Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Summer 1997 - Italy and Switzerland
Two weeks outside Cortona
Saturday June 14
Checked out of our tourist rental. Went to Greve for breakfast at the bar. Their procedure has changed for the tourist season: you have to sit at the outside table, order from the waitress and pay immediately.
Drove south to Montalcino. The landscape changes dramatically after Siena - dry, wide open, lower rolling hills, fields of crops (not just vines and olive trees). More barren. Montalcino is a beautiful small town. Lunch in Montalcino. Walked around the town - small, delightful, steep, narrow streets (of course). Bought a fabulous olive wood cutting board. We are only buying extremely heavy or breakable things to take home.
Drove by Pienza - wide open, low rolling hills, not vines, but fields of maybe wheat, very sunny and hot. Arrived at next tourist rental outside Cortona: Casa Casina. Booked through The Parker Company. We are staying here for two weeks.
Sunday June 15
Lazy, hot day. Went into Cortona for the evening passagiata. The piazza was filled with hundreds of people attending a mass.
Monday June 16
Hot day. Went to Lago Trasimeno. Coffee in Passignano sur Tras. Lunch in Castiglione del Lago - beautiful walled town - small.
Tuesday June 17
We have been away four weeks today. The really hot and humid weather has gone. It is still hot and sunny, but not so extreme. I missed our routine in Greve and the look of the countryside in Chianti. It is different here. But, Cortona is one of the nicest towns we have ever been to.
I read out loud to Steve the Frances Mayes article that I downloaded onto the palmtop (HP Palmtops - the little computers we each had on that trip). Also the notes I took from her book about the Etruscan tombs and her house ("Under the Tuscan Sun" came out just after we had booked the house outside Cortona). We decided to do her suggested Cortona tour and find her house. We set out at about 3:00 and found Pythagoras's tomb - after several false starts: it is not marked on any map and you can only see the signs for it if you are coming from Cortona. It was fenced off and locked, so we walked around and peered in, but left. As we were leaving, we ran into a young American couple who asked (somewhat snottily, I thought) if we rang the bell for the attendant?. And, yes, there was a buzzer we had missed, so we all rang it. I wanted to know what guide book they had found this tidbit in - the Blue Guide of course - I keep forgetting that these are the best on the details. Well the attendant answered in Italian on the intercom and the couple stuttered, so Steve stepped forward and spoke into the intercom in Italian. We may not have been studying our guidebooks, but Steve had been studying Italian. The tomb was like a dolman (from Ireland). Huge boulders, but more professionally cut - it was a big circle. Less rough than the Celtic stuff.
Then we drove up above Cortona, as Francis Mayes recommends. Finally we parked at our favorite gate (because of the short walk into the center), had cappuccino and pastry at our favorite bar, and went to find her house. We walked out along the one kilometer tree lined park off from the edge of town (beautiful), then along the strada bianca (white road) until we saw her house. It was obvious from the description. Perfect location, perfect house.
Wednesday June 18
Explored Cortona today. Walked up through the town, along the walls, to the big church at the top - St. Margarite - her dead body is in a box in the church, with a glass panel so you can see the whole thing. We stood in the cool, silent, dark church in front of her dried bones. I think they make the churches like they do so that it will feel other-worldly when you are in them - to convince you of the myths. It is wonderful to go into a church midday on one of these hot days.
The walk up to the church was a footpath bordered with cypress. We went down the other side along the footpath with the stations of the cross along it. The originals of the pictures were in the museum.
Long lunch at La Logetta in Cortona. By now the museum was open, so we spent an hour there looking at great religious paintings from the 14-1500's. Looked at the Duomo - not interesting. Had gelato in a new place on Via Natzionale. Picked up groceries. Coffee in our usual place (Bar Signorelli).
Left Cortona around 6:00 and drove the back roads trying to find the road we had walked yesterday to see Bramasole - no luck - but pretty and narrow country lanes. Back to our house. It is nice sitting outside as the sun sets, but it gets very buggy, so we retreat to the house as it gets dark. Humid and buggy - always bugs in the house (no screens on the windows). In the daytime, there are lizards everywhere outside, scurrying out of the way when you approach.
Thursday June 19
Rain today. At 5:00 the rain stopped, so we drove to nearby town - Castiglione Fiorentino - nice, small, walled town, but boring.
Friday June 20
Sunny but not so horribly hot. Drove to Montepulciano. Had great fun walking up the long main road to the piazza. The town is beautiful, but the piazza not very lively and, in the end, it all felt very touristy to us. We went to a restaurant from the Eyewitness book - usually really good - but it was up in a hotel, no one else was there (it was 1:00), there were no open windows. They were glad to see us, but we slunk out after we were seated and walked back up the hill for a not great lunch at a great old bar.
Then we wanted to do a hike. But first we had to find the church outside of town where it started. After trying every possible road at the round about, we found the church (took almost an hour). I get mad ay myself for not reading the map correctly - it all seems so obvious once I figure it out - but Steve never gets mad. The road signs are really bad here. Sometimes the signs are only for places far away, then they put in a sign for a local place. And there are so many roads, intersections and turns that it is hard to navigate.
We drove the first part of the hike, parked at what the guidebook called an abandoned church, and walked along a strada bianca for 4 km down, then up, then down, down, then up, up to a little town. Walled and perfectly preserved, of course. It was 5pm when we got there. One or two visitors walking around, but all the locals sitting outside and greeting us. Went into the church - another dead saint at the alter and parts of old frescoes. Walked back to the car.
The hike took 2 1/2 hours. When we got back to the car, there was another car beside ours (a peanut - this is what we call those little Fiat 500s) and the chained door was open and someone was practicing drums. So the church wasn't really abandoned. Maybe we had parked at someone's house. We left quickly and quietly.
Drove to Pienza. First thing we see is an organic shop with olive oil. So we buy some more. I am starting to fixate on how we will carry all this home. The corked bottles are not leak proof. Also bought organic Grappa, noodles, honey. Walked around Pienza - had coffee. A beautiful small, perfect town with a great piazza - nothing changed since the 1400's. But also touristy.
This area is beautiful - great countryside - but maybe Montepulciano and Pienza are just too touristy.
The drive back seemed long. Someone almost drove head on into us - he was blinded by the sun and was in our lane and swerved at the last minute. Steve saw what was happening and slowed, so we were ok.
Pizza in Cortona at the same place we went last week. After a long, tiring day, we came home to find thousands of ants on the kitchen counter going for the raisin bread that I left out. This was the first sign of major bugs - they ignored the panne, the fruit, the garlic that were also out. We spent about half an hour sweeping them out and cleaning up. We have been keeping the kitchen clean - I do the dishes and wash the stove and counter about twice a day, Steve has been sweeping the floors. We will now increase our efforts.
Saturday June 21
Didn't sleep well - hot and buggy. I have bug bites all over my body. Woke at 7:30 to the key keeper shouting from outside (in Italian). She told us we had to leave, Steve said we still had another week. Turned out she thought that today was the 28th when it was only the 21st. After much discussion and her phoning someone, the matter was settled and we could stay. Her mother gave Steve half a dozen eggs from her chickens. Italians never apologize if they are wrong - and they never assume they could be wrong. Still giving us the eggs was a nice gesture.
So we were up in good time and went into Cortona for the market. Coffee and pastry at the cafe. Found great kitchen towels at the market.
Decided at the last moment to see the Piero della Francesca's in Monterchi and Sansepulcro - fabulous. Drove back by Il Poeta where we stayed last year (near Umbertide). The area is prettier than I remembered. Coffee and pastry at cafe recommended last year by Il poeta, but they were on vacation when we were there. Open this year and great.
Took a too winding yellow road over the hills (remote, wild) from Umbertide to Cortona.
We have decided to leave a day early, spend a night on the Italian Rivera for an adventure and to break up the drive. Maybe stop in Carrara and get some marble. We decided to skip going to Assisi, even though it is close, because we were just there last year. This turned out to be a big mistake because the earthquake happened after this trip and the Giotto frescoes will never be the same again.
Sunday June 22
Slept well, no bugs, cooler night. But, to get no bugs, you have to sleep with the shutters closed (because they have the screens pined to them) and then to room is too dark, also not much air gets in. Windy, but sunny and warm. Haven't worn long sleeves in weeks, except for a couple of nights ago in Cortona for the evening.
Drove to Arezzo to see the Piero della Francesco frescos. Lots of people out lining the streets, wearing scarves of the same colors, waiting for a parade. People on motorcycles drive by grouped by the color of scarves they are wearing. We watch for awhile, then go to the church. The frescoes are being restored and are behind a barrier so we can't see them! Back to the street in time to see a parade of men in medieval costumes - throwing flags, carrying crossbows, riding horses. In between groups we dive into a fabulous cafe - long cabinet of pastries, long bar, lots of tables and a TV showing our parade. Had machiatos and pastry at the bar.
Followed the crowd after the parade to the main square - lots of people now - bought standing area tickets and went inside. It is about 4:30 and we stand in a huge crowd in the strong sun, sheltering ourselves with our programs (Steve made a hat of his, but abandoned it when he saw the perfectly folded hat the Japanese woman next to him had made). Lots of pageantry - flag guys parade in and throw flags, then crossbow guys, then guys on horses. Lots of cheering from each group of colors. Fabulous piazza - looked medieval. People hanging out of windows of the buildings. Finally, after more than an hour, jousting. But it is only one guy on a horse charging a dummy, then cheering, then a score.
We left after two jousts, back to the caffe, sat outside this time. I wanted a cold Campari and soda, but no alcohol on the festival day. By the time we finished, a huge crowd was leaving. The roads were full and crazy leaving. So many people passing, that they were all just driving in the oncoming lane until, surprise, an oncoming car came. Then they just moved over and merged into the correct lane. It all worked.
Drove into Cortona, to our favorite gate and, zip, into a space. We were both thoroughly buzzed. La Logetta for dinner sitting outside under the loggia. A black cat sleeping on the wall.
Monday June 23
It is cooler now. Woke in the night to howling wind. Did a hike through the fields and woods from the house to Cortona. The trails were somewhat marked. We had a good hiking map. Two hours up the hill, one hour across the valley and then down to Cortona. One hour to get home following the roads we usually drove.
On the way up we walked through the Monastery outside of Cortona. First built in 1200's by St. Francis. Saw his room and church. Bought pictures of him from frescoes in Assisi and crosses made from olive trees. You take what you want and leave your money in a box. There is no one around.
Stopped in Torreone, the town above Cortona for a late lunch. The walk has taken much longer than we thought and we had planned to eat in Cortona, but we had missed the lunch time. Cheese sandwiches and beer. The best meal ever because we were so hungry. Then coffee in Cortona, that sleepy time of day between 2:00 and 4:00 when all is quiet. The stores start to open again around 4:00 - 5:00.
Tuesday June 24
What a day! Went into Cortona for groceries (more porcini) and Steve reserved a hotel on the Italian Riviera. The house has no phone, so we use the booths in Cortona to phone, then send a fax with our credit card number from a store with a fax machine, then phone again to confirm. Nothing is easy in Italy. When Steve asked for a room with a sea view, the hotel person just laughed and laughed. I guess we were booking late.
Then to Arezzo - disastrous. First the roads to get there are crazy. Second we were behind the bus which is also the school bus dropping off lots of kids. Couldn't pass it. At its final stop, we waited behind it for 15 minutes. - huge traffic snarl. Then we parked, walked across Arezzo to Vasari's villa. Had to ring to get in and the totally weird guy running it followed us around explaining the boring frescoes emphatically in Italian. Then the rain started (umbrella and rain coats in car, not with us). We waited a bit, but it didn't let up, so we left anyway. It was like someone threw buckets of cold water on us. Immediately soaked through. Ran to the caffe near the church, but it took forever. It started to hail. Took shelter along the way. Finally made it. Went inside, it was packed with dry people. We were dripping puddles of water, hair hanging wet, my white T-shirt virtually see through with the wet. Made our way to a back table and ordered. They made us pay when the coffee arrived (that is how disheveled we looked). Coffee was bad.
But the rain stopped. Soaked and cold we made our way back to the car. Shopkeepers were cleaning up after the storm. Line of people at the booth to pay for parking and then a line of cars to get out and it was one of those machines, like in Siena, where you have to put in the ticket just the right way. Someone ahead of us got stuck and the guy had to come way over from the booth to let us all out. Crazy driving again on the way home. Heater in the car helped. We didn't even have our hiking shirts in the car as usual because the knapsacks were in the house.
Wednesday June 25
Today the key keeper brought us an umbrella for the outside table. We told her we were leaving Friday. Two loads of laundry washed and on the line.
Left around 4:00 for a drive across the Valdichiana that we look at. Beautiful. Big, flat fields with abandoned huge farm houses - all the same shape. Large and square for 2 stories, then a smaller square on top. Went to Monte San Salvino. Another pretty town, but I am getting tired of all these hill towns that look the same (so, you can get tired of Italy). The stores were just opening, not many people around. Had a coffee. The people here and around Cortona are more like we remember from the last trip - not friendly. It is only in Chianti where things are different. Easier driving, friendlier people. Cortona is somewhat friendly.
Hit the autostrada to get back quick. Steve has been away from the autostrada, and fast, two lane driving, for four weeks. It was "yehaw" and up to 150 kph!
To Cortona for evening stroll. Looked at a purse I had admired in a window - made by Timberland an American Company (so I won't be buying it in Italy). The shopkeepers sit outside their stores and only go in when they are about to make a sale. This guy must have had me figured, because we never even saw anyone in the store. We just looked at the purse and left.
Sat at a table in our cafe for 30 minutes watching the crowd, but the waiter never took our order so we left - got to sit for free! They were filming a movie in the second piazza.
There is a "no hunting" sign posted just outside the Cortona gates. Lucky for us.
Thurs June 26
Drove to Tuoro - no restaurants, a small town, so drove to Castiglione del Lago for lunch.
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