Why Tuscany Is Better in Winter
Want to discover the soul of central Italy? Go off season.
On one of those perfect February days when you want to dive head first into the deep blue of the sky, my wife and I walked into the honey-hued Romanesque abbey church of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino, to see the sunlight filtered into gold dust through onyx alabaster windows, and to hear something that was not quite of this world: Gregorian chant, sung by a handful of French monks who had gathered in the choir for mid-afternoon prayers.
Could this small miracle have happened at any other time of year? Perhaps. But in April, or July, or September, I doubt we would have been alone with the monks. And our first sight of one of Tuscany’s most remarkable examples of the symbiosis between building and landscape, as we rounded the curve of a country road, would almost certainly have come garnished with a sprinkling of tour buses and hire cars.
Out of season, the Val d’Orcia is stark, romantic and majestic, like a swath of Tolkien’s imaginary Middle Earth civilized by the Medicis. It’s not difficult to understand why Iris Origo, the Anglo-American aristocrat who would become famous for her memoir War in the Val d’Orcia, fell in love with the region on an off-season day. On what she describes in her autobiography as “a stormy October afternoon” that “offered no green welcome, no promise of fertile fields,” she first visited her future home there, the remote agricultural estate of La Foce. Who knows if she and her husband-to-be, marchese Antonio Origo, would have bought the 3,500-acre La Foce if that striking view had been softened by summer?
It helps that, unlike, say, the Amalfi Coast, the Val d’Orcia doesn’t close for the winter. Sure, Origo’s exquisite formal garden at La Foce can only be visited from March through October, when it’s ready for its close-up. But the area’s remote frescoed churches and rural trattorias, its proud hill towns like rustic-elegant Pienza, its wineries and pecorino cheese producers and craft workshops stay open because their core clientele is local.
In November, you might find yourself, as I have, in an olive press at 4am—they work on a 24-hour cycle this time of year – sharing a bruschetta soaked in the tangy green-gold new oil with people queued up holding crates of olives that, only hours before, were still on the tree. In late February, if you know someone who knows someone (and everybody knows everybody around here) you might just swing a ticket for Benvenuto Brunello, the annual presentation of the latest release of Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino wines, which, in theory, is reserved for wine trade professionals and journalists.
And don’t get me started on the truffles. Or the hot springs that, in democratic Tuscany, aren’t all the preserve of thermal resorts. My favorite, just below the walls of San Casciano dei Bagni, consists of three small raised basins on the edge of a field, where local grandmothers wallow and chat, keeping a weather eye on their splashing nipoti. The Val d’Orcia in winter is this, followed by a lunch of pappardelle ai funghi porcini in an elbow-to-elbow trattoria, accompanied by a glass of good Sangiovese.
I ask you in all sincerity: Is there, in life, anything better?