Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Autumn in Tuscany: Val d’Orcia landscape

“…the pause in this crossing that I hold dearest, the stop that my spirit desires with fits of impatience and greediness - is that in the high Orcia valley, beyond San Quirico, in the lands reaching to Montepulciano and Pienza. Its vision appears as the seabed of the memory or a land of dreams where some mysterious exalted sense perceives the chill of an unexplainable wind. Up there, in fact, the wind turns into the planet's enigmatic breathing. The morning breeze blows out toward the sea and returns warmer in the evening toward land. In that oasis which welcomes my exodus I sense the idleness of old men, I listen to the dull, mounting din of birds breaking into song, to silence, to the cry of joy that greets the day, to the sounds of life in the valley that are deflected, with the clinking of artisans meeting the moans of plows furrowing the land. Then there is that silence which is "not silent", being the language of nature and the universe…”

Mario Luzi
From “Terre di vento e di deserto”
“A land of wind and desert”

In the heart of the Sienese countryside dwells an essential, yet perfect landscape. It Is made up of hills, ravines, a winding riverbed and cypress trees that crown hilltops in perfect isolation or run along country roads with geometrical precision. Oak woods, olive groves and vineyards where Brunnello di Montalcino and other great Tuscan wines are born watch over enchanting hillsides, villages and historical monuments. To the west the view takes in Monte Amiata, Italy's highest extinct volcano. But it is the hills that impress you first. Val d'Orcia is now protected as an artistic, natural and cultural park. Trails, guides, brochures and museums all offer different means for exploring its treasures, although this most beautiful of Tuscany's valleys is first and foremost an emotion in itself. You’ll feel it in Radicofani if arriving from Viterbo or Rome, while crossing the Foce pass if arriving from Chianciano or Chiusi or at the Rocca a Tentennano after passing through Monte Amiata's dark forests. Wide-open, rolling and welcoming, Val d’ Orcia unfurls for travellers like one great, embracing smile.
If arriving from Siena or Florence to the north, the transition from the Crete area to Val d'Orcia is more sublte. The landscape remains arid as the hills rise and predominate and the wide Ombrone riverbed makes way for a narrower, winding valley. Clay outcroppings and ravines become fewer and farther between. The hamlets crowning the hilltops suddenly become splendid villages steeped with history and monuments. This is the most forbidding approach, described by poet Mario Luzi and by numerous other travellers. This is the route to Val d'Orcia taken in the past by pilgrims, Popes, mercenaries and merchants. Of these we may mention Charlemagne, the 11thcentury Archbishop Sigeric and members of the Medici family on their way to the curative waters at Bagno Vignoni.
Val d'Orcia leaves its mark on all those who pass this way. Those born here are fiercely bound to their land, and can scarcely live anywhere else. Even today, travellers who spend just a few hours passing through are instantly struck and seduced. They suddenly realise they must come back. The director Anthony Minghella was similarly struck and set his masterpiece film The English Patient, a saga about travelling, love, life and pain in Pienza and the monastery at Sant’ Anna in Camprena. More than anything else, Val d’ 0rcia means nature. The river this valley is named after is little more than a stream for most of the year. in the summer heat it practically dries up, but the autumn rains transform it into a raging river that seems to consume all it encounters. It springs forth in the hills between Radicofani and Sarteano, descends into a wide cultivated valley and then heads west toward Pienza, San Quirico, Montalcino and Castiglione. It skirts Monte Amiata and delves into a deep canyon, then passes through the hills of Maremma and finally feeds into the Ombrone river. The Orcia river is not the valley's only source of water. In Bagno Vignoni and Bagni San Filippo, thermal waters heated in the heart of the volcano bubble to the surface and form mineral outcroppings of rare beauty while offering well-being and pleasure to those who arrive from near and afar, as they have done for centuries.