Continuing our little weekend sojourns into Tuscany to escape the Roman heat, we visited the small town of Cortona. I have wanted to visit Cortona ever since seeing it in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ many years ago. It’s one of the movies that most captures the romantic Italian idyll for me. Also, for any Conan O’Brien fans, Cortona is the town where Jordan Schlansky has a dessert named after him and a ‘reserved’ parking spot (which I didn’t see…but I’m sure it exists 😉).
Cortona is a small, medieval hill town with a population of 22,000. Local legend says that after the Biblical Great Flood, Noah lived in the Valdichiana for 30 years. His son, Crano founded the city, liking its hilltop location, fertile valley and calm air. True or not, Cortona’s history stretches back to the Etruscans and over it time it has been held by the Romans, Medici and other powerful rulers as well as being an independent city state for a short time.
Upon entering into the lower town, città basa, it was immediately evident that Cortona is definitely on the tourist trail. We stopped by a grocery store and the signage and aisle markers were all bilingual into Italian and English, not to mention all the tourists we saw everywhere. The house rental and agriturismi businesses seemed to be booming.
There is a quick drive up the winding streets to the hill top with parallel parking along the way. It was crowded but luckily we found a spot close to the top. Surprisingly/unsurprisingly parking rates were high, €1.20 per hour about in line with Rome at €1-1.50/ hour.
We walked the last few meters to the top and arrived in Piazza Garibaldi with The Church of San Domenico is just off the piazza and has a fresco by Fra Angelino in the lunette about the door. It’s covered in glass which sadly was both rather cloudy and reflecting the sun so it was impossible to see the work. I was really curious to see what kind condition it was in, having been on the outside of a building and exposed to the elements for who knows how many years. As incredible as it is to see a fresco in its original, intended location, it’s also slightly sad for me, knowing that if it was stored under optimal light and temperature conditions it would last longer and future generations could appreciate it.
The view of the Valdichiana from Piazza Garibaldi is fantastic with views to Lake Trasimene.
Remember that story from the Second Punic War of Hannibal bringing elephants over the Alps from History class? Lake Trasimeno was the location of his victory over the Romans in 217 BCE on that march.
After Piazza Garibaldi, we head down the narrow Via Nationale to Piazza della Repubblica. The Comune di Cortona is here, with the grand staircase in front, site of Jordan Schlanaky’s acceptance speech and where the Christmas choir sings in Under the Tuscan Sun.
In the windy street above right, Diane Lane’s character, Frances, writes a postcard for a fellow traveler as she takes in Cortona on market day. Now there is a restaurant in that balcony where you can dine outside…assuming you visit on a cooler day!
Across from the balcony is an outpost of Santa Maria Novella, the great parfumerie from Florence. It’s a beautiful shop with fragrances for women, men and home.
The iconic Fra Angelico’s Annuciation (1430) was created for San Domenico and is on view in the Diocesan Museum along with his Madonna and Child with Saints. I prefer this version of his Annunciation to the one at the Prado because I love the detail of the small expulsion scene at the top. It really is a stunning work and the actual annunciation text in gold leaf from the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds me I wish I had studied Latin! Interestingly, the text is painted upside down and backwards so that it is legible to God and not us earthly mortals. The detail these Renaissance guys went to! Absolutely incredible.
After we left town, we took a detour to Bramasole, the villa at the center of Under the Tuscan Sun. In the film, Frances spontaneously purchases the 15th century villa while on a post-divorce holiday. Over the course of the film, she renovated the home and, of course, finds a happy new life for herself in Tuscany. How could I not love this movie? It combines some of my favorite things, travel and home renovation shows! 😃. Can someone please make a Flip or Flop, Europe Edition please?
Sadly, the fountain that Lindsey Duncan (Katherine) wades in a la Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita was just brought in by Production. I have heard it was donated to the town and they kept it, but it was not in the Piazza Signorelli during my visit, being used instead as a car park. The terrace restaurant where Katherine is dining with the nuns is still operating and located just off the main piazza.
A short distance outside the city lies the Villa Bramasole. It’s perched on a hillside with a beautiful view of the surrounding valley; I can see why Frances amazes decided to snap it up on the spot! The little balcony that featured prominently in the film is front and center, decorated with lovely flowers. It was great to see the house that inspired the book!
For more information: