In 2015, I was planning our next trip to Italy and discovered La Foce, a beautiful villa and garden set in the valley called Val d’Orcia. I added it to our list of things to do, but we never made it there. The garden was opened only certain days and hours, and we just couldn’t squeeze it in. The next year, I tried again with a similar result. I’m not sure how many times I tried, but the logistics always got in the way. So as my birthday was approaching this year, I decided that we would visit La Foce. There is a Bed & Breakfast on site with a two-night stay required and a tour of that fabulous garden included. I booked it!
First stop: A very unique wine tasting
We left Lucca early on my birthday and drove 1.5 hours to our first stop – a winery called Podere Il Carnasciale. This is a very small “cult” winery that makes a thousand cases per year, using a very interesting grape called the Caberlot, a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot. We met the winemaker at a nearby cemetery (you can’t make this stuff up!), and he led us on multiple gravel and dirt roads up the mountain. He showed us their oldest vines (planted in 1985) then led us to the barrel room. We didn’t do a traditional tour and tasting, but instead had our first ever barrel tasting. Their 2020 vintage is ready for bottling, so we tasting wine directly from 4 out of 6 barrels of their different vineyards of Caberlot. Although they were all Caberlot from the same year, it was interesting to smell and taste the differences that comes from different locations. What a cool experience! You can read more here.
Pienza, hilltop town of Tuscany
Pienza was a modest village until one of the villagers became Pope Pius II. He transformed his village into the “ideal city of the Renaissance” and we saw many tourists enjoying the atmosphere, sites, and panoramic views. In three years a central square was rebuilt with the Town Hall, the Papal Palace (Palazzo), and the Cathedral (Duomo).
La Foce – finally!
“La Foce is a large estate in the Southern Tuscan region of Val d’Orcia, midway between Florence and Rome. La Foce lies on the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome. It has been inhabited continuously for many centuries. The Villa was built in the late 15th century as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the Via Francigena.
In 1924, Antonio and Iris Origo bought the dilapidated estate. The villa was restored by the Origos in the 1920s. The fine gardens were designed by the English architect Cecil Pinsent. The Origos employed 25 families and started a school to teach and ensure the well-being of some 50 local children. They also built 35 dwellings in the 1920s to 1930s for tenant farmers.
The book War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo is set at this estate, which at the time contained 57 farms on 7,000 acres. [The book is based on Origo’s diary during World War II and tells of the day-to-day experiences and struggles that occurred as the war was fought all around them. I read this book a few months ago.]
Descendants of the family still own the property today and operate it as a resort.” [excerpts from Wikipedia]
The Cypress Tree is a common feature of the Tuscan landscape. These very tall evergreen trees produce leaves that are dark green in color, and maintain this color throughout the year. They are also a symbol of the Italian landscape. A typical element of a Renaissance painting is a landscape in the background; if you look closely, you’ll notice that the landscapes look remarkable like today’s Tuscan landscape including the ubiquitous cypress trees. Today you will find many photographs taken of the landscape, including a few of the S-shaped streets lined with cypress trees. One of the best examples is on the La Foce estate and was part of the landscape directly outside of our room! I took pictures several times throughout the day to see how the light impacted the scene. The yellowish color is from the spring wheat that was ready for harvest. I’d like to return when the wheat is brilliant green.
Our garden tour was scheduled for 11:30am on Thursday and it was already very hot. Although I had seen many pictures of the gardens, I was surprised at the impact of the combination of the formal gardens with the gorgeous landscape of Val d’Orcia. It was simply spectacular!
Thursday afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Lago di Montepulciano, a nearby lake with park. They even had birdwatching tours available and I had booked a tour for 4pm. Why they would have such a tour at 4pm is beyond me… To date, our birdwatching experiences in Italy have not been nearly as productive as those in America; there are simply fewer birds here. So with tempered expectations, we made the drive. We met a lovely young woman who is continuing her studies in Environmental Science and she took us on a personal tour of the lake, including quite a large hide. Cost of the tour was €5 each! And here are my best pictures:
Last stop: Chiusi, Tuscan town with rich Etruscan history
Before the Roman times, the Etruscan people lived in Italy (Tuscany and a bit beyond) from roughly 750BC to 90BC. The Etruscans were an advanced civilization with rich mineral resources and as a major Mediterranean trading power. Archaeologists have discovered a lot of artifacts from the civilization, mostly where they buried their dead. Jim and I started getting interested in learning more about the civilization and can’t resist visiting archaeological sites and museums. While in Chiusi, Jim went on a tour of some tunnels underneath the Cathedral. The Etruscans had created this series of tunnels to collect rainwater, which, filtering through the layered sandstones and sediments of the hillside was channeled into wells and then drawn for domestic use. The Romans also used the tunnels, but skipped the filtering aspect, so many people got sick. [I skipped this activity because it involved lots of steps and I’m still very slow on steps.]
After Chiusi, we headed home to Lucca. It was a great birthday adventure! Thanks for reading this lengthy post, and I hope that you enjoyed learning about some of the smaller, less touristy locations of Italy.