Once upon a time Cortona was a humble, quiet medieval town perched up on a hill overlooking the glorious Val di Chiana valley below in peace and quiet. Until its was discovered by foreigners, tourists, University of Georgia’sCortona program and Frances Mays whose book, then Hollywood hit, Under The Tuscan Sun further promoted Cortona as a must-visit Tuscan destination. And fortunately for me, I couldn’t resist the temptation either.
Nowadays during the tourist season, Cortona’s narrow medieval streets are packed wall to wall with tourists, variety of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts, destination weddings, and on the outskirts of town, rental villas for many Americans and Europeans who vacation here in order to enjoy their time under the Tuscan sun. Who can blame them? Some of the locals have claimed their town became too touristy, like other small Tuscan towns such as San Gimignano, that also got a taste of tourism success.
But I don’t think Cortona lost it’s crusty authentic self. Click above to watch the video and see for yourself!
Many of the tourists that cram the main piazzas are day trippers, either on organized tours, or taking day trips from nearby cities like Florence or Rome or neighboring Umbrian towns like Assisi or Perugia.
Not that there’s anything wrong with day trips to Cortona given its small size! If you want to hit the main points, get a feel for Cortona, enjoy the gorgeous views, you can do that and be back in your hotel by bed time. So in this show, I’ll give you the day trip version and share with you the places I’ve visited the most.
Getting to Cortona is easy either by car or train. If you choose public transportation which is a good idea if you’re directionally challenged, the train will drop you off either at Terontola or Camucia. I suggest Camucia because it’s much closer to Cortona. And I also suggest you double check your train ticket!In the video you will see what happened as a result of not double checking my train ticket! Talk about taking a scenic route!
Whether you’re driving up the winding road to Cortona or taking a bus, you don’t want to miss the spectacular view around you. If you’re taking the bus, it will drop you off and pick you up again later in Piazza Garibaldi, that welcomes you not only with a breathtaking terrace view of Lake Trasimeno and the Val di Chania valley below, but also with a very helpful sign directing you to key places in town.
The piazza is named after Giuseppe Garibalid whose statue graces its center. He’s a popular military hero during the unification of Italy in mid 1800′s. Among the locals though, the piazza is still considered by its former name, Piazza Carbonaia. The piazza was built by the french during the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of 1800′s.
From here you follow via Nazionale. This is probably the flattest street in Cortona, thus its nickname: Ruga Piana, or the flat wrinkle. Via Nazionale takes you to the main square, Piazza della Repubblica.
One thing you’ll notice that sets this medieval hilltop town apart from many others is that English is spoken almost everywhere here, thanks to the American university and other english speaking ex-pats! Not that you have to struggle when you ask for “Un Cafe“, but this is a good place to just put your Italian phrase book away. For example, Bar 500 is owned by a British couple, who make a mean capucchino. And sometimes you do need a mid-day pick me up – a double dose of jet fuel, I mean espresso to keep the engines running to get the most out of you day in Cortona.
Via Nazionale is lined with shops, cafes, and my usual stop for some fresh fruit, the Fruttissima, and although the guy who’s there running the shop never recognizes me with the throngs of tourists passing by each day, I remember him: he’s been here since my first visit to Cortona.
One of charms of small towns like Cortona is seeing the familiar faces of shop and cafe owners, and even some of the locals. You just want to wave and say: “Hey remember me? I’m back!! Great seeing YOU again, even if you have NO idea who the heck I am !”
If you plan to wander through Cortona beyond the main piazzas, you might want to stop at the tourist information office also on via Nazionale for a free map. It really helps! And if you’re inspired to buy a slice of your own Tuscan paradise, there’s a real estate office too! One of my favorite cafes is La Saletta, and I come here often for a coffee, a bite to eat, and in the evenings it turns into a wine bar with live Jazz music and a wide selection of Italian and foreign wines. It’s a family owned cafe and enoteca, and the owners are most welcoming and generous with their customers. We’ve easily become friends. I later found out La Saletta was also mentioned in Rick Steve’s travel guide on Cortona, and totally I agree with him.
You’ll also notice an alley, or vicolo, shooting from via Nazionale from place to place…like this one Viccolo del Precipizio - The Precipice Alley – a clear indication of what’s beyond the main piazza in the town’s center. Viccolos often connect parallel streets, which are usually uphill!
Beautiful art galleries also line Via Nazionale, with beautiful Tuscan theme artwork, ceramics, and more. The Tabachi, or tobacco shop is where you can purchase bus tickets, stamps, post cards, and small souvenirs. There’s also a pharmacy if you find yourself in need of an aspirin or something to sooth your aching feet from walking all day up and down hill.
Piazza della Repubblica
The impressive buildling with the grandstand staircase is Palazzo Communale, the medieval town hall, dating back to the 1200′s when it was built over the ruins of the Roman Forum of this city.In the video you will see the beautiful buildings that make up this square and the activities that make this piazza so popular in Cortona!
Next piazza over is Piazza Signorelli, named after the famous Renaissance artist from Cortona, Luca Signorelli. Here inside Palazzo Casali is Museo dell’ Accademia Etrusca, the Etruscan Museum.
It’s quite fitting to have an Etruscan museum because Cortona was once an Etruscan town itself, The Etruscans being the ancient pre-Roman civilization whose remains are still visible in Cortona’s walls, and inside this museum.
According to legend the Casali palace was built upon old Etruscan and Roman buildings, some of the remains visible in the cellars of the nearby “Cassa di Risparmio“, which is a bank. If you’re an Etruscan buff, or just curious about this mysterious ancient civilization, you can squeeze a Museum visit during your day trip here. Besides Etruscan artifacts, the museum also features an ancient Roman and Egyptian exhibit, and Renaissance and Baroque paintings.In the video you will also see many coat of arms.
When Cortona was occupied by Florenence, Palazzo Casali became known as Palazzo Pretorio, and each of the ruling captains placed their own coat of arms on the building, which remained virtually unchanged.
The Neoclssical style Signorelli Theatre served as the movie theater for many years, and it was also portrayed as the town’s movie theater in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Last time I was inside, there was a very busy internet cafe, and from what I hear, a very good restaurant too!! In the movie there was also a fountain in this piazza. That, was only a prop. Too bad, a fountain would’ve looked great here
On Saturday mornings you’ll also find it to be Market Day in Piazza Signorelli, and in the video you will see all the knick knacks, food, and antiques for sale each week in this open air Market.
Past Piazza Signorelli is Piazza del Duomo, where you’ll find, of course, the Duomo. It was built on the ruins of a pagan temple, and progressively rebuilt since its original Renaissance construction. Across this little piazza two small churches were united to form Museo Diocesano, a very small museum that features 2 important pieces by the famous Fra Angelico: the Annunciation, and Madonna and Child with Saints. If you’re into art history, these two pieces make the visit to the museum worth while, and you can definitely squeeze in a short visit in here too.
One of the many enjoyable walks is the opposite side of town. You walk past Piazza Garibaldi and towards the Giardino Pubblico, or the public garden. The park itself is gorgeous and worth the stroll, especially when you catch glimpses of the valley below. As you pass this park, continue on viale Passerini uphill past the Tennis Club.
But as we keep on walking, the view just gets better if you can believe it!! The views up here put post cards to shame. It inspires even the non-artistically or poetically inclined to pick up a paint brush or a pen. Could it be a view like this that inspired da Vinci?
Cypress trees are so quintessential Tuscan, that we can’t imagine the Tuscan landscape without cypress trees. But these trees likely did not originate in Tuscany, but in the Mediterranean region, even Persia perhaps, and brought here by the Etruscans for their mystical and supernatural purposes. Cypress trees can also live up to 1,000 years or more. And here I thought they’re just pretty road side decorations.
Bramasole (the villa from Under The Tuscan Sun)
For many visitors in Cortona and fans of Frances Mays, a walk to Bramasole is sort of a pilgrimage.
Between park benches in the public garden, and stone benches along the road to Bramasole, there are many opportunities for a pause for a picnic with a view. Just be sure take any garbage with you and leave them in designated trash bins.
Even if this road led to nowhere in particular, it’s still a wonderful walk with amazing views you won’t see otherwise. At first I expected to see locals commuting to town on foot, or perhaps on an afternoon passegiata, but instead I often ran into joggers, cyclists, and Americans in cars…they were all renting villas here, and some even bought some. I met only one local, who told me that the Bramasole in the movie is the nearby Villa Laura. So when you first come here you don’t know what to look for, but it’s really the first villa that stands there facing you, bright and peachy! Yep, this is Bramasole.
Bramasole means “Yearning for the Sun“. It’s not known who built this farmhouse and for whom…it’s so old such records weren’t even kept back then. This abandoned farmhouse was brought back to life when Francis Mays bought it and renovated IT and its garden. The nearby wall may not look like much, but it’s quite interesting because it’s an Etruscan wall from around 8th century BC…imagine having a wall next to your house that’s thousands of years old, before Rome even existed. Amazing. But of course, it looks perfect now because it’s been repaired over time, and as recently as a few years ago.
And as we head back to Piazza Garibaldi to wait for the bus back to the train station, you can pause and admire the view under the Tuscan Sunset.
Up next, we’ll venture further into Cortona, visit the incorruptible body of the Saint o its culture, AND it’s rich and fascinating history as one of the 12 city states of the Etruscan League. And of course, we’ll sample some delicious local dishes!
UPDATE NOTE: The video also features a favorite shop of mine, Girasole, regretfully it is no longer there. It’s been replaced by another shop – you should check that one out instead!
Until next time, ciao for now!