While staying on the Tuscany/Umbria border, we took day trips to many towns of different sizes. I think Pienza may have stuck out as my favorite, though each had its own unique qualities and specialties.
Pienza, located in the Val d’Orcia, was previously named Corsignano, and first referenced in documents from the 9th Century. Corsignano was the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini who later became Pope Pius II from 1458-1464. Once Pope, Piccolomini rebuilt his home village into a Renaissance town and named it after himself…Pienza.
Pienza’s piazza is bordered by four buildings…Palazzo Piccolomini, The Duomo, Palazzo Vescovile, and Palazzo Comunale (the town hall). The Palazzo Piccolomini currently operates as museum. With only two hours in the town and beautiful weather, I didn’t go in, but little did I know it was home to a rooftop garden! The 7 euro entry fee with a free audio guide might have worth the price of admission.
Instead I picked to visit The Duomo, its Baptistry called the Church of San Giovanni, and its underground labyrinth. The Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Pienza, was built atop the old, crumbling Church of Santa Maria in Corsignano. Fragments of the church are on display in the Baptistry across from the high altar designed by Bernardo Rosellini.
The labyrinth, below the Baptistry, was creepy! Narrow corridors and many, many flights of stairs led in multiple directions. Fortunately, much of the area was closed off as the long hallways weaving in different ways did give me the sense I could get lost! In the labyrinth was also a neat photography exhibition.
From the piazza, I followed the main street past a variety of shops to the end of the walled city where I turned right on the last small street which took me to a beautiful view of Val d’Orcia. A path paralleled the valley and the outer part of the town which I followed back to the Piazza.
After this, I zig-zagged around the charming side streets. I strolled past cute residences, cool doors, lovely flower pots, decorative windows, religious shrines and through small squares as I admired this quaint, Renaissance town. While I wandered around the side streets, most of the rest of the group shopped. Pienza is known for its cheese, but the seasoned shoppers in our group found deals on scarves, dish towels, jewelry, and ceramics.
We finished our scheduled itinerary early one day, so we made an extra stop to Monticchiello, an unspoiled, ancient village in the heart of Tuscany. The village is tucked behind its old towers and walls that kept enemies at bay. The town is best known for its lovely views of the Tuscan hillside and its summer theater productions performed by the townspeople themselves! The village is home to a church, charming balconies, archways and just a few shops that the avid shoppers in our group didn’t miss!
ORVIETO (an Umbrian town, not Tuscan)
Orvieto sits atop a cliff of tufo and is home to a spectacular cathedral, Duomo di Orvieto or the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. Our drivers drove us all the way to the Piazza alongside the Cathedral, though most visitors start at the bottom of the volcanic hill and take an escalator up to the medieval town.
This 14th-century, Gothic style church, commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV is absolutely magnificent. The outside of the church is carved in figurines which represent different sections of the Bible. This way illiterates of the time were still able to read. The first panel on the far left explains the Book of Genesis. The second panel displays stories from the Bible. The third panel depicts the Life of Christ, and the fourth panel shows the Final Judgment.
Inside the church is just as spectacular and is worth the nominal entry fee. While the main part of the church is lovely, the frescoes found in the Chapel of San Brizio to the right of the nave are the most special. These frescoes were painted by Luca Signorelli whose works were an inspiration to Michelangelo.
After visiting the church, we ventured Via Duomo and Corso Cavour to shop. The shoppers in the group didn’t want to risk missing any stores as they sometimes close after lunch. The shoppers picked out scarves, jackets, and jewelry among other things. In the meantime, Joy and I window shopped, zig-zagged through side streets, stopped for lunch and walked all the way to Fortezza Albornoz to enjoy the views of the hills below.
Soon we backtracked to explore the other end of Corso Cavour as we headed to Pozzo della Cava, a well built in Etruscan caves at the behest of Pope Clement VII. The self-guided tour took us through nine caves past Estruscan artifacts and the well, but I think I would have rather taken the guided tour of Orvieto’s underground, offered at the Piazza Duomo. It seemed more extensive, approximately an hour rather than ten minutes, but the tour was only at certain times which didn’t work well for the whole group. Under a time constraint, however, we got to see the Etruscan underground!
While most of the shops were open, a particular jewelry store closed for a few hours, so we asked to stay in Orvieto a little longer than the planned 3pm departure. While we waited, we hung out at Enoteca al Duomo in the lovely weather. Orvieto is a wonderful mid-sized town, and I believe a favorite for many on the trip! ETB
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