One of Tuscany’s calling cards is its scenery: Sumptuous, extravagantly green, undulating farm fields that look like a painting. Hillsides grooved with twisty rural roads, lined with pointy cypress trees. Stately churches, humble chapels, rustic farmhouses, and circles of trees perched just so in resplendent tableaus.
There are a handful of places I’ve been that I describe as “mind-bending” — places with a unique, otherworldly quality: Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Australia’s Uluru. Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The Oregon Coast. And, of course, the Heart of Tuscany.
“Heart of Tuscany” is my nickname for the corridor connecting the hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, and Montalcino, plus a few little side-trips within about a 30-minute drive of that spine. Italians know this area as the Val d’Orcia.
It’s not just the landscape. Beauty is in the DNA of Tuscans. One Siena native recently told me that Tuscans consider themselves the inheritors and stewards of a centuries-long legacy of beauty. Every tree that’s planted, every farmhouse that’s restored, every road that’s re-routed — it’s all carefully considered not only on practical or economic merits, but also on aesthetics. If Tuscans sometimes come on a little strong preaching the glories of their land…well, that’s why.
A few years back, drunk on all this wondrous scenery, I decided to scour the Val d’Orcia to compile a “greatest hits” list of calendar-worthy Tuscan tableaus. I got suggestions from several Tuscan friends, who nominated their picks. And I came up with this rundown for our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook (where you’ll find all the details):
You’ll find dozens upon dozens of these in your Tuscan travels. But two classics are the perfectly twisty road near La Foce gardens (pictured above), and the one cresting a hill adjacent to Monticchiello.
Circle of Cypresses (Rondò)
This ring of cypress trees stands dramatically alone on a gently sloping hillside of brilliant-green-in-springtime crops, alongside a highway just west of San Quirico d’Orcia. Planted as a shelter for shepherds caught out in the elements, today it’s one of Tuscany’s top photo ops.
Chapel with Trees
The super-scenic road between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza (SP-146) has several fine viewpoints, but the best-known is the tidy little Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta on a ridge, flanked by pudgy cypress trees.
Farmhouse with Trees
On the same road, just outside of Pienza, is a classic “farmhouse with trees” scene.
Farmhouse with Twisty Driveway
From anywhere along Pienza’s panoramic terrace, just gaze off to the south. In the foreground, you’ll see a perfect little farmhouse with a meandering driveway (made famous as the home of Russell Crowe in Gladiator).
The list goes on and on. Just to round out our scenic little loop through the Val d’Orcia, here’s a little more “honorable mention” eye candy:
The view down from Montepulciano’s summit, with the Church of San Biagio
A driveway off of road SP-146, near Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta
Sant’Antimo Abbey, outside of Montalcino
Tuscan Street Scenes
And, if you’ve never thought of town streets as “scenery,” Tuscany might just change your mind:
Lucca yet again
What’s your favorite Tuscan tableau?
Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.
Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including drives through sumptuous scenery like what I’ve described here.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.