Friday, May 28, 2010

La Cortona Bella

As I'm writing this, I'm sitting almost at the top of Cortona (it looks like the absolutely highest point is inside a museum on the hill behind me, so eventually I'll make it in there!). My view includes the roof and towers of Santa Margherita, the church of the patron saint of Cortona, and miles and miles of the Tuscan valley below. My bench is what appears to be a stone from the Etruscan times (they build walls and dwelled in this city in the eighth (eighth!!!) century BC), and the air is clear and sweet-smelling because of the wildflowers that cover every spot on the hillsides. There are birds here - thousands and thousands of birds, who swoop and soar over all the rooftops until they must be incredibly dizzy but oh, so happy. The prized and, as I mentioned before, ridiculously large sunglasses that helped me blend in in Rome seem to be silly and overdone in this Tuscan hill town - I've buried them deep in my handbag since the colors of the countryside are worth any wrinkles I may get from squinting against the sun while I'm here.

Cortona's immediate neighbor, Camucia, was where my train stopped when I arrived yesterday. I took a treno regionale partly because it is cheaper than the faster, newer trains but mostly because I wanted to see the countryside and towns as we passed through. I saw lots of villages - all beautiful but most did not make me want to stop for long. As we moved from the area around Rome into Tuscany, I saw many delightful scenes and stereotypes: farms and small vineyards, laid out across the hills so it had the appearance of a multi-patterned, asymetrical occasional gathering of sheep or cows, a horse eating near one of the rivers...bales of hay rolled tightly into wheels that looked like rolls of unlaid elderly man walking down a dirt road with his goat close behind him...sometimes, a fortress-like stone structure or ruins of an ancient wall peeked from distant hillsides.

I didn't know what to expect of Cortona's appearance, so each town we passed provided a comparison for me. It couldn't be like that town because it's higher on a hill...but it won't be much like that town because it has towns below's built within walls so it won't be as sprawling as the village that just went by... Tuscany seems to be designed to outdo the imagination (not to say that heaven can't be better than rural Italy, but the phrase "eye hath not seen, ear has not heard" comes to mind as I try to find an adequate description of the beauty here), so of course Cortona was better than what I'd dreamed up.

After a few confused moments at the Camucia train station (why can't they just have a sign that says all these doors are locked because, stupid,you're supposed to walk around to the front of the building?!), I encountered a delightful taxi driver who agreed to drive me up the hill into Cortona - it was a much nicer option that waiting for the bus, so I splurged. He joyfully began my tour up the hill...after 10 minutes because first he needed to finish his ice cream cone. It's the kind of delay that would generate chaotic rage in America, but in Camucia it was perfect - I was so happy about his childish enthusiasm for ice cream that it was almost as good as having ice cream myself. Plus, this guy was so much like German Perez - I would have waited for him to eat an entire three-course meal if he'd asked me to.

I was glad I took the taxi instead of the bus also because my driver's explanation of the town and the region was so interesting. In a mixture of broken English and some Italian words I could understand, he pointed out the beautiful churches, the interesting shops, the countryside (Cortona's in Tuscany but the huge lake we can see in the distance is in Umbria, the region farther east), and the walls (there are old walls around and throughout Cortona - the larger walls are Etruscan, the narrower walls are from those youngsters in the medieval times).

After my long day and frustrating train ordeals, I had promised myself a quiet evening with a book in my room. That idea disappeared immediately, however - this place is to be explored and befriended. I could stare at the countryside and still discover something new at every moment - the colors change, the lighting changes...always something new in this ancient place.

So refreshed with a new burst of energy and enthusiasm, I ventured out of my hotel in search of food and adventure. I didn't have to wait long! A few steps past the piazza outside my hotel, I befriended a really lovely couple from Denver after we both paused to enjoy the 9:00 ringing of the church bells. These friends are funny and delightful and the kind of people with whom you could never run out of interesting conversation. And - even better - they understand my desire to rudely ignore them completely when I want to be alone (very important, since it's hard to hide in a town this small!). We're having dinner again tonight in the restaurant where they filmed scenes for Under the Tuscan Sun.

My hotel is lovely and my room has green shutters that open onto a patio covered with flowers and enclosed by the stone walls of ancient times. It's very nice but tomorrow I'm moving into a room across the hall where I can view Tuscany right from my window morning, night and noon.

I'm in low gear today, determined to relax rather than rush from one thing to the next - a fast pace is fine for Rome but it's unfathomable in Tuscany and, in fact, there's not that much to do in Cortona so it inspires relaxation. It's perfect. My morning led me up Via San Margherita, an extremely steep but even more extremely beautiful walkway that led to the summit where I am now. There are beautiful shrines all along the road - one guidebook said they depict the seven stations of the cross, but there are far more than seven of them so I'm not sure what they symbolize. I just know they're lovely and they provide the perfect (i.e. frequent!) opportunity to stop and rest on the walk up the hill.

I have absolutely no idea what time it is because I stubbornly refuse to buy a watch - the church bells rang like mad some time ago, so I'm guessing it's past noon. A logical mind might ask why I didn't just count the rings of the bells; the answer, however, is that it was impossible to do so. each bell began at a different time, blending into one another (at one point, I counted to 15 before realizing that was imposible), and the lovely sound echoes off of the surrounding hillsides to create a chorus of bells. One of the bells completely gave up on clearly announcing the time and instead rang quickly and joyously, sounding in a non-stop, sing-song way that sounded as if a child were swinging wildly on the bell pull.

I don't need a watch to tell me that it's time for lunch, though - and besides, tourists keep coming to ask if I know what time the museum behind me will re-open after their lengthy lunch hor. So for now I will stop writing and begin the steep descent back into Cortona's piazzas.


  1. I keep changing our desktop background with each blog entry! You are taking such wonderful pictures! And the pictures you are painting with your words are just as breath-taking~ more, more! Glad you are there, sharing your very unique experiences with all of us!

  2. Yes, wonderful photos. It is so nice of you to share your trip with us. We are in the process of moving to Idaho and moving Nan into her place in Missoula. When I come home at night exhausted your tales are very entertaining. Let's all move to Tuscany!
    "What if we spent all of our days, improving our minds, learning new ways to be lazy
    It wouldn't be too much of a strain
    Relax after breakfast till lunch comes around
    Can't wait for dinner, oh, I need to lie down
    And refuel, out by the pool"


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