History unfolded in this valley. It lies cradled in Tuscany, Italy. The flat plains with conical hills rising from them, merging into the grandeur of the Amiata mountain, the golden earth and the silver grey of the olive groves make the Val d’Orcia a place of breathtaking beauty.
The Val d’Orcia has come to represent a well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape. The UNESCO, recognizing its importance in the story of the development of man, has designated it a World Heritage site, acknowledging its agrarian and pastoral importance, the innovative land management systems it employed and the historic merit of its towns and villages, abbeys, shrines, farmhouses inns, and bridges, as also the ancient Roman road, Via Francigena, which traverses the region.
Sienese painters of the Renaissance, the young men of Europe who undertook the "grand tour" as part of their education, the romantic writers of England, Germany and France, all fell under the spell of this beautiful valley. And the people of the region made them all welcome while safeguarding their own individuality.
Geographically, Val d'Orcia is a depression stretching from the hills of Radicofani south of Siena to the massive Monte Amiata in the West -- both one-time volcanoes -- a higher range of hills in the East and the spurs of the Val d’Asso to the North. The river Orcia runs through the valley and flows out of it through a deep and rugged gorge. It is one of the area's most scenic and interesting features.
The valley was formed over 5 million years ago when the sea receded. Later, the lava spewed by the Radicofani and Amiata covered the area, and cooled, leaving the hard travertine rock, which is now mined and contributes to the region’s economy along with tourism and agriculture. The heart of the valley is devoted to farming, while towns and fortified settlements have come up over the years on the hills.
These townships include San Quirico d'Orcia, Montalcino, Pienza, Bagno Vignoni and Castiglione d'Orcia. Visit San Quirico to see the beautiful Horti Leonini, the gardens built by and named after its one time ruler, Duke Diomede Leoni.
At Montalcino, taste the world-famous Brunello wine made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes. The town is steeped in history, as it was first an Etruscan settlement and then a Roman one. Then go on to visit the nearby Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, which once held jurisdiction over Montalcino. This 12th century monastery has buildings made from a particular type of travertine which is veined and luminous. It is set amidst beautiful vineyards and olive groves.
Pienza, birthplace of Pope Pio II, was built on the site of the ancient city of Corsignano. Pope Pio II commissioned Rossellino, a student of Leon Battista, to execute a project befitting his importance in 1459, and Rossellino did his best. He recruited top artists to help him, and between them, they accomplished a work of extraordinary architectural beauty.
At Bagno Vignoni, try the thermal baths for which the town is famous. The ancient thermal springs of the area drew crowned heads, both religious and temporal, and in fact the main Piazza is virtually a steaming bathtub, with the temperature of the waters going up to as much as 52 degrees centigrade. Though it is no longer possible to bathe at this spot, there are other baths, known for thermal cures, which visitors can avail of.
From the town of Castiglione d'Orcia, built on a spur that dominates the valley, enjoy some breathtaking views.
Craggy badlands, clay knolls, cliffs, gorges, ravines and erosion furrows make up the landscape of the Val d’Orcia, along with the hills and the plains and the river. The Amiata abounds in crystal-clear springs and luxuriant vegetation. Woodlands and Mediterranean maquis, forests of beech, fir and oak, and of course Val d’Orcia’s symbol – the cypress – exist in harmony with the regimented lines of the vineyards and the shady olive groves.
The environment is home to porcupine, badger, polecat, weasel, fox, and wild boar, as well as the barn owl, long-eared owl, eagle owl and little owl, the buzzard, harrier eagle and kestrel, among other exotic species.This land, which has distinct historical cultural and ecological characteristics, and once inspired artists and poets, remains relatively unspoilt. The solitude, the space, the incredible quality of light and the evidence of a long history in the region continue to capture the imagination of men.