Pienza and La Bandita: A Green Lifeline

There are those properties that surface repeatedly in travel magazines, editors’ instagram feeds, and the tips of Italo-philes tongues. For years I had followed along with John and Ondine, the owners of La Bandita Townhouse and La Bandita countryhouse, set in the most enviable location south of Siena with 360 degree rolling, Val D’orcia views. The trip from Milan involved two trains, but I would have happily added one more leg to the trip if it meant arriving in the unhurried and unassuming bliss that is La Bandita.

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File 26-05-17, 16 44 33We arrive at the country house after a haltingly beautiful drive through the countryside, one of those where you feel obliged to stop every 10 meters to capture the luminous green hills peaking between the ancient trees that line the twisting road, gently slicing through the Val d’Orcia with its fragrant herbs and spring blooms.

The pebbled ‘driveway’ leading to the country house is miles long, giving the feeling that guests have a pocket of this magical land entirely to themselves. We pull up to the stone structure with its lovely landscaping and are welcomed by the scent of Chef Dario preparing lunch in the kitchen. Smiling, kind, and ready to answer each of your culinary questions, Dario is a total doll with a natural sense of calm and know-how in the kitchen. Fruits, vegetables, meat, and fishes are all purchased from local suppliers. If you opt to have lunch on the property, either in the open-plan living area or outside with an unforgettable backdrop, Dario will create a menu according to your requests.

A ‘light lunch’ was made for us consisting of multiple plates of simple, seasonal vegetables and salads. Crisp asparagus, fresh lettuces with juicy Tuscan tomatoes, mini peppers stuffed with tuna, salad with dried raspberries, shaved zucchini, and pine nuts… I could not believe all of this was for us. Breakfast is equally abundant, with a never-ending buffet of seasonal fruit, local cheeses and Pienza honey, hard boiled eggs, savory items, breads and brioche, nuts and seeds, and anything you would like to be made on request. Eggs any way you like them? But of course.

Dinner is community style; we sat down with two lovely couples staying in the country house and waited for Dario to surprise us with four divine courses. A sophisticated ‘pappa al pomodoro,’ one of the best pesto dishes I have ever had, and a perfectly cooked fish (purchased to appease since yours truly does not eat meat) were devoured by all. The convivial ambience of the country house sets the tone; guests feel relaxed and sociable, as they would at a friend’s house. This is precisely the atmosphere at La Bandita; you are made to feel as if you are staying at a friend’s place in the country. We had a blast exchanging travel stories, listening to records after dinner, and doing a few dances with Dario and the team, and I can only imagine how fantastic this place would be for a group who rents the entire property for themselves. I might even go so far as to suggest it would make a fabulous summer rental. Take it as your base and travel back and forth to the sea for equal doses of both worlds.

At La Bandita Townhouse, John and Ondine’s 12-room gem in the center of Pienza, which is, without a doubt, one of the most adorable, immaculately maintained Tuscan hilltop towns, the interiors are modern, the bathtubs are vast, and the Ortygia products are warmly welcomed. This is in contrast with the history of the building, a 14th century convent turned super smart hotel. The restaurant is easily the coolest place in town, and with a chef’s bar, I felt as if I could be in a cosmopolitan city set in the middle of the Val D’Orcia. After dinner, before going up to bed, take an hour to relax in the living room filled with books about music and travel, old records, and a yoga mat if you so please.

The team is young, energetic, and ready to appease. The staff as a whole is wonderful; each of them genuinely happy to be there, a sincere sense of contentment, which makes ones stay all the more enjoyable.

In and around Pienza, named the ‘Ideal City,’ one will find adorable ‘street’ names such as Via dell’Amore and Via del Bacio. In fact, they are less streets than they are picturesque, stone alleys with drop dead valley views at their ends and myriad shops selling local Pecorino cheese.

Venturing between the country house and the townhouse, one will inevitably drive past Dopo Lavoro, a casual-chic restaurant across the road from La Foce gardens which serves local, seasonal fare with an up-to-the minute menu. I dived into a divine veggie burger (might I be the only person in Tuscany who doesn’t eat meat?) and my friend swirled perfectly al dente pici pasta with wild boar around her fork during a relaxed late lunch in the garden. Inside, the vast restaurant has vaulted ceilings and a little bit of gourmet shopping on offer. Select local wines, olive oils, honeys, organic granola, and other goodies before dashing across the road to one of the most spectacular gardens in the country.

Another fabulously flavorful local lunch is to be had at Monteverdi, a luxury property nearby, set in its own self-made ‘borgo’ on a narrow hilltop. Michael Cioffi, an American lawyer based in Cincinatti with Italian roots, purchased the crumbling buildings of the borgo and re-envisioned them as a retreat for those seeking discretion and relaxation. My friend and I snuggled into the super cozy bistrot, and I was happy as a Tuscan bee with perfectly grilled local vegetables, so fresh and bursting with flavor that I once again wondered how I could ever live anywhere else but in a country in which vegetables have such flavor that they deserve to be written about. Although the menu was made up of pecorino and meat (when in the Val D’orcia…) the staff was extremely accommodating, and actually asked the other restaurant on property to walk over a white fish from their kitchen so that I may have a more complete meal. This, my friends, is hospitality.

It is no wonder that so many worldly, well-traveled ‘viaggiatori’ choose Pienza as their escape of choice, and more so that they return time and again to La Bandita. I cannot imagine a more idyllic scene or experience, and although I have not yet ventured nearly enough in the various parts of Tuscany, I forfeit them all for return trips to hilltop lunches with Dario’s cooking, Earth, Wind & Fire after-dinner dance parties, and morning runs surrounded by fields that give the terms ‘lush’ and ‘fertile’ visual meaning.

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