Cortona must be one of Tuscany’s most unique hilltop towns: Not only for its location - it sits on a hillside dominating the vast expanse of the Valdichiana and enjoys spectacular views over the plains towards Montepulciano and Lake Trasimeno - but also for its size (25,000 habitants), its history (dating back to the Etruscans), its accessibility (two main line rail stations and 15 minutes from all major motorways) and for the extraordinary metamorphosis it has undergone over the last 30 years.
As any visitor to the town will attest, Cortona has a vitality and sense of purpose that sweeps you off your feet and grabs at the heart strings.
If legend is to be believed one of the very first visitors to fall under Cortona’s magical spell was Noah. Apparently, 108 years after the great flood (so no spring chicken) he floated into the Valdichiana via the Tiber and Paglia rivers and was so taken with the area’s lushness and beauty that he settled there for the next 30 years. 273 years later, one of his descendants, Crano, supposedly became the town’s founding architect.
Whether or not Noah debarked in Cortona, it has historically always been of strategic significance – the Etruscans, the Romans and the Medici family all fought to have and retain this special hilltop citadel and in their turn, greatly influenced and contributed to its architecture, its importance and its development. Its star shone throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and as such there are treasures to be found all over the town.
Among the most important artists to be born in Cortona were Pietro Berrettini, Luca Signorelli and Gino Severini, as were the Franciscan monk Fra 'Elia Coppi and the architect and engineer Laparelli Pitti. In the Diocesan museum one can see the preserved works of Beato Angelico (the Annunciation). Just strolling through the town one can note the influence of the architect Tusher and the mosaics of Gino Severini.
It should come as no surprise then, that Cortona has always been a popular port of call for global figureheads: Popes, Cardinals, the Queen mother, Prince Charles (habitual guest of English friends who lived in the area), the French president Mitterand and the French painter Balthus; these are just some of the more notable folk to have walked its streets.
It wasn’t, however, until after the Second World War that Cortona started welcoming its first international residents in earnest. When the Cortonese contadini - poor farming families who had been subject to a feudalistic lifestyle of rural hardship for generations - moved down from the hillsides to the post-war new towns in the 1950’s and 60’s, disenchanted Italians - from both the north and south of Italy – together with Brits, Germans and some Americans, started buying up the rural retreats they had abandoned. They would set a trend that shows no sign of letting up after 50 years.
It was the beginning of a new era for Cortona.
Whereas many of the smaller hill top towns such as Montepulciano, San Gimigniano and Pienza have become little more than beautiful, but empty ‘show towns’ for tourists, with few (if any) residents remaining in the town’s centre, the Cortonese in defence of their heritage chose to embrace the idea of a cosmopolitan lifestyle and a co-existence with their more global counterparts. It has done them proud.
Cheap tourist trinkets are not to be found in Cortona.
Cortona’s shops offer high end of the market leather products, ceramics and jewellery and the very best of Italian wines including those produced locally which have now gained world acclaim, such as Avignonesi, Antinori and Baracchi.
The town also offers a rich cultural season of theatre, literary recitals, classical concerts, art shows, photographic exhibitions and music festivals, but also many events based on the culture of ‘slow food’ gastronomy, fine wines and fine dining.
While the greater proportion of ‘foreign’ residents in the area remain Italian (for the Cortonese anyone born outside the ancient Etruscan walls is considered a foreigner), they are closely followed by the English, Americans and the Irish with a spattering of Australians, South Africans, Belgians, Dutch, Finnish and French. The town also hosts the University of Georgia’s art programme as it has done for the last 35 years. This eclectic mix of cultures and heritage has enriched Cortona and largely due to a genuine passion from the town’s resident Americans (many of whom have Italian roots), it has placed it firmly on the Florence, Chianti, Siena ‘holy grail’ of a trail.
In fact there are many well known names from around the globe who already own property in and around Cortona: Max Weinberg, well known drummer for Bruce Springsteen, Frances Mayes – author of the book and film “Under the Tuscan Sun”, the English sculptor Joe Tilson, Nancy Jenkins and Anna del Conte cookery writers, the artist Val Archer, the English writer and Egyptologist John Romer, the Earl of Harrowby and his large family, not to exclude Jovanotti one of Italy’s most popular musicians and a Cortonese by birth who has become the town’s standard bearer throughout the world.
All of them passionate Cortona fans which is not hard when the town has so much to offer, not least of which is the wealth of excellent restaurants to choose from: Osteria del teatro, La Loggetta, AD Braceria, Trattoria Dardano, Nessun Dorma, La Bottega Baracchi, Locanda al Pozzo Antico to name just a few. There are also a number of deluxe Relais hotels – il Falconiere, Villa Piazzano, Villa Baldelli, Borgo San Pietro.
Well connected, Cortona has three exits from the Perugia/Bettolle/Siena ring road and is just (Rome – Florence – Milan) motorway. In Camucia (the new town below Cortona) there is a mainline train station with direct trains to Florence and Rome. In Terontola (8 kilometres from the town) there is a second main line station with intercity connections. Perugia airport is 40 minutes away, Florence 1hr 20 mins, Bologna, Rome and Pisa about 2 hours.
Its central and accessible location was no doubt part of the reason why the world renowned Tuscan Sun Festival, a direct result of the book Under the Tuscan Sun by Cortona’s resident writer Frances Mayes, was born in Cortona in 2003. For nine consecutive years, until the festival moved to Florence in 2012, it hosted such eminent guests as actors Robert Redford, Sofia Loren and Anthony Hopkins, musicians Sting, Piotr Anderszewski and Joshua Bell, dancers from the Bolshoi ballet and opera singers such as Russian soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko and diva soprano Reneé Fleming.
Since 2012 the town hosts the Cortona Mix Festival a cleverly orchestrated mix of seminars, the visual arts, culinary, lifestyle and street food events topped off with evening concerts in Piazza Signorelli with artists of calibre such as Max Weinberg, Cortona’s own Jovanotti and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. All of which reflect Cortona’s empathy with all things cultural and gastronomic.
Further a field, but within an hour’s drive from Cortona other important festivals are held during the summer months, such as the Umbria Jazz festival (Perugia), Trasimeno Blues (Passignano) and the Festival dei due Mondi (Spoleto).
One of the most popular events held in Cortona from the spring through to the autumn has to be the weekly ‘Wine Dine and Shine’ evenings organised by a group of local entrepreneurs, including Molesini one of the town’s best known wine merchants. These evenings which take place ‘come rain or shine’, begin in the late afternoon with a selection of fine wines for tasting. This is followed by a dinner accompanied by the wines already introduced and which is hosted by a different local restaurant each week. Top wine producers from all over Italy attend these evenings, presenting their wines and explaining their provenance. The menus for these weekly gourmet sessions, posted on line in advance, are generally superlative and the evenings, always ‘sold out’, need to be booked well in advance.
Art, culture, fine wines and good food (many of the local farmers not only produce organic fruit and veg, but have also adopted the zero kilometre philosophy) has removed Cortona from the ignominy of trash tourism to being a town of prestige and note. Its growing popularity within the echelons of high society is a testament to this and no small credit should go to the hardworking and pragmatic Cortonese, together with their global partners-in-trade, who have breathed new life into this enchanting town.
Cortona has risen like a phoenix from the ashes: It has intelligently embraced the challenge of modern times, avoided the perilous pitfalls of mass tourism which have sadly destroyed the authenticity of so many other ancient Italian towns and has carved itself, as a legacy for its future, a unique niche in the wider world.