The Iconic Chapel on the Hill

I remember the first time I saw the chapel, from a distance in the middle of no where, on a road trip through Tuscany on my way to Pienza. I thought I had seen a mirage. I had to blink twice and rub my eyes. The view I saw had been photographed thousands of times yet it seemed like it could not possibly exist. An iconic picture found in almost every calendar or note card set about Italy that leaves you thinking there can be no place on earth that beautiful and yet here I was looking at it in real-time, in the flesh.

The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in Italy’s stunning Val d’ Orcia is one of the most photographKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAed views in Tuscany. Built on a solitary hill against a sweeping panorama of agrarian fields and stands of cypress, the chapel once held a Renaissance statue of the Madonna sculpted by Andrea della Robbia in 1590. Recently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta is an indelible memory of my travels in Italy and a sight that will forever define the landscape of Tuscany.

Click here to see some amazing pictures of the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in San Quirico d’Orcia and Tuscany.

The Pope Slept Here

Pienza is known around the world for being one of Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures and the home of a Pope with a vision to transform his birthplace into the “ideal” Renaissance city. Located in the breathtaking Val d’Orcia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) overlooking Monte Amiata, the medieval town of Corsignano was to be Italy’s 15th century version of Renovation Nation.

Reconstructed and renamed Pienza under the Piccolomini Pope Pius ll, a new cathedral, town hall and palazzo were built. I spent an afternoon in Pienza and visited the Palazzo Piccolomini (the pope’s summer residence) with a signorina who spoke an Italian version of Spanglish. Slightly difficult to understand but well intended. The elegant open courtyard, the halls of period furniture and memorabilia and the gardens that overlook the valley below were well worth the cost of admission. Il biglietto d’ingresso interno was 7EU and for that price I got to see where the Pope slept. I also got to see priceless masterpieces, tapestries, weaponry, paintings and a scagliola table representing a map of the Sienese States. There was a chair that was used to carry the Pope in his travels and a medieval baby’s high chair.

But my favorite was the More or Less Clock, a huge medieval clock that is called more or less because it only works in 15 minute increments (instead of seconds). Ah, the Italian sense of time.

 

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens? At first you might think these are names of Senators from the time of the Roman Empire but rather than conveying the power and prestige of the Roman Senate these names refer to an illustrious group of cheeses from Pienza, an ancient Renaissance city a few miles from the wines of Montepulciano. Pienza is the capital of Tuscan pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese (cacio di pecorino) that is one of the most prized and favored cheeses of the Val d’Orcia. Known for its inviting and mild flavor, even when aged, Pecorino Toscano is the Tuscan relative of the more well-known Romano which because of its stronger flavor is preferred for some pasta dishes with highly flavored sauces.

Both are sheep’s milk cheeses (pecora means sheep in Italian) and both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status but the similarity stops there. Pecorino Toscano thrives under the Tuscan sun surrounded and influenced by vineyards, olive orchards and the clay soil of the Crete Senesi.  The characteristic flavors and aromas of the grass, herbs and wildflowers (wormwood, meadow salsify, juniper, broom, burnet) on which the sheep graze create a taste of Tuscany that is incomparable.

You can taste some of the best pecorino cheeses in Tuscany at Zazzeri, one of my favorite cheese shops in Pienza, where Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens debate the best wine and honey pairings and whether apples or pears are to be chosen as an accompaniment. Walnut leaf wrapped or anointed with Tuscan olive oil, seasoned on wooden tables and displayed like a still-life from the Renaissance, these cheeses of Pienza were favored by Lorenzo the Magnificent and remain an evocative taste of Tuscany.