MONTALCINO, Italy — "Scusi," I said to a well-dressed man in this medieval Tuscan village, where even the gas station was somehow part of the farming landscape. "Can you tell me how to get to Castiglion del Bosco?"
"Hmm, yes," he said in English, taking my map, then, "Un momento." He dialed his cellphone, and I realized he was asking someone for the best route. Not the first or last time we found the Italians to be incredibly helpful.
"I can tell you how to get there, but my wine is much better," he said, laughing. His wine, we learned later, was at the Val di Suga estate just below the walled hilltop village of Montalcino.
His assumption that we'd come for wine wasn't much of a leap, because it's among the sophisticated pleasures of Tuscany's most idyllic corner. The rolling hills of Val d'Orcia are celebrated for their great wines, including the Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
More profound than the wine, however, is the area's unhurried pace, arid climate and commitment to rural simplicity, as my girlfriend Lauri and I found last summer when we were here for a wedding. Florence has the Renaissance masterpieces, Rome has the Vatican (both only two hours away by car), but Val d'Orcia — a valley refuge of country estates — is closer to heaven.
The area stretches from Montalcino to Montepulciano, a landscape of sun-drenched wheat fields and vineyards south of Siena dotted with rocky hilltop villages and dominated by the largest extinct volcano in Italy, Monte Amiata.
Spring is when this valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comes alive with wheat greening the fields and poppies festooning the fence rows. It's the right time to explore, taste and beat the sometimes-sweltering Mediterranean climate.
An outdoor wedding rehearsal dinner in the village at Castiglion del Bosco, the resort-style property outside Montalcino, made it clear why people have been escaping to this dry valley for hundreds of years: A soft evening breeze smelled of cedar and vast oak forests, and a wine-stained full moon shone off the Sangiovese vineyards. Executive chef Enrico Figliuolo's handmade pasta and a spread of local prosciutto, salami, soppressata and capocolla were accented by herbs and lavender grown in the enormous kitchen garden; a 2006 Brunello cru flowed.
We found that this lusty mix of outdoor living, farm-to-table meals and civilized country amenities can be had around the Val d'Orcia for lots of money or almost none. No, really.
At the high end is CDB, as it's called, opened in 2010 by Chiara and Massimo Ferragamo of Italian footwear fame. It sits amid the ruins of a 12th century fortress and features 23 suites and nine restored farmhouse villas, each with its own pool, dotting the nearly 5,000-acre property. There's also a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course, spa, winery, main restaurant and osteria, and a gorgeous original chapel with frescoes by Pietro Lorenzetti.
"One of the things I love about this area is that really everything looks and seems the same and unchanged since medieval times," said Massimo Ferragamo, reached by email in New York. "What you will not find are clubs, discos or night life, so if that is what one is looking for, this is not the place. It is a magical area where you can experience the true Tuscany."
On the super-affordable end, the valley features farm stay and bed-and-breakfast arrangements known as agriturismo — farm tourism. One of our favorite stops was Podere Il Casale, a farm just three miles outside the not-to-be-missed medieval gem of Pienza, where farm manager Michael Schmidig showed us how he makes his prized pecorino Toscano cheese, which has caught the attention of chef Thomas Keller and others. The fans weren't wrong; the sheep cheese is luscious, nutty and moist.
Adventurers unafraid of encounters with donkeys or chickens can pitch a tent for as little as $8 per spot, plus $14 per person, with family-style meals for about $48 a day served on long tables with breathtaking views of Monte Amiata.
Agriturismo can mean anything from tent camping to accommodations with pools, chef-made meals, horses and bikes, but they are generally affordable, ranging from about $48 per night to $2,100 per week. (One of the best websites, with translations, is www.agriturismo.it.)
Biking is a great option because all the hilltop towns here are only a few miles apart. Stop to hear the monks chanting prayers at the gorgeous Abbey of Sant'Antimo, where you'll be transported by the harmonics ringing off the ancient stones. The Romanesque churches of San Quirico are also worth a pilgrimage, including the Collegiata. One of the region's real treasures is the Pieve di Corsignano, an ancient chapel with notable stone carvings only a 10-minute walk outside the walls of Pienza.
Travelers looking for more urbanized comforts are going to find a hideaway at La Bandita Townhouse, a sleek 12-room boutique hotel fitted onto the stony bones of a former 15th century convent inside the walls of Pienza's snug pedestrian zone. John Voigtmann, an ex-music industry exec from New York, and his wife, travel writer Ondine Cohane, took a crazy leap of faith in opening their La Bandita villa outside town in 2007 and the Townhouse in 2012.
"The Val d'Orcia attracted us because it had the best of everything people love about Tuscany in a small, compact area: a string of sweet little hill towns that are not too touristy, the wine area of Brunello di Montalcino and some of Italy's most beautiful landscapes," Voigtmann said.
A great night includes dinner at the Townhouse's upscale but casual in-house restaurant and wine bar, which serves locally sourced Tuscan dishes such as tagliatelle with lemon rocket pesto, a drink outdoors at Bar Il Casello with spectacular views of the valley, and then a late-night hangout with the locals in the cozy central piazza.
Ask one of those locals about don't-miss dining and they'll probably mention nearby Montepulciano's Osteria Acquacheta, where restaurateur Giulio Ciolfi will serve you his legendary bistecca fiorentina — 2 inches thick, seasoned with olive oil and pepper and pretty much raw, the way it's supposed to be. The valley is dotted with classic Tuscan eateries such as Montalcino's Ristorante Boccon DiVino (a Ferragamo favorite) and the newly reopened Dopolavoro, the trattoria at La Foce, a dramatic garden estate just outside Montepulciano restored in the 1920s by Anglo American writer Iris Origo ("War in Val D'Orcia") and still run by the Origo family.
Significant buzz surrounds the new Hotel Monteverdi, which has renewed the once-crumbling and nearly empty village of Castiglioncello del Trinoro with three restored villas and a series of gorgeously rustic and white-walled minimalist suites remade by Rome-based designer Ilaria Miani.
Voigtmann also suggested stopping in Rocca d'Orcia to dine at Osteria Perillà, where Michelin-starred Tuscan chef Enrico Bartolini turns out the house namesake, spaghetti perilla, made with a specially cured guanciale, or pork jowl.
Like the dish, the venues in this valley don't fake new to be old: The place simply runs in an old way, even when refreshed with new design and science. Montepulciano winery Salcheto, for instance, has gone to great pains to address climate change by creating a Carbon Free Working Group and the first study to determine a carbon benchmark for responsible winemaking. You wouldn't care if it didn't make a prized Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
With all this eating and drinking, leave time to visit the hot springs at Bagno Vignoni. On your way, you'll recognize some of the scenery: Filmmakers have been in the valley for years, making "The English Patient," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and even the Twilight saga's "New Moon." Remember the scene from "Gladiator," where Maximus walks into the golden fields of wheat? That was here.
It's easy to feel just like he did about the place.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun