Made famous by Frances Mayes’ book (and movie) Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona’s medieval stonework soaks the sun’s rays reflecting a bronzed honey hue. Roosting on the side of a hill encrusted in olive groves, Cortona offers sweeping panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside with shimmering Lake Trasimeno (where Hannibal surprised the Romans) in the distance. Its petite town centre surrounded by city walls belies a storied history of active markets, religious pilgrimage and wars – once rivalling Florence for Tuscan dominance. Today it attracts visitors by the thousands but maintains a friendly graceful appeal, a best-selling book notably lifting tourism.
With calf muscles like Olympic cyclists, locals trudge the steep slopes of the narrow snaking laneways with a steady determination. Enchanting and mysterious staircases run off the lanes to local houses. Piazza della Repubblica,which has been the main square since Roman times, is flanked by two palaces, the Palazzo Communalewith its stately town clock and palatial staircase being the council chambers/town hall for the last 800 years.
Everywhere seems to be up so nothing captures the spirit of the town more than patiently following sinewy Via Santucci uphill towards the Monastery of Santa Margherita. With its medieval significance, churches predominate across the handful of streets that make up the town centre. Continue further up the hill towards the Poggia (upper town) towards the fortress (fortezza) which continues to proudly guard the town and boasts panoramic views across the rich soils of Tuscany. Porta Montanina reveals remains of the Etruscan city walls and a Roman aqueduct.
Back to the main square, the outstanding Etruscan Academy Museum includes treasures from every age of Cortona’s history including a remarkable 2,400 year old Etruscan hanging oil lamp, Etruscan tombs and a Roman helmet among coinage and jewellery.
Vicolo Jannelli has beautifully preserved medieval housing with their upper floor jutting over the street below held by wooden braces. Following the city walls, twinned-arched Porta Bifora (one blocked up)was constructed in the 2ndcentury BC and still has an aura of grandeur with fine stone paving, while the city walls can be clearly seen as a mix of Etruscan foundations with Roman and medieval additions.
Unsurprisingly, Via Nazionale is a popular street, people striding the shop-lined road as it is the only flat street in Cortona – the locals nicknaming it rugapiana (piana meaning flat). The aptly named Vicolo del Precipizio(which translates itself) runs as a staircase off Via Nazionale and is more in keeping with Cortona’s streetscape!!
While Under the Tuscan Sun means that Cortona has been robbed of some of its peace and solitude, tourist groups don’t appear to get far from the main square in their brief visits. Seek your own Tuscan sun walking around the Poggia and town walls enjoying superb vistas and exploring evocative twisting lanes full of historic churches (poke your head in). The Etruscan Academy Museum contains a treasure trove of historic items detailing the rich lengthy history of this elegant and friendly hillside Tuscan town.