I first visited Cortona in 1981. I was in Italy on a college art course
and was to spend a month in the town.
I will never forget my very first impressions of her:
I still remember our approach – a fortified city dominating its hillside
on a back drop of deep blue sky. The summer sun was just beginning its descent
to the west of Cortona, its rays illuminating the town in a soft, orange light which
was reflected in windows throughout the city; I had never seen anything so
An early riser, the following morning, I set out to explore the town
before breakfast: I remember the unfamiliar aromas of freshly baked morning cornetti, steam pressed ground coffee and
a muskier smell of perhaps salumi and
cheeses, garlic and fruit permeating the town and drifting into my senses.
I remember walking down via Nazionale – Cortona’s main high street – and
feeling dwarfed by the historic palazzi
on either side. I had a strong sense of past times and previous lives. It was
almost tangible, like a silent movie playing out around me in ethereal black
and white; spectres of another world.
I remember sitting on the town hall steps and watching the town
awakening to the day: the clanging sound of metal shutters being drawn up,
tables and chairs being set out in night-cooled piazzas, the clatter of cups
and saucers from opening bars. I watched the bustle of morning deliveries, the
exchanges of buongiorno and the
whiling away of two or five minutes in chat.
I was struck by how it must be to grow up in a small town, to which you would
always belong, whatever you might choose to do or wherever you might choose to go. In that moment I realised how much more small
town life appealed to me than that of a big city. The seed had been sown.
In 1981 Cortona was a sleepy hilltop town where lazy blue bottles buzzed
around single light bulbs in dark grocery shops with no fridge, no fresh milk,
salt-less bread and definitely no avocados. Shops had a purpose other than tourism
of which there was little: there were hardware stores, green grocers,
butcher’s, bakeries, shops selling white goods, linens etc… The Molesini wine
store had yet to be conceived and the few restaurants that existed were
traditional trattorie: Paolo Castelli
was still in short trousers and Dardano, much the same now as it was then, was
run by his father.
During that long liberating summer, many late afternoons were whiled
away at the Tonino bar, alongside that year’s group of University of Georgia (UGA)
students who, like my college, had a summer arts programme based in the town. We sat out on the bar’s panoramic terrace,
drinking tall glasses of freshly squeezed lemon juice on ice and slotting our gettone into the old Juke box. To the
Police’s “Every Little Thing she does is Magic”, Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”,
Springsteen’s “The River” and Dire Strait’s “Romeo and Juliet”, I already knew Cortona
had stolen my heart.
The Casina dei Tigli (now Umami) was the favourite haunt for those
long Summer evenings: Just a bar with pizza oven and big wooden tables outside
at which everyone would sit together: local Cortonese, Italians from the north
and south, UGA students, a spattering of English, the odd German and one or two
Swiss. At some point guitars would appear and the night would drift into
morning as everyone sang along to the Beatles, the Eagles, Guccini, de Andre’, Cat
Stevens, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton.
The Casina dei Tigli as it was in 1981
As the month slowly drew to an end, I was ever more aware of having
found a place that fit me. I had been wooed by warm summer evenings that
drifted into night accompanied by the chirping of crickets, but also by the
open friendliness of the people who lived in and around the town – both
Italians and foreigners – who would go out of their way to help anyone in need;
a tradition that is upheld to this day.
Over the next few years, while
living and working in London, I was to miss Cortona daily. I returned twice during the intervening years,
but in 1987 – to the tune of U2’s “With or without you”, Paul Simon’s
“Graceland” and Chris de Bergh’s “Lady in Red”, I moved here permanently.
Between then and now there have been many special moments: Tracy Chapman
performing an informal concert at Santa Margherita in 1992; there couldn’t have
been more than 100 people present – what a night! My wedding which was one of the few times my
entire family – both the Italian and English branches - was united. The night my step-son Matteo played a concert
in Piazza Signorelli with his group “Bend the Barb”, and so on.
Bend the Barb in concert in Piazza Signorelli
A period in which Cortona has slowly evolved. It is now a town in which fine dining and
fine wines, many of them produced locally, prevail; where the literary and
cultural events, concerts and exhibitions and the popular Wine, Dine and Shine
dinners have become calendar events booked months in advance by people all over
the world. The Cortonese led the town
into the 21st century with style, but I can’t help but feel
nostalgia when remembering the simple, quiet town I first knew and fell in love
Be that as it may, it has become a vibrant and stimulating place to
live, filled as it is with a diversity of people from all walks of life, from
all corners of the globe, each with their own areas of expertise and each with their
own story to tell.
From my mountain perch, high in the hills above the town - where my music
has long been displaced by Spotify shuffles and my husband’s more eclectic
tastes – I realise how lucky I am to
have found this extraordinary town which offers me both a wilderness and a made
to measure metropolis.
My mountain perch....
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