A Country of Cities

(June 2009)

Italy is called a country of cities, and any history of the region will tell you why. Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire various cities, duchies and minor kingdoms have laid claim to parts of this peninsula. Even the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy completed more or less in 1871, was a series of wars waged to bring the country together. After centuries of independence and battles with each other, all these disparate parts were supposed to function as one entity. To anyone who has spent more than a few days in Italy, this explains a lot..

The twenty-first century manifestation of this history has notable downsides. In Italy organization is a foreign concept, locals are often oblivious to outsiders, and Italians cling to ancient stereotypes. (Florentines are stingy and rude! Don’t go to Naples, you’ll get killed!)But there is also a good side to all this. Whereas Spain’s violent history has led to the current bloodlust of separatist bombings in the north and romanticized slaughtering of bulls in the south, Italy’s past has prompted a different reaction. It was as if the people decided to stop fighting over their differences and start celebrating them. The result has been the eternal quest for the dolce vita, and the preservation of each town’s unique character. Nowhere are the benefits of this turbulent history better packaged than in Cortona.

Cortona is a tiny hill town tucked into the southeast corner of Tuscany. It was made famous by Francis Mayes in her book Under the Tuscan Sun, but despite the increase in tourism brought about almost entirely by its newfound literary fame, its personality has remained unsullied.To get there we took a train to the nearby town of Camucia that hugs the rails running through the valley called Valdichiana. A short bus ride takes you uphill from the station to Cortona, where the first thing we noticed was the spectacular view of the valley below. After checking into our hotel, we ventured out for more views of the city and surrounding countryside, and everywhere we went there was either intentional or unintentional beauty. Typical Tuscan patchwork quilt farmland below, forested hills above, manicured parks, houses decorated with flowers and stores filled with high quality art and foodstuffs. At night we dined at the excellent Osteria del Teatro tucked away on some side street, and everything was superb. When I ordered one dessert and the waiter told me to get something else, I trusted him. Of course he was right.

Cortona’s uniqueness among Tuscan towns lies not so much in doing something different (although sadly we just missed the annual crossbow competition for which it is famous). Rather, it seems to do everything better. The air is fresher and filled with the sounds of birds instead of cars and motorini. The streets are cleaner, the buildings more charming, the views more stunning, the food more delicious. Granted, the day we walked around had perfect weather, but the town was even beautiful the next morning when the sun was hidden by a bank of low-lying clouds. As we descended from Cortona back to the train station, I was sad to leave.

Soon we will leave this country entirely. There are many things I will not miss about living here, but I will miss being able to discover hidden treasures in the towns that dot the landscape. Each place offers something new, something different, or in the case of Cortona, something better.

Here’s hoping your discovery of the dolce vita is as easy as a train ride away.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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