Pienza is a town in the province of Siena, in the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany. Ironically, we visited Siena itself the day before on their famous market day, only to be left sorely disappointed by a very grey, soulless city. Whilst the much-photographed Piazza del Campo – famously used as the location for the raucous & colourful horse race depicted in Quantam of Solace – was impressive, Ben and I felt distinctly underwhelmed by the rest of the city. No street entertainers, quirky stalls or boutiques; instead, expensive coffee and long queues for attractions. The market was nothing to speak of, and we rattled through it amongst the crowds both thinking ‘Was THAT it?!’
Pienza, on the other hand, was exactly what I’d imagined a Tuscan town to be – oodles of unassuming charm; a quiet, serene atmosphere punctuated only by the chimes of the tower bell; and the soft patter of footsteps through small cobbled streets.
Visiting in late September, we were treated to autumnal sunshine and a light breeze (which was definitely not welcome when sunbathing by the pool later that afternoon, but was just fine when in the balmy confines of the city walls) as we wandered around. We happened upon an amazing Italian cheese emporium – the smell was quite overwhelming, but the site of shelf upon shelf of large round cheeses in an array of colours more than made up for the assault on your senses. We also found a gift shop where we purchased three small watercolour paintings of the Tuscan countryside, featuring the tall narrow trees that I dubbed ‘finger trees’ in the days that followed, such was their popularity in the region.
All this wondering led to hungry bellies, and we settled down in a courtyard café and indulged in crepes with melted cheese & smoked ham and glasses of lemonade. We also made a reservation at the Trattoria Latte di Luna, a much raved-about restaurant famed for its suckling pig, for the following evening. The courtyard was full of Italians eating lunch – always a good sign if it’s popular with the locals…
Meandering back around the town and past the clock tower, we spotted a café and, eager to yet again rest our feet (or perhaps just take in the sights and people watch), we found a table and ordered two hot chocolates. Anyone who’s ever had a hot chocolate in Italy will know it puts our British effort to shame – this is like swimming in a vat of melted chocolate, super velvety & rich and almost impossible to drink all in one sitting!
Content with having discovered a proper Tuscan town, we headed home in our dusty (hired) Fiat Panda to soak up the last few hours of afternoon sun by the pool. A quick note about where we stayed – we were fortunate enough to be recommended a private holiday home by one of Ben’s colleagues, who rather sadly no longer hire it out. The Hayloft is a one bedroom outbuilding with its own veranda and garden area, with private use of the amazing infinity pool belonging to the adjoining house in the afternoons. The property is only accessible by a mile long unmade road – so having a car is essential – but it means you are totally and completely isolated, with only the sound of birds and, at night, crickets. The nearest town, San Giovanni d’Asso, has just a bar, chemist, newsagent and a Co-op (the name for supermarkets in Italy) which was open either side of the Italians’ customary afternoon siesta, so being mobile was super important and also meant we got to see the best of Tuscany. We encountered many cycling tours, so of course the next time we’ll be returning with two wheels and some pedals…
Other towns worth a visit if you’re in the region: Bagno Vignoni (famed for its thermal springs – but not open to the public on Wednesdays!); San Gimignano, a World Heritage sight; the Renassiance town Montepulciano, and Monticchiello.