The Val d'Orcia
The Via Cassia SS2 meets the SS146 toward Pienza at San Quirico d'Orcia; the town's tourist office is inside the Palazzo Chigi, Via Dante Alighieri, 53027 San Quirico d'Orcia (tel. 0577-897-211), open April through October Thursday to Tuesday from 10am to 1pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm This market town with its 12th-century Romanesque Collegiata makes a good half-hour diversion. The honey-colored, travertine church has three elaborate medieval portals. The front entrance is the oldest and most intricate, a Lombard-style affair with animal heads as capitals, a receding stack of carved arches, friezes of dueling fantasy animals, and columns made of four slender poles knotted in the middle. To the right side is the second portal, perhaps by Giovanni Pisano, with telamon columns posing atop lions' backs. Another kneeling telamon supports a nearby window arch. The smaller, final portal dates to 1298. Inside is a Sano di Pietro polyptych and a set of 15th-century intarsia choir stalls by Antonio Barili that were originally set up in a chapel of Siena's Duomo. Down the block in the main square, Piazza della Libertà, is the entrance to the (alas, slightly neglected) Horti Leonini, a Renaissance Italianate garden (1580) with geometric box-hedge designs and shady holm oaks, originally a resting spot for holy pilgrims on the Francigena road from Canterbury to Rome. It's open daily from sunrise to sunset. For a taste of 21st-century Tuscany, stop in at Birrificio San Quirico, Via Dante Alighieri 93a (tel. 0577-898-193; www.birrificiosanquirico.it). Tuscany's artisan brewing industry is flourishing, and this little place is among the best. They create unfiltered blonde and amber beers. A tasting is free; bottles cost 10€ to 12€.
Five kilometers (3 miles) south signposted off the SS2 is Bagno Vignoni, little more than a group of houses surrounding one of the most memorable piazze in Tuscany. The Medici harnessed the naturally hot sulfur springs percolating from the ground by building a giant outdoor pool that fills the spot where the main square ought to be; it's lined with stone walls and finished with a pretty loggia at one end. Even St. Catherine of Siena, when not performing religious and bureaucratic miracles, relaxed here with a sulfur cure. To see the springs in their more natural state, take the second turnoff on the curving road into town and pull over when you see the tiny sulfurous mountain on your right. The waters bubble out here in dozens of tiny rivulets, gathering in a pool at the bottom, and there's a fairy-tale view, especially on misty days, of the Rocca d'Orcia. From the 11th to the 14th century, the castle was a stronghold and strategic watchtower of the Aldobrandeschi clan, formidable toll collectors along the Francigena pilgrim road through these parts.
Eighteen kilometers (11 miles) farther down the SS2, in a landscape dotted with dramatically eroded swathes of Crete, Radicofani glowers from atop its basalt outcropping. The remains of the town's Fortezza (tel. 339-743-7394; www.radicofani-heritagecentre.com) stand high above a medieval warren of steep streets and houses in stony gray basalt; all were seriously damaged by earthquakes in the 18th century. The castle, built by Hadrian IV -- the only English pope -- is most famous as the base of operations of the "gentle outlaw" Ghino di Tacco, immortalized by both Dante in his Inferno (Purgatorio, Canto VI) and Boccaccio in the Decameron (day 10, tale 2). Ghino was something of a Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich to give to the poor -- and taking a hefty share himself. It's open April through September daily from 9am to 7pm, weekends only during daylight hours otherwise. Admission is 4€ for adults, 3€ for children 3-16 or those 65 and over.
There are some della Robbia terra-cottas in Radicofani's churches of San Pietro and Sant'Agata, and the views from Radicofani of the surrounding rugged farmscape can be especially evocative when there's a morning mist melting shadows into soft relief. The locals call the region the Mare di Sassi ("Seas of Stones") -- an assessment with which Dickens, Montaigne, and other grand tourists heartily agreed. Those intrepid early travelers stayed at La Posta, a hotel converted from Grand Duke Ferdinando I's hunting lodge along the road south out of town down to the Via Cassia. The 1584 structure was designed by Buontalenti, but these days it sadly crumbles by the roadside across from a 1603 Medici fountain.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.