24km (15 miles) E of Montalcino; 55km (34 miles) SE of Siena; 125km (78 miles) S of Florence; 177km (110 miles) NW of Rome
Surveying the rolling farmland of Tuscany's Val d'Orcia, from a little natural balcony, the village of Pienza sits as a testament to one man's ambition and ego. At the height of the 15th-century Renaissance, humanist Sienese Pope Pius II, with the help of Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino, converted the tiny village in which he had been born into a vision of the ideal Renaissance city. The "city" began and ended with the new central square and its buildings -- the plan to cover the surrounding area with a grid of streets never materialized. The village of Pienza, however, retains its remarkable city-size piazza, one of the grandest achievements of Renaissance architecture and the only intact example of a city-planning scheme from the era. Director Franco Zeffirelli was so taken by the village's look that he dethroned Verona as the city of the Montagues and Capulets and filmed his Romeo and Juliet in Pienza. Pienza was also used in the Oscar-winning epic, The English Patient.
But for all Pius's dreams, Pienza never became more than a village. Today, its 2,500 inhabitants put up with the stream of day-trippers with good humor, lots of craft stands, and a surfeit of food stores. The main drag, Corso Rossellino, goes in one end of town and out the other in less than 4 minutes at a stroll. There are a handful of narrow side streets within Pienza's proud little walls, and modest new developments surround the burg on three sides (the fourth, southern side is saved for a memorable Val d'Orcia view). Pienza will take no more than half a day in your schedule, time enough to admire the palaces, Sienese art collection, and Duomo at the town's perfect core; nibble on the famous sheep's milk cheeses and honey; and take a short walk to the odd, isolated medieval churches in the countryside outside the walls. Its environs also make a good base for discovering most of the places in southern Tuscany.