International traveling may be limited now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still dream about where we will go to next. Travel writer Ondine Cohane tells her story about how she fell in love with Pienza, Italy and where she recommends you go to eat, shop, and catch the best views once we are able to resume our wanderlust.
When we first saw the crumbling farmhouse that would become our boutique hotel, La Bandita (Podere La Bandita, +39 3334046704, la-bandita.com), the work to be done was nothing short of epic, especially for a couple with no renovation experience. There was no plumbing, no electricity, not a blade of grass or a tree, let alone the infinity pool it took two and a half years to gain permission to add. But there were stunning, monumental views over the UNESCO-protected Val d’Orcia, a sense of true peace in the land, and Pienza was 20 minutes away. This magical hilltop village was to become my new home.
As a travel writer, I have certainly seen my share of beautiful places in Italy (I have a book coming out this year with National Geographic about all 20 regions) and farther afield, but Pienza is truly special for its Renaissance architecture, one-off restaurants, bars and shops, and pristine countryside. From my window I can see the Val d’Orcia spreading before me, anchored by Mount Amiata, a dormant volcano, with shifting landscapes of almost fluorescent green in cooler months and gold and brown during the hot summer days. The light is magical.
—by Ondine Cohane
FOR FILM BUFFS
I am not the only one who finds my new home cinematic. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets lived in Palazzo Piccolomini (Piazza Pio II, 2, +39.0577.28630 0), which Pope Pius II conceived as his hometown palace. (It was his vision that took Pienza from a backwater town to a Renaissance jewel.) Parts of The English Patient were also filmed here. Remember the scenes of the gorgeous chapel where Juliet Binoche nurses Ralph Fiennes? That’s Sant’Anna in Camprena (+39.0578.748037), about a 15-minute drive away. And the road that Russell Crowe gallops up to try and save his family in Gladiator? That leads to the bed and breakfast La Terrapille (Podere Terrapille, 80, +39.0578.748434), with its iconic cypresses visible from Pienza’s wall. Netflix’s Medici was also shot here— the handsome actors gave us an excuse to walk past filming multiple times a day!
Almost every evening, locals and visitors congregate at Bar il Casello (Via del Casello, 3, +39.0578.749105), run by Paolo “Poppino” Bassi. In addition to his excellent negronis, the sunset view is the best in town, a slow-changing light show. It’s the ultimate Instagram opportunity! Idyllium (Via Gozzante, 67, +39.0578.748176) is the coolest new entrant to Pienza—a speakeasy-like cocktail bar with foraged herbs and bearded, Williamsburg-like bartenders. Late at night we often end up dancing under the stars.
PICI AND PECORINO
Pienza has no shortage of great food, but its traditional pasta, pici, and pecorino, a sheep’s cheese, have put it on the foodie map. Try pici at Latte di Luna (Via S. Carlo, 2/4, +39.0578.74860 6), my favorite trattoria in town, where they roll it out daily by hand and top it with wild boar or spicy tomato sauce. (Their suckling pig with roast potatoes also draws legions of fans.) At Sette di Vino (Piazza di Spagna, 1, +39.0578.749092), the signature pecorino dish comes grilled and is one of the most decadent culinary experiences around. You can also get a vacuum-packed pecorino wheel from Prosit (Via Gozzante, 9, +39.0577 179.3788), where the owners provide an informal 101 in craft beer, a growing Italian trend, and artisanal snacks.
BACK IN TIME
When I lived in the States, a period reenactment was my idea of the eighth ring of hell, but now I get into the spirit with the best of them. Every weekend seems to bring another festival. Among my favorites: the Fiera del Cacio (Piazza Pio II), a kind of bowling of cheese wheels that draws competitors from every age bracket and neighborhood; La Corsa di Pio (Piazza Pio II), a 5K race started during the pope’s inauguration in the 1500s (we wear tunics with Roman numerals); and Il Gioco del Panforte (Piazza Matteotti), which involves flinging fruit cakes down long tables to get them as close to the edge as you can without having them fall off. It’s quite lighthearted, but there is a competitive spirit in it, too. And the nicknames you hear called out are so funny, it’s worth brushing up on your Italian just to understand what’s being said.