Friday, May 12, 2006

Day 9: San Quirico d'Orcia

The sun is shining this morning--there is some mist over the mountains across the valley but it looks like it will be a beautiful day. We have a leisurely morning and, after breakfast, set out for a walk around town.

Our first stop is the church near the hotel...the outside has three very attractive Romanesque doors, with intricate carvings--there are two very fine crocodiles over the main entrance--and inside, the decorations are very restrained except for the altar that was added later. The choir stalls with the inlaid wood portraits are in the back the church and there is guard rope around the altar. But there is someone working in the church and when we ask him if we can see the choir stalls, he says that we can. There are nine stalls that have the "intarsia" work.....the detail of the inlaid wood art work is beautiful and the scenes are very delicate with a great sense of perspective. The portraits are graceful and expressive--we are always amazed when we see such wonderful art accomplished in this medium.

We take a walk through town....stopping to do some shopping for linen and pottery. We stroll through the very large Horti Leoni--the formal Italian garden inside the town walls...and through the pretty little rose garden dotted with a few pieces of modern sculpture. We return to the hotel along the street that has beautiful views over the Val d'Orcia and through the garden entrance. We get in the car and drive to Bagno Vignoni--the spa town just south of San Quirico d'Orcia where the main piazza is a large basin of water (no longer in use as a working spa.) The basin was built by the Medici and was used by various popes and saints. We walk around the "piazza", find the restaurant where we will eat tonight, buy some postcards and a nice picture book about the Val d'Orcia, inspect the Posta Marcucci Hotel's public rooms and check out their swimming pool and spa. The pool area at the hotel (open to the public for a fee) is very large--one pool has the "medicinal waters" and the other is a regular swimming pool. It is set right on the edge of the valley with views across the Orcia River to the hill town of Castiglione d'Orcia and on to Monte Amiata. Right next to the hotel--on the face of the cliff that drops precipitously down to the river bed--is the recently developed Parco dei Mulini which has a lot of explanations about the mills that operated here using the thermal spring waters until the mid-1900's.

(NOTE: I should stipulate right here that the countryside in this area of southern Tuscany is impossibly beautiful. I will also stipulate that San Quirico d'Orcia is wonderful small village with the typical "urban" feel of a small Italian town not yet dominated by tourism. It is hard to know where the tipping point from lovely and authentic to lovely and tourist-oriented is located but San Quirico is still on the "good" side. And the Palazzo del Capitano is also terrific....stylishly restored, comfortable rooms, beautiful garden, terrific breakfasts, friendly staff. Only one complaint from me--no high speed internet--and one possible drawback--no elevator and two pretty challenging flights of stairs to the top floor.)

Our drive in the country is cut short when we try to visit the new, very fancy Adler Thermal spa on the edge of Bagno Vignoni. While trying to make a u-turn in their garage driveway, the rear of the car becomes entangled with a big rock that gets stuck under the back end. I have to get down on the ground under the car to dislodge the rock and get my clothes dirty. Before heading back, we take a dirt road that goes below the town and see the remains of the mills that are located on the face of the cliff. I walk up a bit and find a little catchbasin where the water pools before continuing down to the river. I am not sure why this pool is not a popular place for "taking the waters". We continue down the dirt road hoping to reach the river but we are unsuccessful.

Back in San Quirico I change my shirt, and we shop for food for lunch at the shop in the middle of town....a very well stocked store with a friendly and patient proprietress. We buy salami, fava beans, bread, a melon and gorgeous looking strawberries to add to our parmigiano-reggiano and have a feast in the under the trellis in the garden of the hotel. (D: Since one doesn't touch (let alone squeeze) the fruit in most Italian shops, what a pleasure to ask for a melon "per mangiare oggi" - to eat today- and have the proprietor pick one out that turns out to be perfect.)

After lunch, I have a business appointment in of my clients is planning a crafts workshop in 2007 at the Residence San Gregorio and I want to check out the meeting rooms and talk to the hotel manager. The scenery on the drive to Pienza on the main road is again impossibly beautiful--in both directions. The hotel we are visiting is steps from the center in a restored theater. We had stayed there about six years ago but since then, they have expanded and are now in the midst of additional construction--another hotel building, an underground parking garage, a new restaurant, a big piazza as well as new meeting rooms. The manager--who says she remembers us from our previous stay--takes us on a tour and assures me that all will ready for the group in May of 2007.

We then walk into town, admire the view from the promenade looking over the valley, have a gelato and buy some pecorino cheese--one wheel to take home and a smaller piece for immediate consumption. There are a good number of people walking in town but the only groups seem to be Italian schoolchildren....but there is a lot of litter in the main piazza. (D: Has Pienza reached that tipping point? For some Italians, it has.) Our next stop is the nearby village of Monticchiello. The village is quite hilly but we make our way through the picturesque streets to the main square. While Diana buys some beautiful dish towels, I walk into the church which is bright and airy...making it possible to see the frescoes on the wall pretty clearly. The church also has brochures (in Italian) with a map of the various art works and brief explanatory paragraphs about the art. One of the frescoes on the wall shows the patron saints of the town asking for the Madonna's blessing for Monticchiello with a picture of the town in the background. If only more churches would follow this example, it would make it much easier for inquiring, indefatigable tourists like me.

After a short rest back at the hotel, we head for Chiusi to pick up Maureen and Franco at the train station. The direct road goes along the valley floor and again, we just marvel at the beauty of the surroundings. The ride takes about 45 minutes with only one wrong turn. We find a parking space right across from the station and wait for their train. The train is about 10 minutes late and they are one the last passengers to get off, so we have an anxious moment before they appear. We then repeat the drive back to San Quirico, they check into the hotel and we head off to Bagno Vignoni for dinner at the Osteria del Leone.

Bagno Vignoni is very pretty at night....street lamps give the town a glow and there is a full moon. The restaurant is very attractive but unfortunately dinner is something of a disappointment--even after all my research. The wine--a red from Montepulciano--is excellent but the rest of the dishes are either just okay or not good at all. The pici dish is the best primi.....but the ravioletti are heavy and undistinguished and Franco's "papa al pomodoro" is a thin tomato soup instead of a thick porridge. Diana and Franco share a steak which is tasty but a little tough and Maureen's arista di maiale (pork roast) is bland. My plate of local prosciutto is excellent as is my panna cotta with chocolate sauce. I will not be recommending this place to future clients.

Tomorrow more exploring of the Val d'Orcia, another business appointment in Pienza and dinner with some Slow Travel message board friends.


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