Cortona. We all know the town now thanks to Frances Mayes’s book, Under the Tuscan Sun, and the beautiful film that followed.
It was the film that made me want to go as a young adult, but it is the town and its people that sealed Cortona forever in my heart.
Cortona is in the province of Arezzo, about an hour and a half from Florence by train or car. If time allows, we recommend staying in our beautiful palace hotel just outside city for a night or two. Soak up the highlights of the city, and then walk, relax, and discover on your own.
In Cortona, Etruscan history runs deep. Still today, people dig up Etruscan pottery in and around Cortona. In the heart of the town is the MAEC, Museum of the Etruscan Academy and the Town of Cortona.
This must-see museum is in Piazza Luca Signorelli, named for the artist from this town. Even the great Michelangelo once studied his work.
Today, there is a little sign outside the theater, Teatro Signorelli, explaining its significance for fans of Under the Tuscan Sun. Fans of the movie will remember the scene when Frances and Pavel were walking to the movie theater and studying Italian. That scene was filmed right here.
My husband and I visited Cortona only this February. I had to chuckle seeing these signs. My first visit to Cortona was only for a few hours as a quick stop on our student tour.
The one goal I had as a lover of the film was to find the restaurant where Frances and Rodney sat on the wall and she wrote the postcard looking down on market day.
“The bells of campanile remind me of time, ding, dang, dong, the bell says instead of, ding-dong. Wish you were here.”Frances in Under the Tuscan Sun Film
You know the rest!
During that visit, I had just completed my first semester of Italian. My mom called me into a shop to help her understand why the man behind the register was yelling “at her”.
I could make out enough Italian to understand he was yelling at his credit card machine, not at her.
We had a good laugh as she handed him the Euros and smiled down at her sunflower covered postcards. Outside that shop, my mom soon wandered into another and my friends were nowhere to be found.
I was on my own, but with a goal, so I struck out. Walking ever higher, the views left me spellbound.
Lago Trasimeno gleamed in the distance. Rays of sunlight pierced the sky, landing on pretty shrines and churches below. Music and bells rang up from surrounding churches.
There I was, at the top of Cortona, with God alone.
Later, I realized that I had walked straight passed that restaurant I was searching for and said a little prayer of thanks that I had missed it. Had I found it I would have missed out on one of the most treasured experiences of my life.
It felt like my very own, “segno di Dio”, sign from God of the gift that day had been.
Visiting again this February, I recognized that restaurant immediately. I had to laugh seeing that it now has a sign outside with a photo of Diane Lane and a quote from author, Frances Mayes.
My husband laughed at me shaking his head as he took my long awaited photo, sitting on that wall overlooking the piazza.
Visiting again this time, I realized that it was not only the movie or the book, it was the town itself that made Cortona so special to me. This time I wanted to learn about the city, to see those views again, and to share them with my husband.
During the winter, Cortona is quiet, and while some museums are closed, the town is a joy to explore. Arriving at the train station, we read a sign with numbers to call for a taxi.
A man saw us and came running out of the café saying he only had to finish his coffee and he would give us a ride. He turned out to be the first taxi driver listed on that sign, and such a helpful person.
As we drove up, the views just beginning to emerge, we asked where he recommended for lunch. “Tutti!”, he told us. “There is no bad food in Cortona. Every restaurant is buonissimo!!” He pointed out two famous ones, Pozzo Antico and La Grotta, but said if they are closed, we really cannot go wrong.
Deciding we should work up an appetite first, we began our ascent. Cortona is famously steep. The main road through the town, called Via Nazionale, is also affectionately known as, “La Ruga Piana” the flat wrinkle, because it is the only street that is not steep.
My direction conscious husband asked me how to get where we were going to see these views I had carried on about since we met. Not remembering the way, I simply pointed up with a guilty look on my face.
“Terrible idea, don’t you just love those?”Katherine in Under the Tuscan Sun Film
Thankfully, it is easy to walk up in Cortona, and I did remember enough to know that if we kept going up, the views would welcome us eventually. Already pealing layers, we were working up a sweat and an appetite.
A quick motion in the corner of our eyes caught our attention. It was a cat on a leash. Its owner smiling lovingly up at it as it climbed a tree. Even the cats here appreciate the views.
Continuing, we soon reached Basilica di Santa Margherita, a reverent church where it is clear that worship, and not the display of wealth or power is and has always been the most important thing.
Up the hill from the church we came upon a shrine to Santa Margherita with bronze plaque dated May 23, 1993. The words touched our hearts and captured the feeling inside the church that we were discussing that very instant.
“Devo ancora aggiungere che da molti anni ho sentito parlare della vostra Cortona come Citta di S. Margherita. Oggi per la prima volta mi trovo in questo luogo, in questa Citta meravigliosa dove tutto ci parla di Dio, la natura, le montagne, i boschi, la tradizione umana, francescana e cristiana molto ricca. Io non so se tutti gli Italiani sono cosi ricchi. Certamente lo sono i cittadini di Cortona. Vi ringrazio per la vostra accoglienza cosi cordiale, anche questo e` un segno di ricchezza.”S.S. Giovanni Paolo II
They are the words of St. John Paul II on his first visit to Cortona, translated:
“I have still to add that for many years I have heard talk about your Cortona as the City of Saint Margaret. Today for the first time I find myself in this place, in this marvelous City where everything speaks of God, the nature, the mountains, the woods, the very rich human, Franciscan and Christian tradition. I do not know if all the Italians are so rich. Certainly the citizens of Cortona are so. I thank you for your cordial welcome, this is also a sign of richness.”S.S. John Paul II
Of course, the riches he mentioned are spiritual ones, and through his words it is clear that we were not the first to feel God’s presence so strongly in this place.
At the very top of the city of Cortona stands the fortress of Girifalco, thought to have been the site of a fortress of some kind since Etruscan times. The one we see today has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times throughout the centuries.
During winter it is closed, but outside still offers stunning views, my favorite in town, over the sparkling Lago Tresimeno, the green hills of Tuscany in the foreground, and those of Umbria beyond the lake.
Here, the Tuscan light will melt you with its dazzling beauty.
Walking back down on the path more travelled, known as Via Crucis, we noticed the path is lined with niches. Each holds a mosaic by Italian futurist Gino Severini depicting the stages of the Cross arranged in ascending order.
The walk up this path is even more meaningful. As the heart beats faster, visions of Christ suffering on the cross serve as reminders that we are walking this path together with Him, our constant companion also on the path of life.
We still felt inspired even in reverse order, and we were certainly hungry once we reached the bottom! Caffe degli Artisti was open and welcoming, its menu written on a chalk board outside.
Oh, the food in a Tuscan winter! We settled into a small table, but the restaurant owner insisted we move to a larger one so we could be more comfortable. He seemed every bit the artist himself, presenting us with his daily creations just so we could sample them.
He brought out appetizers we had not ordered, free of charge. My plate of gnocchi with gorgonzola, pears, and walnuts was to die for and gigantic. After lunch, slices of cake were served with a smile, the same as the appetizers. “Prego!” Just enjoy.
The gentleman behind us looked over laughing, clearly filled to the brim as we were. He made a motion of wiping sweat from his forehead as he polished off his cake. We all laughed together, thanked our host with heartfelt gratitude, and wished each other a lovely afternoon.
These human moments, the connections, the people, are the magic in Italian travel. On that unseasonably warm, gorgeous day in Cortona, it was impossible to foresee that moments like this would soon be locked away.
Whatever happens, however long we must wait and however many sacrifices we all must make during these times, I hope, and I pray that we do not become so afraid of each other that we miss out on these moments of human kindness.
The warmth of laughter or a handshake from a stranger are the very breath of life that unite us as people and make us care for one another. They give us hope and comfort in happy times and unthinkably hard times.
I have every confidence that we will travel again, and though it might be different now, I hope we will still find ways to connect with the people who naturally welcome us so cordially. The same welcome given to a Pope in Cortona, they also offer to you and me. It is so touching, and so genuine.
This is a city rich in kindness, and also in art and history. Stepping into churches here feels like stepping back in time. Museo Diocesano host works by Fra Angelico, Luca Signorelli and more. The previously mentioned MAEC fascinates is visitors by the detail in Etruscan pottery, jewelry, and design.
Wine bars and restaurants welcome visitors to pop in for an unforgettable meal or a quick glass of wine. Shops offer local crafts from luxurious leather shoes and bags to artisan crafted jewelry, hand-painted tiles, or cutting boards and kitchen utensils made of local olive wood.
Those who love the film and all of Frances Mayes’s books as I do will be enchanted by the Under the Tuscan Sun walk through the town with signs describing film locations and some of the author’s own insights.
We can organize a tour of the city’s highlights to get you acquainted. Just be sure to take the time to go slowly. Visit the churches, museums, and shops, eat in a restaurant, sip local wines, and above all, talk with the people every chance you get.
Every city is different. Some overwhelm with museums to visit and others beckon you into their sparkling seas. Cortona is certainly not lacking in attractions, but it is the peace, the beauty, and gentility here that pulls on our heartstrings. A feeling that lingers.
Frances Mayes has countless quotes that I adore in her writing, but today I leave you with this one, and to dream of a place that surpasses imagination:
“I think I went to Italy initially for the art, architecture, food and history, but I stayed there because of the people in Cortona.”Frances Mayes
Contact us to plan your visit,
PFI Travel Tampa, USA Office