We were so glad we had a chance to visit the La Foce Gardens, near Chiancino Terme in Tuscany. A good friend sent me a link to the recent NY Times article by David Larkin, and it sounded too good to miss.
Luckily, the day we were driving to Siena was a Wednesday, one of the days that the gardens have tours (the others are the weekends).
The tours start at three, four and five in the afternoon. You don’t have to make a reservation, just show up and purchase your ticket.
La Foce is not far from the popular towns of Montepulciano and Pienza. Driving the quintessential Tuscan roads to get there is easy and pleasant. If you arrive early, the local restaurant just down the road from the gardens, Dopolavoro, is a wonderful choice for lunch. Be sure to make a reservation or you might not get a seat. We arrived a bit late, so we were limited to the sandwich bar and indoor seating. However, the panini made with their special flat bread were divine and we had a delicious meal in the quaint dining room. The restaurant is an active place and is obviously popular with the locals who stream in during the lunch hour.
There are a few things I appreciated about the gardens—the garden tour is just one hour long, the gardens are simple, yet magnificent and the Origo family story is compelling. Iris Origo, an American heiress, was brought up in America, England, Ireland and the Villa Medici in Fiesole, near Florence. After she married Antonio Origo, the young couple purchased a large piece of barren land in the Val d’Orcia and transformed it into a green paradise. Their goal was to improve the land and give the local population some work by creating a sort of cooperative farming venture. They even had their architect design homes for the farmers—and these stone houses are still standing today.
Iris is a fascinating woman who has written several worthwhile books—Images & Shadows, which is about La Foce and War in Val d‘Orcia, which tells of the difficult times during WWII. Our guide told us some interesting tales of the Origo family, especially during WWII, when Iris, a young mother herself, volunteered to house the war orphans. During the occupation, she was told to evacuate the estate immediately when the Allies were approaching and the Germans took over the Villa for their position of defense. Iris and Antonio had to help their family and all of the young children walk several miles, avoiding land mines to find safety. Luckily, when they returned, La Foce was untouched.
During the quick tour, our guide was able to provide these family stories and some pertinent facts about the garden design by Cecil Pinsent. Pinsent was more concerned about creating garden “rooms” that took advantage of the magnificent views than about pretty flowers. Don’t expect a colorful palette like Monet’s Garden at Giverny. These gardens are shades of green, with boxwood and cypress.
The first “room” we saw was the impressive limonaia, the protected area for the lemon trees that were so precious back in the day. A limonaia is usually a type of greenhouse that was employed so that lemons could survive the colder climates. Once the weather is warmer, the lemons are often moved outside. The potted trees, full and healthy looking, were outside of the limonaia in neat rows, basking in the Tuscan sun.
As we ventured out through the terraced gardens, with pools and just one sculpture, we could see how they were designed to draw our attention out towards the magnificent views of the valley, with Monte Amiata in the background.
The long pergola is covered with Wisteria, that must have been wonderful, just a few weeks ago. We could still see a few remains of the blooms. But the length of the pergola, reaching out towards the Val d’Orcia landscape, was wonderful.
The lovely rose garden is given a minor setting, just next to the pergola. I could hang out there for hours.
The gardens and villa , still run by the Origo daughters, have a lovely Agriturismo, which is on the estate grounds.
For more information, try these websites
The gardens website: lafoce.com
The gardens & Iris Origo in English: http://www.montepulciano.net/la_foce_iris_origo.htm#
Dopolavoro Restaurant: http://www.dopolavoro.hr/homei.html
phone: 051/299‑641, 299‑649