Intimate Italy Like You've Never Seen It!
How one Budget Travel writer turned a dream—experiencing Italy like an Italian—into a reality with an affordable, completely doable walking tour of Tuscany.
Mom was almost giddy from all the gorgeousness. She couldn't stop hugging us and saying "I'm so lucky!" My sister and I rolled our eyes, but secretly we agreed. Girosole sent us on a path through the Orcia River valley (Val d'Orcia). It's an area of such well-preserved agrarian beauty-where cypress trees and crop rows trace the same lines they did when this land was first farmed-that it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's the place where the concept of man-made landscape began, when the wealthy merchants of Siena laid out plots of land in the 14th and 15th centuries with the aim of making them not just manageable, but also aesthetically pleasing. We felt like we were walking through a 600-year-old period set piece, where every field, tree, and house was placed just so, and around every corner was another equally cinematic view. Let's just say we took a lot of photos.
Throughout the trip, we were in daily contact with Giacomo or his father, and when they came to collect our bags, we'd pepper them with questions. One morning, we asked Giacomo about a massive building we'd seen in the distance, which he explained was a hotel dating back to the Middle Ages built to house religious pilgrims. During Caesar's time, the main north-south byway cut through the Val d'Orcia. Later, in the 7th century, Christians traveled by foot on their way to Rome, and it remained a pilgrimage route for a thousand years. Monasteries and inns sprang up to serve the travelers, but by the 17th century, the road fell out of fashion. But those earlier journeyers left behind a province perfect for strolling, where scenic lowlands were punctuated with hilltop fortified settlements, most of which were located less than 10 miles-a manageable day's walk-from another town.
Remnants of this once-illustrious route are sprinkled throughout the Val d'Orcia. Just after passing through the hamlet of Villa a Tolli (which was so deserted I had to use my camera's self timer to photograph the three of us in front of a dreamy stone house covered in climbing roses), we rounded a corner and saw the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, its bell tower peering above the countryside. The abbey was built and rebuilt many times, first in the 700s by Lombard kings to house pilgrims. Its current form is gracefully curved in a rare French-Romanesque style, dotted with prehistoric-looking carvings of monsters and oxen and men. Close up, its massive building blocks seemed to glow from within.
There were other visitors at Sant'Antimo, but we spent most days in splendid isolation, encountering almost no one-just us and fields of poppies, thorny brambles of wild roses, stone walls blooming with irises, and clumps of rosemary as big as bushes. We walked right up to the iconic Cappella di Vitaleta. Flanked by two rows of towering 40-foot cypress trees, this tiny chapel is reportedly the most photographed church in Tuscany, but it's reachable only on foot. We had it all to ourselves for almost an hour; to celebrate our private tour, my sister and I turned cartwheels right on the lawn. Similarly deserted was the Collegiata church, in the slumbering town of San Quirico d'Orcia. Its entrance is flanked by delicately knotted columns resting on the backs of fantastical lions while scaly monsters tangle in battle above the door. Though it was designed to make 13th century pilgrims cower before the power of the church, we modern-day travelers were just as awed, dwarfed and alone before those spectacular stone beasts. When we saw Giacomo again, we asked him where everyone was. "The Italians, they don't walk," he said. "They come by car, they have lunch, they have a coffee, then they get back in the car."
The under-populated countryside stood out in blissful contrast to the teeming villages where we spent our nights. One day, as we lingered outside a ceramics shop, surveying the valley we'd just walked through, we overheard another tourist. "Okay, this is our third town today. Are we done yet?" While they rushed on to Florence or back to Rome, we spent leisurely afternoons and evenings poking around in boutiques, gaping at medieval architecture, and strolling the narrow lanes. In Pienza, we saw a group of little old ladies gathered at the end of a cobbled street, knitting. In Montepulciano we sat outside drinking glasses of the famous Vino Nobile in a piazza and slept in a hotel, L'Agnolo, that felt more like a cathedral, with glorious frescoes painted on the ceiling of our room. And we happened to be in Montalcino on the day the town celebrates its patron saint, Maria SS del Soccorso, so we were treated to July 4th-worthy fireworks bursting over a fortress; afterward, a DJ blasted tunes in the square, and we found ourselves dancing in the streets to "Another One Bites the Dust."