Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Backpacker's Guide to the Tuscan Heartland

The name Tuscany creates an image of rolling lush green and yellow valleys, series of cypress trees and undulating  grape vines – pictures we often see in postcards and calendars, pictures many of us love to set as our desktop background. Ever since I took up photography as my hobby – possibly towards the end of the previous century – I had those images set in my mind by looking at the pictures in books. I wanted to be there, watch the rays of the morning sun glisten the misty slopes and walk the hills caressing those cypress trees. And when the chance came, to attend a conference at Florence, I embraced it dearly – knowing that I may only be able to squeeze only a short time to visit those places and it will be hectic, and possibly exhausting.

An Italian photographer friend who roams around in Tuscany and is known for his landscape photographs was the person I could seek advice from, and he duly obliged. Equipped with his advice and a timetable of trains and buses, and of course my camera and lenses in a backpack, I set out from Florence on this journey to my very own Neverland.

The landscape of this part of Tuscany, known in most literature as Val d'Orcia, is actually the agricultural hinterland of the Siena province. The place was developed with a view to showcase the model of good governance and aesthetically pleasing landscape back in the 14th and 15th century. For ages, since the renaissance and continuing till today, this landscape has inspired many artists resulting in images exemplifying the beauty of well-managed renaissance agricultural landscapes. Within the heart of this land, rests the medieval town of Pienza – one of the five municipalities forming the national park of Val D'Orcia featuring in the list of UNESCO's World Cultural Landscapes – which is where I was travelling to.
Map of Val d'Orcia (image source:

For a short trip, you really have two options to travel to the Tuscan heartland; firstly, the luxurious way, with tour companies, in air-conditioned coaches or chauffeur-driven tourist cars – travelling through the undulating valleys, finally visiting the famous wineries for wine tasting; and secondly, the backpacker's way – by trains and buses, stopping in-between, walking around the offbeat gravel paths through the rolling hills and cypress trees – a more exhausting, but more satisfying way. Taking the second option, it is a short train ride of an hour and a half from Florence to Siena, with trains running almost every hour. From then on, it becomes a little complicated as the buses in that area are not that frequent, but the ride from Siena to Pienza is a treat for the eyes of the beholder. Miles and miles of rolling landscape stretched along all directions, with almost every town tempting enough for getting off the bus and getting lost in the meadows. If you can resist the temptation, it takes about an hour and a half to Pienza, known as the “touchstone of Renaissance urbanism,” rebuilt by Pope Pius II from a village called Corsignano, his birthplace.

A town submerged in tranquility, Pienza is surrounded with a fortifying wall, and crisscrossed by narrow lanes and stone pathways with medieval palaces and cathedrals forming the centre of the town. Well known among these are the four forming the trapezoidal piazza - the Palazzo Piccolomini – the principal residence, the Duomo – the cathedral, Palazzo Vescovile – house of the bishops, and Palazzo Comunale – a civic building. Tourists with interests in medieval architecture will find the pilasters and columns and arches attractive, but for me, the narrow lanes of this tranquil town with happy people were more attractive – from the point of view of street-photography. Beyond the commune wall lie the open meadows stretching for miles beckoning the travellers. If you are of the explorer kind, there is a gravel pathway sloping down towards the next town of Montepulciano about 10 km from Pienza. The route goes right through the green meadows and is the best possible way to get intimate with Val d'Orcia, and I did not have second thoughts. I walked, for may be a couple of hours, between the lines of Cypress, the wind rustling in my ears when I realised that I have come a long way from Pienza and I did not have a place to spend the night. I walked back and checked myself in a bed & breakfast. The sun was about to set and I was back on the streets to take pictures of the valley in the setting sun – part of the golden hours as we call it in photography.

Morning was not too late (as it was the summer with long days), and I was anxious to take an early bus to San Quirico, on the way back to Siena – another place my photographer friend suggested. I reached San Quirico at 6.30AM when the sun has just risen behind the far away hills. I was walking on the highway out of San Quirico when through the trees besides, I caught a glimpse of a misty valley – with only one word fit to describe it – heaven. 

The soft morning light fell over the glistening mists which were caressing the grassland and the lines of cypresses, and a lonely house lost within it – I stood spellbound. The mist slowly started to rise and I followed the winding pathways for another hour to get a closer view of the valleys. 

By 8.30AM, my legs rebelled – the fifteen odd kilometres on the previous evening and possibly eight more in the morning were probably a little too much within a very short time, and I had to settle for a return to more urban Florence – tracing back the route I took during my onwards journey.

I know I haven't been able to do justice to Tuscany with such a short trip and a shorter travelogue – but those few hours I walked along the valleys and between the cypress trees have been etched permanently in my memory. People say “just like a photograph” to describe beauty. I would say that my photographs do not go anywhere close to the real beauty of the Tuscan heartland. Tuscany is more perfect than a perfect photograph.

(Originally published at @TCS, a magazine at my workplace)

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