Lizards scuttled across the ancient walls like crabs. The black and yellow or green lizards started and then halted in our presence, like squirrels caught in the middle of the road, unsure of how to proceed. We walked further up the trail, paralleling the Estrucan walls of Cortona, towards la Basilica di Santa Margherita, which overlooks all of Cortona and affords a view of distant Lake Trasimeno.
Cortona was made famous by Frances Meyes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, though it’s always been thought of as one of the classic Tuscan towns of Italy. Cortona boasts a sparse population of under 2,500, but between Meyes’ book and the movie, Cortona’s population swells during tourist season, beginning in April and petering out in October.
My roommate, Jessie, has wanted to go to Cortona for a few months now. “It’s where Under the Tuscan Sun was filmed,” she said. That fact didn’t thrill me as much as the 2500-plus-year old walls that encase the hillside and hilltop town.
The small city is only an hour and fifteen minute train ride away, and we arrived around noon. We had read in both of our guidebooks that buses ran twice an hour from the train station, located below Cortona in Camucia, to Cortona. First, we noticed the tabacchi (literally, tobacco shop, but also sells bus tickets, train schedules, etc.) was closed, and then we saw that the bus schedule didn’t even list any times for buses on Sunday. We conferred with a German couple (who were toting heavy luggage…oof!) and decided to hike up the steep incline. It took me and Jessie just over an hour to get to the top, sans luggage. We never did run into the Germans; I wonder if they made it.
When we finally made it up to the actual city (we had been skirting the outside walls for a while), we were in awe of how quiet the town was. The town really is just this big, and the multiple piazzas the town has seem to run together. We had no plan for the day except enjoy the beautiful weather and explore the town. Once we figured out that we had already walked through the town in ten minutes, we decided to hike up to la Basilica di Santa Margherita. I really wanted to hang out by the walls (c’mon, they’re old, and awesome), so we took a trail up to the top lined with the walls. It was somewhat unnerving to run my hand along the sun-warmed stone knowing that some now-ancient hands had laid the stone there centuries and centuries ago. That, and bits of wall crumbled at the brush of my hand. No good.
The view from the top was everything you expect when someone says they had a hilltop view. Cortona sat directly below, and further down was Cambucia, spread out like an uneven blanket. The lake hung to the left in the haze, partly obscured by the hills (mountains? Foothills? Non lo so). We breathed speechlessness at the top and then headed down on the opposite side of the church.
On the way back down to one of the main piazzas, we ambled through the residential streets. The stones radiated cool air, impossible to imagine after our day in the sun. But Jessie and I decided were both bramasole, craving the sun, after the weeks of rain and clouds and Florence. Many of the stone buildings and houses seem to be original, from Etruscan times, or at least repaired and built up in the 15th century. Roofs sagged like a an old dog’s back and mortar sifted out of the walls, leaving tiny piles the size of ant hills. Roofs towered over others, verandas hung on tightly to the sides of houses. One thing in particular struck me—most of the windows we passed had curtains of lace hung in them. I didn’t know if it was a Cortona thing or if there was some other significance. I’m not the lace type, but they were all very beautiful and, if nothing else, surely attributed to the old-country feel.
Something I just couldn’t get over: Cortona felt a bit like Disneyland, or what I remember Disneyland feeling like when I was eight. I know that’s s terrible thing to say about such a beautiful place in Italy, but everything was so…perfect. It would have been irritating if it hadn’t been so beautiful.
We hiked back down after our walk through the town. We hoped to catch an early train, but after realizing the ticket booth only took cash, we were in a bit of a pinch. I was (and still am) Debit card-less (high-five, Visa!), and Jessie only had five Euro on her. After a brief uncomfortable panic, Jessie saved the day and we headed back on the train.
Cortona’s one of those places you want to go when you have literally nothing to do that day. I mean that in a good way. You have no time by which you need to return, no deadlines, no expectations. Yes, there museums in the town, recommended restaurants, but we skipped all of that and just spent the day outside. The only building we stepped into all day was a café, and that was only so Jessie could break her 50.
So here we sit, in our dim living room, brown as berries and no longer bramasole.