We went to Pienza with our daughter and her fiancé one Sunday last October. We didn’t see much of Pienza then because we arrived in mid-afternoon and many restaurants close after lunch on Sunday. We succeeded in eating, but I wanted to return so I could actually SEE Pienza. We did that last weekend—the first weekend in March. Although the day was cold from a strong, icy wind, the sun was shining—a miracle these last several days—and it was almost warm, at least in the sun!
Pienza is a tiny hill town rebuilt in the mid-1450s by favorite son Pope Pius II to be an ideal Renaissance village. You can probably see every inch of it in an hour or so, unless you take a one-hour tour of the Palazzo Piccolomini, which we did and enjoyed. The palace was built for the Piccolomini family—of Pope Pius II and Pope Pius III fame—in 1459. The family lived there until 1962, and their former home is beautifully preserved. My favorite parts of the palace are the three loggias and the formal garden, which all overlook the stunning Val d’Orcia and Mount Amiata to the west. We missed this grand view in October, alas.
Before we left Rome we decided to have lunch at Osteria Sette di Vino, so we stopped there on our way into town and made a lunch reservation. It was a good thing we did because about five minutes after we were seated, every table was filled, and a line had formed outside. Most restaurants in Italy are not very large, and when they remove their outdoor seating in winter, they can’t seat many people. If you’re going to dine anywhere in Italy in winter, it’s probably a good idea to make a reservation.
Two reasons to travel to Tuscany are to eat wonderful food and to drink wonderful wine. Sette di Vino was perfect for this. We put ourselves in the hands of the owner, who recommended a plate of mixed bruschetta, which was followed by glorious Tuscan bean soup to share (“And you’ll probably want that with onions and olive oil, won’t you?” Of course!). We then shared a serving of grilled pecorino cheese and a serving of pork liver wrapped in bacon—both excellent. We drank a good Rosso di Montalcino, the baby brother of Brunello di Montalcino.
Pienza is noted for its delicious pecorino cheese. Every other store in Pienza sells pecorino, and the town noticeably smells of it—in a yummy way. Sette di Vino’s menu listed a cheese tasting, so we shared one for dessert. The plate included a pecorino fresca (the most fresh), pecorino medio (medium-aged), and pecorino stagionato (the most aged). I liked them all, but I liked the creamy, tangy stagionato the best. We stopped on our way out of town to buy some fresca and stagionato. I was hoping we would!
We then drove on through the Val d’Orcia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to Montalcino. UNESCO listed these criteria, among others, for selecting the Val d’Orcia:
Criterion (iv): The Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was rewritten in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture.
Criterion (vi): The landscape of the Val d’Orcia was celebrated by painters from the Scuola Senese, which flourished during the Renaissance. Images of the Val d’Orcia, and particularly depictions of landscapes where people are depicted as living in harmony with nature, have come to be seen as icons of the Renaissance and have profoundly influenced the development of landscape thinking.
The Val d’Orcia is truly beautiful—even in winter—with gently rolling green hills studded with cypress trees and, of course, grape vines and olive trees. Snowcapped mountains arise to the south of the valley. I loved it there, and I will go back.