Val d'Orcia

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Apr 22nd, 2010, 03:31 PM
  #1
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Val d'Orcia

Planning on driving through Val d'Orcia from Florence then end in Pisa for one day. Should I rent at Florence airport or take the train to Arezzo or Chiusi then rent a car there?.We're just driving through to take pictures of the hills and countryside and maybe stop at Montalcino or Pienza for lunch. Is this doable?
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 04:05 PM
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>>Is this doable?<,

I don't know what you call "doable" - but I wouldn't attempt to explore this lovely region in a day that starts in Florence, then you go somewhere to pick up a car, includes lunch, and then ends in Pisa. I suppose that in June or July when the daylight hours are long, you could accomplish this if you leave Florence at 6:30am & arrive in Pisa at 8:00pm - but that's not the way to enjoy this section of Tuscany, IMO.

If you can spend 1 night in Montepulciano, & start the drive early - I think you could enjoy the sights in the area, and get to Pisa in time for dinner.

I developed a Val d'Orcia driving itinerary that I "timed" just to provide some idea of how long a "good look" at this picturesque area would take. Here it is:

The following is a 1 day driving itinerary through this area, with stops at various villages and sites. If you have more time to spend in this vicinity, by all means drive down some of the dirt roads and even take some walks.

The best times of day to see this area are in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky. When the shadows are long, the cypress trees & umbrella pines look more pronounced as they “dance up the hill” (my wife’s term). The farmhouses sprinkled throughout the landscape take on a special look in the early morning and at sunset. Budget at least two rolls of film for this area. The Val d’Orcia can get some morning fog. If so, spend the morning in a village & start your drive when the fog lifts.

In my opinion, the countryside is the “star” in this part of Tuscany. You “must see” Pienza and there are other interesting villages too, but don’t shortchange the drive through the countryside. If you are behind schedule, skip some villages – not the countryside. You might think that this itinerary seems out of order in places & I’m often taking you down roads that you have already driven. Sometimes, I’m considering the position of the sun when you drive on a road, and other times I’m just trying to extend the time to enjoy the countryside.

You will need the Touring Club Italiano map of Tuscany to follow this route. Also, obtain the Michelin Green Guide to Tuscany. If anyone wants to take walks in this area, get the Carta Turistica e Stradale – Val di Chiana, Val d’Orcia map. They have it at the bookstore in Pienza.

If you are doing this tour as a day trip from Siena, leave Siena going south on the N2 (marked SS2 also). It’s actually a pretty drive. Just past the second turnoff to Montalcino and past the bridge, look for a beautiful grove of cypress trees to your right. At San Quirico, take the N146 east to Montepulciano. This is an easy drive. If you leave Siena by 7:00 you should get to Montepulcano by 8:30 or earlier.

Do not visit Montepulciano at this time, unless it is foggy in which case you should wait until the fog lifts before proceeding on this drive. Take the N146 west to Pienza. The sun will be at your back. When you pass the large domed church of San Biagio (on your right/north) just after leaving Montepulciano, look back towards Montepulciano & you will be rewarded with a spectacular site – the Church of San Biagio in the foreground with Montepulciano cascading down the hillside behind it. This is one of the most photographed sites in Tuscany. Before I retired, I had a giant poster of this view in my office – reminding me why I wanted to retire & spend more time traveling. Don’t take a picture just yet – you will be back over this route later in the day and the sun will be in a better position to shine on the church and the perched village behind it.

Continue on the N146 to Pienza. This road has some wonderful scenery. You should get to Pienza by 9:00.

As you approach the “old” part of Pienza and the N146 turns right towards San Quirico, make a sharp left turn and you will find some parking spaces. If these parking spots are filled, continue down this road & look for the blue parking (P) to your left. During tourist season, you have to pay to park in this lot. You can also park south of Pienza below the village, but you will have a slight climb uphill to the center of town.

Explore Pienza by entering through the Porta al Murello, at the west end of Pienza. Just as you enter Pienza, there is a nice pottery/gift shop on your left (in the large square) which has had a significant impact on my wallet. Most stores open at 9:30 & close for a 1 ½ to 3 hr lunch at 1:00 (typical in Italy). You can obtain a self guided 1 hour audio tour of the town (in English) by renting a head set from the tourist office (closed at lunch time, but open on Sunday). If you want to have a picnic lunch at Sant’ Antimo abbey, pick up some lunch provisions while in Pienza. There is a pizza shop just outside of the Porta al Murello (next to the book store/news stand) where you can pick up a slice of pizza. There is a walking path next to the town walls on the south side of Pienza – don’t miss this. It’s a great place to just sit in the sun & admire the views. Plan on spending 1 ½ hrs in Pienza if you take the audio tour or you’re a big shopper, 1 hr if not. It’s one of the few villages in Tuscany that has most of it’s stores open on Sunday, & Monday mornings.

Leave Pienza on the N146 toward San Quirico. This is another stretch of road with fantastic views – perhaps our favorite. Just 2K from San Quirico, there is a splendid view to the south of a very small church and another building with cypress trees & umbrella pines surrounding these buildings. This site is on the crest of a hill. If you have been in Tuscany for any length of time, you will have seen this view on many postcards & calendars. You will pass this church again later in this drive when the late afternoon sun makes this scene perfect for picture taking. As you approach San Quirico, drive into the parking lot behind the Taverna del Barbarossa restaurant (which is associated with the Casanova hotel). The parking lot is at the south end of the complex. Park the car, get out & you will see another of the most photographed sites in Tuscany. In fact, the very first picture that appears in my ’95 Michelin Green Guide to Tuscany, is a photograph of this scene – a farmhouse sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by cypress trees. A “coffee table” book I have has photographs of this site at different times of the year – it’s quite remarkable. This site is even on the cover of that book. I also have a poster (yes, it was hanging in my office too).

You should get to San Quirico by 11:00 if you stopped for some picture taking along the way. Don’t visit San Quirico now – do so later in the itinerary if you have time (it’s worth a visit).

Follow the signs at San Quirico and get on the N2 toward Siena (north). Just after you leave San Quirico on the N2, you will be on a bridge. If you look back, there is a nice view of the village of San Quirico from the bridge. Unfortunately, I have never been brave enough to get out of the car & take a picture from this bridge. Further along the N2 there is a pretty grove of cypress trees on your left (west). This grove can be seen better traveling south, however. On your right, you will see several cypress trees and umbrella pines dotting the ridge of a hill. You might recognize this site from postcards & calendars you have seen. Turn off the N2 & go to Montalcino.

As you approach Montalcino, you will get some good views of this perched village. The road will turn a few times & will take you to the south entrance of town, which will be marked with a large “Montalcino” painted on a white background on the stone wall of town, and a “centro” sign will be pointing into town . Do not enter through this entrance - instead turn a very sharp left when you see this town sign and follow the road uphill. Very shortly you will see a round-about. Exit to the right off the round-about to find a place to park. There is a rather large car parking lot near the old fortress (Rocca). Note – When you arrive into Montalcino and encounter the round-about, note the sign to Sant’ Antimo Abbey (marked “S. Antimo”), where you will go next on this itinerary (it’s marked on the round-about). The road to this abbey is a very sharp left (almost a full circle around the round-about).

Visit Montalcino. You should get there by 11:00. Many shops will close by 1:00. You can visit the fortress, but I found it only OK. Budget about 1 hour or less in Montalcino. It has some nice outdoor lunch spots if you want a sit down lunch (I’m pushing the picnic at Sant’ Antimo).

Follow the signs (and your map) to Sant’ Antimo Abbey. The Abbey is quite lovely, but what I like best about it, is the setting – we’ve used up a lot of film there. It’s located in a valley surrounded by hills, cypress trees dancing up these hills, and a lawn around of the Abbey (where you can picnic). It’s also a good place for a little snooze in the sun. There are Gregorian chants inside the church at various times of the day (posted on the entrance to the church – one chant is at 12:45). See http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/tuscany/sant_antimo.htm for a full chant schedule and a description of Sant Antimo.

Continue on your drive through the countryside. You should leave Sant’ Antimo about 1:30. Take the road south-east of the abbey, toward Monte Amiata on your Touring Club map. Pass through Monte Amiata, and at Ost. Ansidonia, turn left (north-east) to Castiglione d’ Orcia. This is pretty countryside. Pass through Castiglion & get on the N2 & head north toward San Quirico. You should get to San Quirico about 2:00 or so.

Continue past San Quirico toward Siena. You will have another chance to see the cypress grove to your left, and the cypresses & umbrella pines running along the ridge to your right. Get off the N2 at Torrenieri. There is a road that runs from Torrenieri to San Quirico, just east of the N2. Find it on the Touring Club map. You want to head south on this road from Torrenieri to the “phantom” village of Bellaria on the map (there really isn’t any village there). When driving through Torrenieri just after leaving the N2, you need to turn right at the first stop sign (in front of a small church) and you will immediately cross a railroad track. As you approach Bellari, look to your right and you will see more umbrella pines & cypress trees dotting the top of a ridge. These are the same trees you saw from the N2 on your drive to Montalcino and to Torrenieri. When you get to Bellaria, turn left (east) to Cosona (it’s marked at the turn). You will be on a dirt road. It is one of our favorite drives in this area. Continue & go slowly on this dirt road. Lots of pretty sites here. This dirt road will kind of dead-end onto another road (see it on your map). Turn right toward Pienza and continue on toward Pienza. When you get to the N146, turn west (right) toward San Quirico. You should get here around 3:00.

About half way to San Quirico, there is a dirt road that heads south of N146 – find it on the map (it’s the only one on the map between Pienza & San Quirico). There is a sign for this road on the N146 and the turn is marked by a direction sign to the “Agriturismo il Rigo”, and before a “watch for deer” sign. Turn south on this road. We have often driven down this road, parked the car, & started on a hike from here. Continue on this road until it connects with the N2.

Continue south on the N2, and after about 2K, head east on the paved road (marked yellow on the touring club map) toward Chianciano & Pienza (well marked). This road passes through another “phantom” town called Spedaletto – find it on the map to make sure you turned at the right place off the N2. This road goes trough the heart of the Val d’Orcia and is quite picturesque. Continue on this road toward Chianciano Terme. You will have a nice view of Pienza perched on top of a ridge, off in the distance to the left (north). There is an “interchange” on this road – pay attention & keep heading to Chianciano Terme. Just before La Foce, you will see a lovely double set of cypress trees to the north, dancing (again) up the hill (another much photographed site). Continue on this road, and shortly you will see a parking lot opposite the Restaurant Oasi la Foce. Pull into this lot & you will get another view of this double set of cypress trees. Continue toward Chianciano, and about 1/2K after the parking lot, take the first left (north) on a dirt road toward Montepulciano (well marked). This will be a dirt road and will pass around a lovely castle. When the dirt road becomes a paved road, turn left towards Monticchiello (well marked). As you approach Monticciello, this road becomes particularly scenic.

Monticchiello is a very cute village – it’s where my father-in-law says he wants to live. Park the car in the lot outside this village near the refreshment stand (do you need any) & wander around. It’s a 30 min wander. There is a nice restaurant in town called La Porta.

Look at Monticchiello on the Touring Club map. You will see lots of roads radiating from this small village like spokes on a bicycle wheel. All these roads have fantastic views of the countryside – in my opinion, they offer the prettiest drives in the Val d’Orcia. If you have time to spare, by all means drive down all these roads. We’ve done this quite often at various times of the day when the sun casts different shadow patterns on the rolling hills and from the cypress trees. My favorite drive is the one branching out at 8:00 from Monticchiello. It connects to the road heading directly north to Pienza. Turn right towards Pienza on this road & you will get a fantastic view of Pienza. Just a little south of Pienza, there is a dirt road that heads south-west. Take this road and it will connect with the N2/Chianciano road running east/west. From here you can retrace the drive east towards La Foce where you will head to Montepulciano (by-passing the turn to Monticchiello). When this road hits the N146, turn left to Montepulciano.

If you don’t have extra time available for this side trip, after visiting Monticchiello head back down hill from the parking lot. Immediately after leaving the lot, go straight at the fork (just after the first house on the right) instead of turning right the way you entered the lot. This will lead to Montepulciano on a paved road that shortly becomes a dirt road and later paved again. There is a nice view of Montepulciano from this road. When this road dead-ends at the N146, turn left towards Pienza, or right to Montepulciano if you want to visit this town (one of my favorites).

Visit Montpulciano, if you like (1 hr visit). Use the Michelin Green Guide to find the sites you want to visit. Hike all the way up to the Piazza Grande. It’s a somewhat steep walk through town, however, but the village is very pretty. You can taste some excellent wine at the Avignonesi estate (you will see it – just opposite the tall column in the middle of the main street, just after you enter town). If you need a snack, find a place where you can get pizza by the slice & have a mushroom (fungi) and truffle (tartufi) pizza (only in Italy!!!).

Leave Montepulciano towards Pienza on the N146 again. Now you get a better view with the remarkable San Biagio Church in the foreground and Montepulciano in the background (you may have to drive a little west on the N146 to get the view). Hopefully you are at this spot about 5:00 or so. Without any further stops, you are less than 1 ½ hrs from Siena.

Drive along the N146 toward Pienza & San Quirico again (30 min drive). The sun will be in your face, but now the little church with the cypress trees around it will look quite different, as will other sites you photographed when you drove this route in the morning.

If time allows, visit San Quirico (it’s 45 mins to Siena from SQ). San Quirico is kind of a poor man’s Pienza – but they like it that way. It’s a town where people really live. In fact, I’ve told friends that San Quirico is the type of town we wish our small towns in the US would be like – kind of a River City, Iowa (Music Man). Everyone knows everyone else, people are out strolling, there are stores where locals shop for their everyday stuff, etc. Families congregate at the Bar Centrale (closed Thurs) in the evening, where the men play cards in one room, the younger children are in the video room, and the older children are outside playing soccer in the town square or just hanging out. If you visit San Quirico, have a coffee latte at the Bar Centrale & “people watch”. SQ is a 30-45 min visit. Some stores may be closed Wednesday afternoon.

Stu Dudley
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 05:08 PM
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Start with a good map. That one day itinerary is not feasible. And, one day rentals may not be cost effective. What is your total itinerary?
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 05:54 PM
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Stu, thanks for such detailed suggestions for exploring this beautiful area which I hope to visit again. Gracias....
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 06:26 PM
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Stu, who is an acknowledged expert, may inadvertently flatten enthusiasm with his stern prescriptions.
I would put it differently:
The Val d'Orcia is exquisite. The towns are delightful. IMO, the countryside is the real star, however.
If you can take more than a day, you will be abundantly repaid for your effort.
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Apr 23rd, 2010, 08:18 AM
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"Acknowledged expert"? A lot of people -- and I mean in the tens of thousands! -- take a completely different approach to the val d'Orcia and have travelled in Tuscany more than Stu. I sometimes think the point of the stern prescriptions is to deliberately kill a thread and deter other posters.

Stu, how about putting this antique written-in-stone itinerary into a Trip Report and providing a link to it!

Rainmich,

Are you sure you can rent a car for just one day? It's not always possible from the majors, if that matters to you.

You'd have to get up very early in the morning to catch a train to Chiusi, which would be the best departure point, unless you were willing to reverse your itinerary, which would make more sense.

You can use via Michelin to get a very primitive take on how long a bare bones drive would take you from Chiusi to Pienza, then on up through Montalcino and then to Pisa (use the feature that gives you a scenic route). It's about 200km, and Italian lunches tend to be long, plus you want to take pictures. If you only have a day for this, I suggest you bring a picnic lunch.
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