Cortona and the Locations from ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’

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.

Still from “Conan Without Borders” photo credit

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!

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Tivoli and the Villa d’Este, Lazio/ITALY

Tivoli is a delightful town, less than an hour by car outside Rome. Situated on top of a hill, it has the sweeping views and narrow, meandering streets of a classic Tuscan hilltowns with the addition of a UNESCO World Heritage designation and ruins of two ancient 100-150 B.C.E. temples.

This little kitty was just as happy as can be in his 2000 year old, open air bedroom.

The drive into Tivoli was painless, and we easily found parking in the city center. We ascended to the top of the top and grabbed a quick bite to eat at Alice Pizza, one of our favorite places for suppli, a fried seasoned rice ball dusted in breadcrumbs. Imagine rice seasoned with a classic sauce like cacio e pepe or tomato basil marinara encased in a light bread crumb shell and there you have it. It’s very tasty and indulgent!

Tivoli is filled with incredible sights such as the Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), Villa d’Este and Villa Gregoriana in addition to the two ruins. As it was a very hot day, we decided to focus on the Villa d’Este and cooling fountain-filled gardens.

A lady takes in the sweeping view of the valley below.

This guy was getting very friendly with the tourists!
The Neptune Fountain and fish ponds
Looking down from above the Neptune Fountain towards the fish ponds.

After touring the villa, we explored the town which had really come alive.  The mid-day heat has assuaged and the cafes and ristorante were filled with people enjoying an apertivi or settling into dinner.  We ended up on a bridge with a little overlook and i immediately recognized the little temple from the painting by Christin Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich.  What a fortuitous surprise!

We had dinner at the lovely Sibella ristorante underneath the temple.  I’m pease to report that ALL of us were happy with ever course of our dinner.  For the primi, we had a delicious vegetable soup and a pasta with asparagus, guanciale and pecorino.  For secondi, the mouth watering aromas from the grill convinced us to get the sausage and the lamb, which didn’t disappoint!  We had the best table, over looking the gorge and yet still under the temple.

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Scottish Highland Games, Lochearnhead, Scotland/UK

Highland Games are a celebration of Scottish culture and heritage and is a great opportunity to see Scottish folk traditions like highland dancing, bag piping and games of strength. During the summer there are Highland Games happening all over the country almost every weekend. We choose to attend the Lochhearnhead Highland Games as it was a short drive from Glasgow (about 1 1/2hours). Lochearnhead is situated in a beautiful part of the country, just outside the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, so we got a really pleasant drive as a bonus!

We arrived right in time for the Highland Dancing competition. It was pretty incredible to see the little girls and one little boy continue the traditional dancing style, which looked like quite the workout! After the kids, was the adult competition and the performances were really beautiful.

All the events take place within a ring, with a path around the circumference for spectators, shop and food stalls. Many of the games can be entered by anyone in attendance, like the foot races so there were many international competitors, many of whom placed highly! The shops sold local crafts like jewelry, knitwear and some sheep and reindeer hides, which were maybe not so local. The food options were pretty routine like burgers and assorted fried treats, but the donuts offered by a little stall were the standout. Made onsite and immediately, it was the perfect hot tasty treat!


We caught some of the strength events, like Tossing the Hammer, Throwing the Sheaf but sadly, missing the Tug of War and Caber Toss. A caber is a 15 foot, 5m long, slightly tapered log which is thrown end over end. Weighing up to 175 lbs, 79 kg it is really a feat to be able to toss that thing.

At the end of the Games, everyone is invited to the Ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) for live music, dancing and drinks. The crowd spilled out of hen tent into the lawn and everyone enjoyed the weather and the beautiful scenery of the loch.

We visited the nearby village of Killin to get some cash and were very pleasantly surprised with how pretty it is! Immediately upon entering the town, you cross a narrow bridge over the picturesque Falls of Dochart before arriving on the High Street.

Helpful tips:

– make sure to bring cash as most of the vendors are cash only and there is no ATM in the village.

– the shady side of the field was quite muddy, so wellies or some other enclosed, mud proof shoe is recommended.

-show up when the games start as some of the events are quite short.

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Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery and Botanic Gardens, Scotland/UK

Some of the “Must See” cultural sights of Glasgow are the Kelvingrove Gallery & Museum and the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Both institutions have been around for over a century, are chock full of interesting exhibits and are free!

Kelvingrove is a beautiful building constructed in Glasgow’s signature red sandstone. Opened in 1901 for the International Exposition, it sits in the larger Kelvingrove Park to the west on the city. Inside are collections of Ancient Egyptian Art, several periods of European Art (including the well known Salvador Dali work Christ of Saint John of the Cross), Taxidermy and Glasgow-style artwork and decorative arts amongst many others. The Glasgow room was really interesting, telling a compelling story of the notes Art Nouveau artists nicknamed “Glasgow Four”, the Macdonald sisters Mary and Frances and their husbands, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair.

Check out this hall, doesn’t it look straight out of the Ben Stiller movie, “Night at the Museum”?

The collection of taxidermy and prehistoric skeletons was quite impressive. I was quite in awe of the prehistoric Irish deer with a massive set of antlers!

After visiting Kelvingrove, we ended our day at the sprawling Glasgow Botanic Garden. A collection of tropical and temperate plants housed inside greenhouses is a highlight but we were also lucky enough to have a beautiful day to enjoy the manicured grounds.

Kibble Palace, a 19th Century greenhouse

More info can be found at the following website:


Glasgow Botanic Gardens

Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scotland/UK

We spent a windy, cool Summer Sunday in Edinburgh seeing a few of the top sights. First up was the Royal Mile. This is the road linking Edinburgh’s main two sights together, Edinburgh castle at the top of the hill with the Palace Holyroodhouse at the opposite end. It’s a picturesque street lined with shops and restaurants catering to the tourist demographic. Lot of cashmere and tartan shops and I did pop into several of them to find the perfect matching kilts for my nieces.

After poking around in the little shops and stumbling upon a street food market serving what looked to be a decent haggis, we made our way to Holyrood Palace. This Palace is still in use by the Royal Family and serves as the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. She stays here for a week every summer but sadly, our visits did not coincide. It was also the home of the legendary royals, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI. It’s interesting to walk through the halls where James, the king responsible for establishing the American Colonies, was born and lived.

Exterior of Holyroodhouse

Interior Quadrangle of Holyroodhouse and the last place for photos on the tour.

Sadly, photographs are not allowed inside, but rest assured the interiors are filled with historic staterooms and artifacts. The admission includes an audio tour which was really well done.

Mary, Queen of Scots staterooms are part of the tour and the audio tour describes the vicious murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio by a band of her husband, Lorn Darnley’s knaves, in front of Mary and four ladies in waiting. Caught unawares while they were dining, pregnant Mary was held at gun point with Rizzio hiding behind her until she was overpowered and Rizzio was dragged out and stabbed 56 times. Standing in this little turret room, exactly where they dined you can imaging the horrors that happened five centuries earlier.

The Murder of Rizzio, 1787 by John Opie

There was a temporary exhibit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’ wedding clothes which was a wonderful way of making the Palace feel contemporary and alive, it just another pretty historical palace. There was a fantastic portion of the audio tour with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle discussing the details of their clothes and it was lovely to hear it in their own voice, especially after all the ad nauseam discussions of them! Harry discussed how he selected that particular uniform because he thought it looked the smartest, but it was also rather warm…and seeing it in person, I can only imagine! All that wool! My goodness! And that open air carriage ride in the bright sun, I bet he was literally getting hot under the collar! Meghan’s dress is made of an elegant soft white cady with a soft, lustrous finish. It is really a simple yet sophisticated dress that serves as a great canvas to highlight the tea show stopper, that gorgeous veil! Ethereal tulle edged in multidimensional, embroidered flowers representing all the a commonwealth countries, it is a softly feminine finish to a perfectly modern, Royal bride.

Photo credit: USA Today, pictured on display at Windsor Castle

The cutest part of the exhibit was seeing little Prince George’s uniform and Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid dress. Everything about Prince Harry’s uniform has been miniaturized down to the buttons, it was too cute!

Photo credit: Harper’s Bazaar, pictured on display at Windsor Castle

The interior part of tour ends at the ruins of the Gothic Holyrood Abbey. Founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland, the roof and ceilings are completely gone but much of the four walls remain. Coming from California, I appreciate that whole “indoor-outdoor” living thing. 😉

The gardens are the final part of the visit and are just gorgeous! Meandering paths wind through pretty flower beds, concealing and revealing Arthur’s Seat and lovely vignettes.

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