Last Sunday I arrived in the picturesque Etruscan town of Cortona, Italy. The quaint city with a population of roughly 22,000 people lies at the top of a hill in Tuscany and is notably the setting for the popular 2003 movie Under the Tuscan Sun, based off the autobiographical book by Frances Mayes. I’ve decided that since I will be spending eight weeks in this city rich of Italian culture, it’s time to shift the theme of the blog (quite eclectically) from the 90’s to covering all things Italy.
The drive from Rome into city was incredible, with rolling hills and farmland beyond what the eyes could see, and even with the downpour of rain welcoming us, my excitement only grew as our bus ascended up the winding roads going up the hill.
“Ahead of you is Cortona - right in the clouds,” my professor cheerily announced. She wasn’t kidding. The clouds engulfed the mountain ahead of us like a shroud of mist hiding the adventure that awaited us.
Arriving at our hotel, I was gifted with the most remarkable view out my window overlooking some of the terracotta Cortona rooftops and the Tuscan hills in the far distance. I opened the window to let in the sound and smell of rain and enjoyed it until we had to go down for our welcome dinner.
As I made it to reception, I could see a rainbow forming in the distance. I smiled to myself as I remembered a similar experience when I first moved to Copenhagen. Having seen a rainbow after the first day moving there, I took it as a good omen in the spirit of welcoming. For Cortona, it is another good omen and one that brought me comfort to see.
Nicola Tiezzi, the president of Cortona ON THE MOVE, invited us (being all 27 of us) to Trattoria Croce del Travaglio for pizza. With bottomless jugs of wine and the chef coming around every ten minutes with a new slice of pizza for each of us coming straight out of the oven, I went to bed happily tipsy and with a full belly. I fully submitted to the idea that this would be my life for the next eight weeks. Pizza, pasta, wine, and pure bliss.
The next day a group of us walked around to discover the town. There’s one supermarket with one produce market next door that requires the grocer to handle the fruits and vegetables for you. The fruit are filled with flavour and are unbelievably fresh. Just today I tried a strawberry that was delectably sweet and vibrantly red. There’s also Snoopy’s, which is without a doubt the best gelato in town. We’ve made friends with whom we call “Snoopy’s lady”, the friendly Italian woman with thick rimmed glasses that serves us a new scoop of gelato every day. Next time I see her I’ll ask her name.
We stopped at Cafe Degli Artisti where I had a massive Caprese salad. But the most beautiful moment of the lunch was when my poor gluten intolerant friend asked if they had anything gluten-free, our waiter offered to run across the street to buy her gluten-free bread. Even though this act of kindness didnâ€™t affect me personally, I felt it was a wonderful anecdote that perfectly captures the spirit of Cortona. The gesture was not extended as a method to get a tip from us or not out of the mentality that the customer must always be right, it was an act of human generosity that you so rarely experience in a big city. I would have never seen something like that in Toronto and for that I was deeply moved.
And the more I experienced interacting with strangers on the street or waiters serving me pasta, I realized that everyone here in Cortona is like this. They have huge, giving hearts and they seem to live their days with passion and purpose.
On Tuesday we had our first class held at the Fortezza del Girifalco. The Fortezza sits on the very top of Cortona and is naturally uphill. It took a good 30 minutes to power hike through the city streets to get to this spectacular building but the views at the top were tremendously rewarding. Even more so than the view from my hotel. Once the days get warmer, since they’re now surprisingly cold and rainy, I’ll make the hike just to have a picnic against the picturesque Tuscan scene.
Inside the Fortezza the most delicious lunch was prepared for us by the charming women who run the cafe. I got a vegetarian lasagne made of artichokes, a major novelty to me, but it tasted amazing. Later on we got a tour of the Fortezza and were introduced to the various Bastions of the structure, including the one that collapsed. Today the Fortezza acts as a cultural zone of the city. It displays a few exhibits of art and may potentially become an academic space, much like we’re using it now. There’s a lot of opportunity for this historic building and something we’re here trying to explore is exactly how we can take this archaic structure full of depth and culture and turn it into something contemporary, while still honouring the meaning of the building and its history.
The nightlife in Cortona is interesting. It’s minimal to say the least, as there are only a few bars in the city and only really one of them opens up to be very youth-oriented with a DJ and dancing. However, the nightlife is very much based on the idea of friends and family meeting together in the main Piazza and spending the night drinking and talking, laughing, and connecting. As much as I love a good dance club, I much prefer this quaint, down to earth, late night serenity with some of your closest pals.
On Sunday I went for a run through Cortona’s park near the hotel. It’s also conveniently the flattest road of Cortona and stretched about 2 to 3 km. It was the first time I had a moment to myself to reflect on where I was and what was happening. In the flurry of meeting new people and being in a new environment, finding a moment to digest everything was impossible. For once, I can actually see why people enjoy running.
After one week here, I’m growing to adore Cortona more and more everyday. It’s a town of smallness, where everybody knows everybody and close connections can be made. It’s a town of genuine friendliness and close comfort. It’s incredibly safe too. Maybe it’s because of its size or maybe it’s just how Italian culture is, but there is a beautiful slowness in living here. Weekdays blend into weekends, hours are spent outdoors in the sun, and the whole city takes a break in the middle of the day for siesta. I treasure this mentality because I can still recall how stressed I was leading up to this trip. My anxiety was at a peak the last two weeks up until my flight. Finally now I can rest in Cortona, live slowly, do my studies, read a book, go for a swim, and call this idyllic place my home for the next eight weeks.