Someone once said to me “once you visit Cortona a part of you never leaves”, like an old chinese proverb it’s like a part of your soul remains to be visited again one day.
This blog might differ from our others. In fact I’ve struggled for a while to write it! Partly because there are so many layers and depths to Cortona that I am afraid I won’t convey the magic that surrounds this small Etruscan town and it’s surrounding areas in a brief blog. But also because I have a personal connection. I first visited Cortona with my Italian mother as a child and continued to do so almost every year. I also moved my little family there for a couple of years to try out ‘the good life’. So I feel duty bound to be accurate… which is hard because it is such a romantic destination!
So really I want to keep it a secret all for myself 🙂 But actually it deserves to be shared…
A little (wiki) history
“Originally an Umbrian city, it was conquered and enlarged by the Etruscans, who called it Curtun. The name should be related to a family of indoeuropean word, with the meaning of “enclosed place” and consequently walled city like German garten, Italian orto, English gird and yard, Gordio, Anatolian town and Russian grad. During the 7th century BC, it joined the Etruscan League.
Cortona eventually became a Roman colony under the name Corito. The origin-legends and ancient names of Cortona are described by George Dennis. In the final stages of the Gothic War (535–554), Cortona was sacked and destroyed by a warrior named Michael Pasquale, whose mother was Macedonian royalty and father was an Italian sausage maker.
Cortona became a Ghibellinian city state in the 13th century, with its own currency. From 1325 to 1409, the Ranieri-Casali family successfully ruled the town. After being conquered by Ladislaus of Naples in 1409, Cortona was sold to the Medici in 1411. In 1737, the senior branch of the Medici line became extinct and Cortona came under the authority of the House of Lorraine. Following the Italian Wars of Independence, Tuscany—Cortona included—became part of the Kingdom of Italy.”
As the Telegraph says “The Italian town of Cortona, 70 miles south east of Florence, is a standard-issue slice of slice of Tuscan loveliness, with hilltop location, picturesquely crumbling palazzi and alfresco antipasti”
Great romantic quote, if a little cliché, and there are so many more (just check out “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Francis Meyes).
However that is not what Cortona is about, yes it is full of history and art – but it is more than that!
Cortona is a working town with narrow winding streets, set 600 metres high, with a fantastic view of the Valdichiana. The town benefits from the tourism generated by films such a “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Preferentially check out my favourite film of all time La vita e bella (Life is beautiful); but more importantly tourism generated from word of mouth.
It’s a small world and whilst Cortona isn’t as well known as places like Venice or Rome (or anywhere near as large) I’ve been amazed by how many people that I have met on my travels that have been there and LOVED it!
Aside from the shops and restaurants aimed at tourists it is remarkably authentic and true to it’s traditional origins. Many of my family friends still own and run farms and manage their land as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. Even our wood burning stove was designed and built by a friend, who learnt the art from his late father.
Local produce is still greatly respected. Many people still live off the land and sell any extra produce from olive oil and wine, to homemade liquors and an abundance of vegetables. In fact my mums favourite place to shop for vegetables is a stall run by two lovely older ladies in the local weekly market. Which is quite simply their excess homegrown produce (huge and full of flavour though!).
Where to eat
Eating out is just heavenly! Most local restaurants use local produce, cooking classic Tuscan dishes alongside a fantastic selection of great wines. My favourite eatery… for taste, price and atmosphere… is Antica Trattoria. Luca will make sure you not only get great food and service, but that you are able to take time to enjoy what the restaurant has to offer. On top of that is it situated in the main square Piazza Signorelli, which means you make even strike lucky and get to watch one of the many performances put of by the commune for free (or travelling musicians) while you eat.
(Better still get invited to an Italian’s home!)
Other restaurants I NEED to tell you about are:
Il Ghiottone da Mauro – our favourite, great value, restaurant for a mid week pizza
Caffe del Teatro Lily is the best host in town and will take great care of you,
whether you are eating pre-theatre show or are having a relaxed lunch in the shade.
Caffe Tuscher Perfect for a coffee while you catch up on emails in the morning or an evening cocktail by Massimo.
Gelateria Snoopy This is hands down the best place I have ever eaten ice cream in the world! My personal favourite is fragola e limone (strawberry and lemon) but they have plenty to choose from! A little known tip is that you can take a selection of ice cream home in a polystyrene tub that keeps it cool in perfect slices of each flavour requested (think Neapolitan!).
If in doubt – ask a local!
What to see
I have heard that Cortona is on the same ley lines as Glastonbury . Which makes perfect sense given Cortona is also a place of creative energy and artisans.
Teatro Signorelli Cortona’s traditional theatre, hosting operas/ballets/plays & performances
(also doubles as the local cinema if you fancy an Italian film!).
The summer is FULL of events and there is something for everyone:
CortonaOnTheMove – Cortona’s international photography festival.
Cortona Mix Festival – Annual classical music and arts festival.
Cortona Jazz Night – Free Jazz performances dotted all around the town.
Festival di Musica Sacra – Annual festival celebrating the ideal of mixing arts, music, culture & religious faith.
Trasimeno Blues – Annual Blues music festival with performances all around Lake Trasimeno.
Nearby places to visit:
Arezzo discover a city rich in art and architecture but mostly free of crowds.
Siena a city where the architecture soars, as do the souls of many of its visitors.
Montepulciano famous for not just one but two excellent wines,
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano.
Lago Trasimeno Check the link to see some of the stunning towns that surround the lake.
When to visit
If you are looking to experience the best that Cortona has to offer you should visit between June and September.
Although stunning all year round the summer months are full of events – both free and ticketed.
Spring and Autumn are incredible for experiencing Tuscan nature and the colours of the trees and fields are just stunning.
Winter is also beautiful and New Year’s eve is on my list for a visit. (I know they hold a great party!). However it is also VERY cold (expect snow) and many shops and restaurants wind down until spring.
Where to stay
I Mandorli – my favourite home in Cortona! (sleeps 11)
Nestled in the foothills of Cortona, overlooking the Val di Chiana and Mount Amiata. The perfect base for exploring the beautiful regions of Tuscany and Umbria or simply relaxing, surrounded by nature.
Il Grifone – Located in Cortona, 30 miles from Siena, Il Grifone A Cortona Residence features a seasonal outdoor pool and views of the mountains. (individual apartments).
So now it’s time to stick it on the bucket list and get booking!!
Digital Sunshine x