Cortona Will Put You Under the Tuscan Spell
I am lucky enough to have been to quite a number of charming old Tuscan towns. I’m beginning to see that one could spend many months here traveling around and never visit the same town twice. Just when you think you have picked your favorite, another impossibly beautiful town atop an impossibly steep hill appears around the next corner. At first I thought my favorite would always be Siena, with its terracotta colors and lively Piazza del Campo. But nearby San Gimignano is that much smaller and more approachable, and has the best views from its tower. But wait, Montepulciano is just as gorgeous and full of culture, but less touristy due to its distance from Florence. Hang on! Keep going south, leaving behind the gentle rolling hills of Chianti and heading deep into the more dramatic hills of Southern Tuscany, and there’s Cortona.
I must admit that the initial draw of Cortona for me was to see the magical village described in Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun. The movie, which was filmed primarily in Cortona and other lovely nearby towns, also includes fantastically beautiful scenes in Florence, Rome and the Amalfi Coast. It’s enough to make you want to drop everything and hop on a plane. However, the book is a simpler, quieter study of Italy. There’s no dramatic divorce, pregnant friend coming to have her baby in Italy or smooth Italian boyfriend. It’s about a regular American woman taking the brave step of buying a house in a foreign country, about her efforts to fix up the house, to try her hand at all her favorite Tuscan recipes, and to slowly begin to call Cortona her home.
The drive from our house to Cortona was an easy hour and twenty minutes on the well-maintained and well-marked Italian highways. Just when we weren’t expecting it, we turned a corner and there it was, defying gravity as it teetered on the edge of a cliff. We folded in the side mirrors and wound uphill until we found our little hotel right in town. In choosing the hotel, we prioritized location and budget. We ended up with a decent place that was just a little strange. Our small room was clean, but the building’s lights were usually off, causing us to stumble in and out every time. The staff always seemed to be off too. When WiFi wasn’t working, I called reception and a very polite, helpful woman had to travel 30 minutes to get to the hotel and help us.
And yet, we persevered. We ventured out into the streets and quickly learned that Cortona is oriented roughly around two piazzas. From our hotel, the first one we reached was Garibaldi, a tiny round piazza with dizzying views of the countryside below.
From Piazza Garibaldi it is a short walk along a lively street to Piazza della Repubblica. This piazza is busier and is fantastic for people-watching. From our table, with cappuccino in hand (Fanta for the kids), we saw two different wedding parties spill into the streets from nearby churches. I can confirm that Italian women have the best style. But how they wear stilettos on the cobblestone streets remains a mystery. We also spotted what we thought would be the perfect place for dinner, and promptly made a reservation. Back to that later.
Of the many wonderful things that struck me about Cortona that day, perhaps my favorite was the small size. Kate and Eve have been to Florence a few times in their brief lives, and they associate Italian cities with too much walking. Cortona, though hilly, is tiny and so easy to walk. We went back and forth from the main piazza to our hotel several times during this trip, and no complaints were forthcoming. Then, I went and ruined everything by dragging them up to the majestic church that watches over Cortona from its high altitude viewing point- the church of Santa Margherita.
Before I began traveling to Italy, I did not know much about patron saints. I’d heard of them, but did not really appreciate what they were. Italy, a very Catholic country, treasures its patron saints whose job it is to watch over the people. Many cities have their own patron saint, who is celebrated in a public and very festive way each year on the applicable saint’s holiday. The citizens of the city live under the tutelage and protection of their patron saint. It’s a lovely concept. The patron saint of Cortona is Santa Margherita. She was a 13th century woman who, after suffering heartbreak, joined the order of St. Francis and began to care for people less fortunate. She founded a hospital for the poor and homeless.
The church that was dedicated to her after her death looms beautifully above Cortona. We made it there under promises of gelato later in the day, and it was worth the effort. It is a spectacularly built and maintained old church. One of its more interesting, if gruesome, features is the mummified body kept at the altar, which is supposed to be the remains of St. Margherita herself. The experience was moving, and the kids were inspired to light candles for loved ones that they miss.
Several hours and gelatos later, it was time for dinner. We returned to the restaurant we chose earlier in the day based solely on location.
La Loggetta’s dining area sits half inside and half outside a beautiful arched loggia that overlooks the piazza. Neither the people-watching nor the food disappointed us. By the end of the meal the kids were falling asleep on each other, and it was time for our 5-minute stroll to the hotel for bed. Our adventure in Cortona was coming to a happy, sleepy close.
Back to Under the Tuscan Sun, a book that I like enough to have read twice over the years. Even if I don’t share it, I enjoy Mayes’ passion for ancient Etruscan tombs. And her herculean efforts at renovating her old house, while getting to know her new home town and country, is fun to witness. Her fascination with and respect for the Catholic religion and its churches is interesting to watch grow as the book progresses. And her recipes, dropped in here and there, educate the reader on the local fare. OK, that’s all well and good. But to really prepare for our weekend in Cortona, I did what any good American tourist would do, and rented the movie. I admit its appropriateness for Kate and Eve’s ages was questionable. But then again, we live in Italy now and it’s time to shake off our American Puritan sensibilities. Don’t worry, I don’t have them drinking Grappa or smoking yet. We enjoyed our weekend in Cortona and look forward to the next time.