
The natural richness of this area is mirrored in the vast selection of minerals: thermal springs have flowed from this territory for centuries, modifying the landscape and the wealth it offers. The thermal baths of Bagni Vignoni were used by the civilizations of yore that inhabited the area. The Etruscans used these healing waters, as did the Romans after them. A large rectangular bath is the enchanting frame for this small town: here the thermal waters have flowed for centuries, and the bath faces ancient buildings like the portico of Santa Caterina and the church of San Giovanni Battista. The healthy ‘vapours’ of this ‘piazza of thermal waters’, especially at night, offer a magical and mystical atmosphere. Not far off from this thermal spring town is San Quirico d’Orcia, an important trajectory along the Via Francigena, where visitors can see the Collegiata from the 12th century and the Horti Leonini, a magnificent green oasis and 15th century garden, situated under the walls of the ancient town.
Along the slopes of Monte Amiata is a thermal spa that is some 500 meters above sea level. These sulphur-rich waters create enchanting calcium falls that emerge from the thick forest of the mountain. Called Bagni di San Filippo, these natural thermal springs and baths are a spectacular sight that offer health and relaxation—free of charge. Nearby is the Ancient Town and Birth place of Lorenzo di Pietro detto il Vecchietto, Castiglione d’Orcia. There is lots to visit here: the city hall building, the churches of Santa Maria Maddalena and the Santi Stefano e Degna, the remains of Rocca Aldobrandesca and the magnificent Rocca a Tentennano.
The Val d’Orcia is a symbol of the Terre di Siena, the lands surrounding Siena. The cypress-lined road that leads from Val d’Orcia to Val di Chiana is a beautiful way to discover this corner of Tuscany, one of the region’s most beautiful areas.
It is nestled between the Val D’Orcia and Val di Chiana. Built along the narrow top of a limestone hill, this beautiful medieval village seems to be the natural continuation of the landscape on which it was built. Coming from the striking but more touristy city of Pienza, just eleven kilometers away, the landscape that you encounter just before reaching the village is the perfect reflection of classical Tuscany. Immediately below town’s castle walls and fortifications, you can admire the beautiful church of the Madonna di San Biagio. This sixteenth century treasure stands out in the distance welcoming anyone who chooses to spend a day strolling the streets of the village. Don’t miss a luxurious bath in the hot sulphurous waters of the nearby thermal springs. Leave your car in one of several parking lots located outside of the town’s walls and you’ll be able to visit the elegant, ancient town on foot.
Piazza Grande, situated on the highest point of the town, is dominated by the great tower and the Gothic facade of the Palazzo Comunale. Opposite the town hall, you can admire the Cathedral which dates back to the late sixteenth century. Despite its undeniable beauty, Montepulciano is well-known internationally for its Vino Nobile, one of the most popular Tuscan wines in the world, which is obtained by pressing the grapes that grow in the vineyards surrounding the village
Monticchiello is a small center in the heart of the Orcia valley whose beauty derives from its geographical position and the harmonious integration of its medieval architecture, and wide, well-proportioned spaces, which give the impression of moving around a large house. Closer examination will reveal many points of interest for the visitor, and we invite you to read our suggestions and proceed without hurry to appreciate the evidence of the town’s past, and recent history. At a distance, Monticchiello appears simply as a tough, squat tower on the crest of a hill. The remains of its formidable walls and the medieval city gate are only visible to visitors when they are almost beneath the castle. Monticchiello was likely included in the list of castles, which Lamberto Aldobrandeschi ceded to the Badia Amiatina in 943. In 1156 however, it was given in feud to Pope Adrian IV by Count Paltonieri.
Despite the castle’s name appearing in such ancient documents, the history of Monticchiello begins to acquire importance only at the beginning of the XIII century. The population, tired of the abuse of administrative power by the Teutonic Knights (who had obtained the castle in feud from the Church of Rome in recognition of their defense of holy sites) decided to side with the Republic of Siena, becoming its most faithful ally. The first document relating to the free Commune of Monticchiello is dated 1243. From this moment began the most flourishing and glorious period in the castle’s history. With the completion of the keep, the walls and the church, crafts and commerce began to develop. Agriculture improved and the population increased, together with a sense of community and civic conscience. The Commune published its statutes in Italian, and the people took an active part in political life making their own voices heard through the “Council of one for each family”.
Pienza, city of the Pope
The year following his papal nomination, he hired the architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform his obscure village into a city. Piazza Pio II opens up in the center of the little town and is the hub of Pienza’s urban structure. The little Renaissance square was studied to welcome the urban constructions being built at the time, and in fact all of the main monuments of the town face onto it. You can see the squared flooring and the travertine well with the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family. The Cathedral is the most grandiose and imposing element among the constructions. It was in fact the Pope who wanted this building to be the most important as a symbol of his faith. Its vigorous Renaissance façade is divided into three parts by arched columns, at the center of the gable is the Piccolomini coat of arms in a delicate crown of foliage and fruits carried out by Siennese masters. On the left wing is the octagonal, cuspidate bell-tower that shows a strong resemblance to those of Austrian and German churches. Its eclectic style was strongly inspired by the Hallenkirchen (hall churches) of Northern Europe that Enea had seen before becoming Pope.
The Crypt conserves fragments that come from the Romanesque church of St. Mary, destroyed to make space for the new Cathedral. Palazzo Piccolomini is Rossellino’s masterpiece, the second most important building that faces onto the piazza. This was Pio II and his family’s home and to build it the architect took inspiration from the forms of the Rucellai palazzo in Florence. On the southern side is a magnificent loggia of three orders with a view of the roof garden, the Val d’Orcia and Monte Amiata: the courtyard is bordered by travertine columns. The first floor has been turned into a museum where you can visit the apartments and see the furnishings. Palazzo Borgia was given by Pio II to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and its aspect reveals his pre-existence more compared to the other buildings. The Cardinal limited himself to merely lifting the structure up a level and substituting the gothic windows with cross windows, adding a travertine doorway and an internal courtyard. The building is the seat of the Diocesan Museum that is formed around the nucleus of the Cathedral Museum; the ancient museum collected works that belonged to the Cathedral, as well as numerous sacred furnishings that belonged to the Pope and the bishops that followed him over the course of the centuries. In the eleven rooms that make up today’s museum, in chronological order from the 13th to the 18th century, important paintings, sculptures, sacred furnishings and manufactured fabrics all relative to the area of the Pienza Diocese are exhibited.
Of particular interest: the Cross painted in the XII century that represents Christ Triumphant over Death; The Madonna with Child painted in the 14th century by Pietro Lorenzetti; the large panel of the Madonna della Misericordia painted by Bartolo di Fredi in 1364. Palazzo Comunale is the most recent of the buildings of the piazza with its ample loggia and its façade decorated with a scratched plaster technique and by a brick tower, built later. This is lower than the bell tower to underline the more important power of the church compared to the civic power. The Church of St. Francis is the only monument that remains of the ancient village of Corsignano, other than being one of the oldest Franciscan buildings in Italy. It dates back to the second half of the XIII century and presents a gabled façade, decorated with a Gothic style doorway. Inside we find frescoes that tell the story of the life of St. Francis. In the vaults are shown the three Franciscan virtues and on the walls can be found twelve episodes of the life of St. Francis carried out by Cristofano di Bindoccio and Meo di Pero, Siennese artists of the second half of the XIV century.
The palazzos Ammannati, Gonzaga and of the Cardinal Atrebatense complete a very fascinating urban fabric. Pienza is a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every second weekend in May the “Pienza and its flowers” show and market of plants and flowers is held. In occasion of this exhibition plant breeders and schools of the sector meet up to re-propose wonderful floral scenes inspired by Renaissance art, within the most beautiful areas of the city.
The first Sunday in September is the Festival of Cheese. Pienza is considered the “capital” of pecorino cheese; this is because the little town is situated in the middle of a clay area, the Val d’Orcia, in which the sheep pasture is characterized by a series of aromatic herbs that make the milk particularly tasty and fragrant. Don’t leave town without buying a selection of the local pecorino cheeses
Sant’Anna In Camprena a former Olivetan Benedictine monastery from the 15th century (6 km away from Pienza) With its ascetic shape the building is full of grandeur. This breathtaking and deeply spiritual place lies within one of the most beautiful landascape : between the Val d’Orica and Crete Senesi. Inside the refectory there is a Sodomia Frescoes