Cortona holiday guide
But Cortona kept its soul: there is nothing forced or false about the rhythms of life here. The action revolves around its only flat street, Via Nazionale, and the monumental stone steps outside its town hall, in Piazza della Repubblica. The grocers are still visited by local shoppers, Saturday market stalls are still piled high with seasonal produce, and the town's famous ceramics are still manufactured and painted by hand using traditional methods.
Plus the town museum, the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca e della Città—thankfully shortened to 'MAEC'—has benefitted from a significant investment and revamp. Now is a great time to visit Cortona.
Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.
Art & architecture
Cortona has a fine pedigree when it comes to painters. Luca Signorelli—who painted a Last Judgement fresco cycle in Orvieto that was studied closely by Michelangelo before he painted the Sistine Chapel—was born here in the 1440s. Sassetta, a painter of the Sienese Renaissance, is (probably) another local, and born a half-century before Signorelli. Pietro da Cortona was a leading painter and architect of the Roman baroque—and born here in 1596. The Futurist artist Gino Severini (1883–1966) was also a native Cortonese.
Just outside the walls, poking its octagonal cupola (dome) above the olive groves, is the Renaissance church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio. It was designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, a polymath who was a kind of 'Sienese Leonardo da Vinci', and dabbled in everything from painting to engineering military defences. This, however, is his only known church, and was built to mark the site of a miraculous appearance by the Virgin Mary at a limekiln (or calcinaio). The church's rose window is by stained-glass master Guillaume de Marcillat, who also worked on Arezzo's cathedral.
Eating and drinking
Pane e Vino is an atmospheric little restaurant and wine-and-bruschetta bar under a brick vault right in the centre of Cortona. The menu is big on local specialities, including the likes of gnocchi made from chestnut flour, a stew of beef and Syrah wine, and steak tartare made from certified Chianina beef—the local white cattle, and the only breed from which an authentic bistecca alla fiorentina ('Florentine steak') should be made. The wine list is a showstopper, too, and has taken a decade and a half to assemble.
Just uphill from Pane e Vino, Dardano has been one of Cortona's favourite trattorias for almost 35 years. Everything is simple and tasty—especially the roasted and grilled meats—and prices are wallet-friendly. Book ahead if you can.
Completely on its own, in the hills west of Monte San Savino, is Ristorante Belvedere. Panoramas from the terrace, over farms and olive groves, are great. The food is even better, with plenty of Chianina beef on the menu. Considering the food and location, prices are reasonable, at around €10 for pasta and €13 for meat mains.
Unusually for Tuscany, Cortona's local wine is white: Bianco Vergine della Valdichiana is light and dry, and makes a perfect aperitivo drink.
Cortona's produce market runs every Saturday morning in Piazza Signorelli.
Local towns and villages
Monte San Savino, 28km north-west of Cortona, was the birthplace of High Renaissance sculptor and architect, Andrea Sansovino—the town's Loggia dei Mercanti (1520) is attributed to its native son. Sansovino also designed part of the town's layout, including Piazza di Monte, and fellow Renaissance architect Antonio da Sangallo helped shape the town's handsome streets and palaces.
The first thing you will notice about Lucignano, 32km west of Cortona, is its unusual layout, a series of concentric ellipses with the Museo Comunale at the heart. Prize exhibit at this town museum is the 'Tree of Lucignano', an impossibly elaborate gold reliquary that Sienese goldsmiths took over a century to create, between 1350 and around 1470. The 8km stretch of road between Lucignano and Monte San Savino is one of Tuscany's prettiest drives.
Castiglio Fiorentino, 11km north-west of Cortona, is visible for miles around, with its distinctive tower, the Cassero or fortress, sticking above its rooftops. The town's painting gallery, the Pinacoteca Comunale, is inside the deconsecrated shell of Sant'Angelo al Cassero church (where you can explore the crypt). Inside are several Medieval panels, plus a couple of paintings by Florentine Renaissance artist Bartolomeo della Gatta.
Arezzo, 30km north of Cortona, is the provincial capital, a former home of architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari, and where you will find one of Italy's great art treasures, the Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle by Piero della Francesca.
Close to the Tuscany–Umbria border is Italy's fourth-largest inland lake, Trasimeno. Lake Trasimeno saw one of the bloodiest battles of ancient times, in 217 BC, when the Carthaginian armies of Hannibal ambushed the Romans and killed maybe 15,000 of them on the lake's northern shore.
At Tuoro, close to the battle site, things are now a little quieter: there is a small beach, with sunloungers plus kayak and windsurf rental. At Castiglione del Lago, a lakeside settlement that has been fortified for centuries, you can scramble on the walls of the pentagonal Rocca del Leone (Lion Castle). The views from its keep stretch across the turquoise lake to Isola Maggiore, an island at its centre. Ferries run regularly to the island.
Marooned in the middle of Trasimeno, Isola Polvese is a small island dedicated to eco-tourism. Polvese is criss-crossed with gentle walking paths, through woods and wildflower meadows and past a ruined monastery. The island's aquatic garden was created in 1959 by Italian landscape architect Pietro Porcinai. Ferries run from Passignano sul Trasimeno and San Feliciano.
For an injection of spiritual inspiration as you walk off a hearty lunch, make Cortona's steepest climb up Via Santa Margherita, otherwise known as the Via Crucis. The road tracks the old walls, passing the gate where (in the 13th century) Margaret of Cortona entered town, on her way to sainthood as St. Margaret. At regular intervals you will pass fifteen mosaic panels representing the Stations of the Cross, made by local artist Gino Severini in 1947. At Cortona's highest point, the town's 16th-century castle, the Fortezza Medicea Girifalco, has views for miles over the plains of the Valdichiana and into Umbria from its crumbling walls. Note: the climb is very steep; only the fit should attempt it.
Cortonese ceramics have a deserved rep for their quality. At L'Antico Cocciaio, the painted pots are piled high, and hung floor to ceiling—vases and plates, dinner services, oil and vinegar bottles, and pocket-sized souvenirs.
The classic designs on kitchenwares and tablewares at Terrabruga are based around a stylized daisy on a yellow background, a design that is typical to Cortona. All the ceramics are made by hand in a studio just below the town wall.
Everything is packed well to survive the journey home, and both shops also offer international delivery.
Thanks to an expansion and upgrade completed in 2008, the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca e della Città (MAEC, pronounced 'Mike', for short) is one of the best museums in southern Tuscany. The lower floor traces the ancient history and archaeology of the town, from Villanovan settlement through the Etruscan and Roman ages. Upstairs, in the old palazzo, it all gets very eclectic, from Gino Severini paintings and an Egyptian mummy to the museum's prize exhibit, an ornate, bronze Etruscan lamp or chandelier dating to the middle of 4th century BC. It was dug up by chance in 1840.
The painting collection around the corner at the Museo Diocesano is equally enticing. There are only a few rooms, so you will have no trouble hunting down a Lamentation by local painter Luca Signorelli, with a background rich in surreal narrative detail. You could stare at it for hours and still wander what on earth is going on in some of the vignettes. The museum's other blockbuster is an Annunciation by Florentine painter of the International Gothic style, Fra' Angelico.
Cortona's helpful tourist office is inside the same building as MAEC, at Piazza Signorelli 9, tel. 0575/637223.
It is closed on Sundays, except in mid-summer. There are also small, seasonal information desks at Monte San Savino (Piazza Gamurrini 25, tel. 0575/849418) and Lucignano (inside the Museo Comunale, tel. 0575/838035). Locally run website www.cortonaweb.net is packed with useful travel information about the town.
Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.
If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.
The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.
Insider tipIf you are visiting Cortona as a day-trip, be sure to arrive early. Parking near the town gates is scarce, and fills up quickly in high season.
Best & Finds
- For the appetite.Mimmi, Mercatale di Cortona 'The best meal I have ever eaten in Italy. No menu, they serve whatever they're preparing.' 2010.
- For the brain. Cortona's MAEC is trying hard but we love the Golden Tree in Lucignano's little Museo Comunale
- For fresh air. Ferry across Lake Trasimeno to Isola Maggiore, or rent a sailboat yourself