Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Basking under the Tuscan sun

Posted by PicasaOn the edge of a rustic plaza jutting from the summit of a 1,700-foot hill, I took in a grand view of Tuscan countryside, an ocean of rolling hills and plains, a green montage of various shades and textures. I had made it to Cortona, the hilltop town in Tuscany inspiring countless wall calendars, postcards, coffee table books, and even a movie — Under the Tuscan Sun.

The train from Rome had dropped me off at a tiny, deserted station with automatic ticket machines rather than attendants. A little nervous, I walked into the adjacent town to find a tobacco shop where I could buy a ticket for the bus that would take me up the hill to Cortona. The bus dropped me off in the aforementioned rustic plaza, Piazza Garibaldi, where the small town’s cobblestone commercial strip began, strung with lights and garland and lined with gourmet shops, vinotecas and smart boutiques, many with Etruscan wells or cellars from the Middle Ages.

At the end of the town’s main artery, Via Nazionale, dubbed the flat wrinkle as it's the only level pathway to be found in a town of painfully steep streets, is the quaint Piazza della Repubblica dominated by the city hall, Palazzo della Comune. Fashioned from two medieval towers, the construction boasts a large clock and a grand staircase that makes for a perfect picnic location, where I ate my made-to-order fromage and prosciutto panini from a tiny supermarket.

I spent hours huffing up the town’s almost vertical streets, some with narrow stone staircases, taking hundreds of pictures of the charming Tuscan doors and sandstone houses. I made the climb up to various small, country-style churches, passing porches with potted plants, pet dogs, and cooped chickens. I kept ascending until I passed the gate of the town’s 2,500-year-old Etruscan walls, where I followed a dirt path along the mountain that offered sweeping views of the fertile farmland below. In the sunny near-silence, I admired the clusters of cottages balancing on the mountainside with their smoking chimneys and tiled roofs. I continued climbing until I reached the cathedral to the city’s patron Saint Margherita at the pinnacle of the mountain.

On a nearby hill I stepped up onto the remains of Etruscan tombs (I didn't know they were sacred burial ruins at the time!) to get the most dramatic perspective of the dreamy, tranquil Tuscan vistas stretching as far as I could see. — No field or clod of earth is kept better than here — Goethe said of the Cortona countryside. And basking under the Tuscan sunlight, I couldn’t have agreed more.

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