Carol van Wonterghem
Passionate gourmand, Baroque music lover, Tuscan by adoption
The view from Pieve Pava
Avignonesi. Image by Avignonesi
The treasure found at Pieve Pava by the University of Siena
Tell me a bit about yourself…what brought you to Val d’Orcia?
My story begins 35 years ago, when one day a friend who was renting a house in Tuscany – in this area – asked me to come with her to give my opinion on the house she intended to buy. The owner wasn’t ready to sell so we ended up going to view ten other houses. The last house we viewed, a historical place, was very special, so I decided to buy it! I drove to the seaside the following day to meet the owner and sign the compromesso [sale agreement], and then flew back to Belgium as the new lucky – or unlucky – owner of a ruin in Tuscany.
That’s when my love for Tuscany begun, that famous weekend in 1985, which changed my life.
I come from a family which only drank Bordeaux wines, so Italian wines weren’t really on my radar until I came to Tuscany. A Sicilian friend who worked in the wine industry in Belgium told me I had to absolutely meet a Tuscan family who’s wines he was importing. The Avignonesi, from Montepulciano. We became very close friends and I eventually became their board director and a socio within the company.
I would come to Tuscany during the week, work with them on the international market of the wine’s distribution and then go back to Belgium for the weekend, for 12 years in a row. I then realised that I needed to make a decision, on which country would become my main place. I chose Tuscany, where I had my office, and would go back to Belgium every once in a while. That’s how it has been for the last 10 years.
That first house I bought was in the middle of a very important area. Similarly to most Tuscan towns, I was living near an Etruscan settlement, over which the Romans built upon very often. And then the Christians arrived in the 4th and 5th Centuries they used the structures that used to belong to the Romans.
On the property was a church from the 10th century, and along with the University of Siena we discovered that somewhere nearby there must have been another church. 500 meters below the hill’s slope, the University discovered the ruins of an ancient church, dating back to the 5th Century. After some more digging they uncovered a treasure, buried within the church’s walls. Two clay bowls, sealed together, holding 27 gold and silver coins, which they were able to date back to the years between 536 and 539. Justinianus, the first Byzantine Emperor was raffigurated on them.
Everyone was so excited for the discovery, as it was a testament to the fact that during that period all of Rome’s enemies were inching closer, aware of all the riches the city held, ready to sweep in and steal them. Having found the clay bowls full of coins means that somebody who was afraid of the invasions placed all his fortune within the church, under the earth.
Follonica, image by Edward Riddell
You’ve been visiting and living in Val d’Orcia for so long, how have you seen it change over the years?
If I look at Val d’Orcia’s nature, there hasn’t been a big change. The changes that you can visually detect are two: the first one that you have still a lot of houses that are ruins – less than 35 years ago but still many. One of my obsessions is to never touch old houses, something you can see when you visit Pieve Pava, today it looks just like it did 50 years ago.
The second thing is that on one side you had some ruins that were restored and on the other side you have – Montalcino is a very good example – a lot of the woods that disappeared to make way for the wine.
Image by Paolo Barcucci
What is it about Montalcino’s wine that makes it so special, in your opinion?
Although I worked in Montepulciano, my natural attraction was always Montalcino. Why?
I firstly liked the city very much, secondly because I am more interested in the wines in Montalcino. It isn’t a very big DOCG, just 220 producers, some very big ones that have 50 and 70 hectares like Frescobaldi and then lots of little producers, some of whom have changed a lot, especially in the beginning, because there was a moment when everyone had two or three hectares and thought to make Brunello as well.
They made a lot of very bad wine at the beginning. The last 10 to 15 years have brought such a big evolution in the way of making wine. I don’t know how many million bottles are being made but if you compare it to other areas, it’s peanuts, which makes the value of the wine rise, due to the attention in production. There is diversification.
La Foce, image by La Foce
Monte Olivetto Maggiore, image by FAI
Why should someone visit Val d’Orcia?
You have fantastic historical places, like the city of Pienza, a typical Renaissance city which is unique. You can almost feel the history… of a man who became Pope who decided to build the perfect town, working with the best architects… incredible to think that it happened 1500 years ago. You have a very good mix of these kinds of things within Val d’Orcia.
Then you have the area of La Foce, which belongs to the Origo family, who built an entire community at the beginning of the 1900’s! They turned almost 3000 hectares into agricultural land, built houses, a school, a small hospital… These people did a lot for this area!
The culture of Pienza, Monte Olivetto Maggiore, where I live, near Chiusure, with its incredible abbey. The place where they filmed the English Patient is just near Pienza, Sant’Anna in Camprena, an incredible place. This whole area is so full of culture…
Accademia delle Crete Senesi
The dinner, Accademia delle Crete Senesi
Is there a place in Val d’Orcia that moves you?
Sant’Anna in Camprena, where they filmed The English Patient.
Twenty years ago I created a music festival, which has now become very famous, in the area of Chiusure, Asciano and the Crete Senesi. A Baroque music festival. It takes place throughout a week in August, during which we have a concert in the day and dinner altogether afterwards. A dinner that started out with 50 people and has now grown to have 200 participants, whereas the concert usually has around 600 to 700 spectators.
It is one of my little passions, the same as working with the archeologists who found all those wonderful artefacts at my house in Pieve pava. I love that I had a role in creating the foundations of these things. Little things that you give back to a place when you love it so much. If we can have a role in making a place a little more special, then that’s what we should do. At the same time it might be better not to tell everyone how beautiful this place is, so that we can keep it for ourselves!
Clouds over a Podere in Val d'Orcia, image by Edward Riddell
Do you have a favorite season in Val d’Orcia?
In Tuscany there is such beautiful light. It can be cold but the light is fantastic. I think the proof that I really like the area lies in the fact that I love it basically in every season. I like the fact that the seasons change, that there are colder months and hotter ones.
The monastery, image by Visit Crete Senesi
Where do you eat the best pici in Val d’Orcia?
There’s a lovely place near my house, in Chiusure, by the monastery. Within it is La Torre, a family run restaurant where I’ve been going for more than 25 years! They’re like my family, and they make the most amazing pici.