The Via Cassia, (SS2), is a very ancient Roman road connecting Florence and Siena to Rome through the Val d’Orcia. For most of its route the Via Cassia coincides with the historic Via Francigena, that the pilgrims were used to cross on their spiritual journey from Canterbury to Rome. This secular route passes through the most spectacular countryside of Tuscany and probably of all of Italy; the type of landscape found in most postcards about Tuscany.
The Val d’Orcia is a unique combination of history, art, and scenic beauty, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. We first drove to Montepulciano, a beautiful city on a hill, overlooking the valley, and had a drink with a view in caffè Poliziano, a beautiful art nouveau design cafe. We walked up through the main street and back down on one side of the village overlooking the rolling Tuscan hills.
We then continued to Pienza. Pienza is located in the gorgeous Val d’Orcia (a hilly region renowned for its hiking). Pienza itself is such a gem, it’s been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s also where Zeffirelli filmed Romeo and Juliet. Pienza’s history is a little odd: Pope Pius II was born here, and after becoming pope in 1458, he had the town completely rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Vain? Yes. But also the reason for Pienza’s stunning architecture and harmonious layout. Only 2,500 people live here today, giving it a little bit of a wistful, forgotten air.
Pienza is also home to the pecorino cheese. I find Pienza very picturesque, a bit too tidy to my taste, but with beautiful views over the Tuscan hills. We walked up and down the winding narrow streets of Pienza, with shops on each side.
We wanted to have a picnic and drove in the direction of Montefollonico. Montefollonico is a beautiful medieval hamlet atop a hill, known as the town of the Vin Santo. I found the village nothing really special, and the picnic spot next to an old spring was like a horror story. Once we sat down, being really happy with our find, and started eating we were attacked by hords of mosquitos and had to flee the place. We took our picnic with us and ate it on the porch of our apartment.
The next afternoon we decided to visit Lucca. Lucca is a beautiful Roman city with narrow streets, lined by churches and squares. We walked through the San Pietro gate of the fortified city walls (dating 1504-1645) that are 12 m high and 30 m thick! We walked over the piazza Napoleone to the piazza San Michele, with its beautiful San Michele in Foro church with its black and white pillars in the facade. We then walked further to the piazza Dell’Anfiteatro, the former amfitheatre which is now a round market place with pastel colored houses. We had an ice cream at Grom.
We continued to the 14th century Torre dei Guinigi (tower) which you can climb, for a beautiful view of Lucca. There are trees planted on top of the tower, and the legend goes that Paolo Guinigi planted the highest tree. When he got imprisoned later, the tree announced his death by losing all its leaves.
In the same street a bit further we took drink at the very sympathetic bistro Piqui. (free Wifi) For the first time in Italy I received a cookie with my coffee, and when we ordered a glass of wine, we received small focaccia toasts with spicy dip sauce. The wine tasted really good so we bought a bottle of it to take home.
We then walked towards the Duomo, which was already closed, set on a very Italian square. We ate dinner at Osteria Bernardini. The food was decent and tasty, but avoid the fish, it comes out of the freezer. When we walked to our car and passed the Duomo again we saw it was open, so we entered to listen to a choir performing. Magical in that setting and a perfect end of the day!