After our first night at our new lodgings, we ventured out to some of the nearby hill towns to explore what the local communities had to offer. Our first stop was at the Town of San Quirico d'Orcia, about 20 kilometers southeast of Buonconvento, which dates back to around 700 AD. The town's fortified walls still stand, intended to protect its citizens from invasion over the centuries.
There were several historic churches in the town (which were impressive in their own right), but my favorite attraction was the beautiful rose garden located there. Known as the Horti Leonini, the spacious grounds contained many sculptures, historic outposts along the town walls, and a particularly impressive open well in addition to the botanical sights.
Once we were done exploring the gardens, we headed into the center of town, had a cappuccino, and wandered around the cobblestone streets. It was still early and many of the shops weren't open for business, so most of the people milling around were locals, not tourists. This ended up being the perfect recipe for some excellent candid shots.
We left San Quirico a little before lunchtime and drove a bit further east to Pienza. The birthplace of Pope Pius II in 1405, the town was significantly upgraded and rebuilt under his reign to be an ideal Renaissance town intended to serve as a retreat from the hectic life in Rome. Another walled community, the gate to the town was quite impressive, opening up to a host of shops arranged in a very modern grid-like fashion (an urban planning concept less common at the time which spread to other local communities). An inscription above the gate states that it was severely damaged during bombings in WWII, before years later being restored to its full glory.
The town had many interesting shops, but a large number focused on one of its primary products, Pecorino cheese. Pecorino di Pienza, a unique sheep's milk cheese, is recognized worldwide as one of the best in its category. A cheese festival is held in the town each year, with a cheese rolling competition being one of the primary attractions. I brought back four small wheels in my checked luggage, each of a different variety (peppercorn, wine, walnut, and a spicy red pepper covered round).
For those not as enamored by cheese as I (you know who you are), the side streets between the shops still had many fascinating little details to take in.
One shop in Pienza worth mentioning specifically was Buon Gusto Gelato. I'll be the first to admit we ate an awful lot of gelato while in Italy, but this shop was the best by a long shot. The man behind the counter was extremely friendly, had great passion for his craft, and served up with some truly unique flavors incorporating in-season ingredients (strawberry with fresh rosemary, peach with lavender, etc.). We ended up back here again towards the end of our trip and were disappointed we couldn't stop back for a third time.
On our way out of town back to our apartment, we stopped alongside the road so I could take a picture of the beautiful Madonna di Vitaleta Chapel, which despite it's small stature, shined like beacon in the Tuscan countryside.
For other posts in my Italy series, see below: