From my hotel balcony in Pienza, I glimpse the tangle of the "strade bianche" – white roads radiating on the green backdrop of the Val D'Orcia. I've guided walking tours in the Tuscan countryside for years and never get tired of rediscovering a place that, in 2009, UNESCO declared a world heritage site. Long renowned for conical hills and towering cypress trees is a landscape that stands as testimony to the Renaissance architects that shaped it. Named for the white sand that covers them, these road networks provide miles of walkable trails for trendy tourists seeking healthy, green travel.
Join the "a piede" (on foot) movement and come face-to-face with grazing chianine (pronounced kee-a-nee-nee) cattle standing six feet tall and weighing up to 3,800 pounds. First bred by the mysterious Etruscans, these porcelain white cows remain the oldest breed of beef cattle in the world. Or visit a Benedictine abbey, with alabaster stone glinting in the sun. Watch monks in dust-colored robes tending to their gardens or mowing their lawns. Finally, consider a festival complete with costumed pageantry and neighborhood competitions.
The famed hill towns are a fraction of the beauty of this region. Vineyards, cool forests, and a rainbow of wild flowers provide guilt-free eye-candy while on your day's journey. Etruria’s early residents built these routes of light sand, from which derives the name “strade bianche”. The Romans later expanded them into busy arteries of commerce.
Since the 10th century, these networks have provided safe passage and sleeping accommodations for pilgrims visiting holy Christian sites from Canterbury to Rome. Giovanni Caselli, a Tuscan archeologist who has been walking these trails for over five decades, explains, "Modern civilization has reverted its pattern of settlement [from hill tops to lower lying lands], leaving Etruscan or medieval ruins still untouched in the woods and on high ridges." Abandoned in the 1800s, these roads have had their own renaissance as a travel destination for the fit and food conscience.
For an early morning outing, stroll along Pienza’s cobbled streets. Residents take pride in their perfect Renaissance town, tending terracotta pots of deep red geraniums and green herbs that mark entranceways of most homes and public buildings. Specialty shops offer varieties of pecorino – sheep-milk cheeses produced mainly in Tuscany and Sardinia. My friend Amanda Castleman, an Italian-American travel writer formerly based in Rome, particularly likes the ones "con pepe" (with pepper) in a pasta dish – mmmmm!
Try a simple lunch at any of the pizzerias. Or splurge. Sit in the garden at "Il Chiostro", one of the top hotel-restaurants in Pienza. Though pricey, the food is a rare treat of gourmet quality. I love the handmade ravioli in a melt-in-your-mouth sauce of freshly picked wild chestnuts. This former Franciscan monastery, believed to represent a significant religious structure of the ancient Corsicans, contrasts sharply with the Renaissance city transformed in 1459 by Pope Pius II.