Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cortona: Under the Etruscan Sun

Frances Mayes' book 'Under the Tuscan Sun', has placed Cortona in the tourist's limelight just as Peter Mayle's books popularized the Luberon region in France. But even before Mayes, Cortona was considered a classic Tuscan hill town. One of Itay's oldest cities, Cortona was founded by the Umbrians over 3000 years ago, and later conquered by the Etruscans who called it Curtun. Dramatic landscapes, Etruscan relics, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance architecture and breathtaking panoramas, Cortona is well-endowed with inspiring Renaissance architecture even though the prevalent character of the town is mediaeval. Today, the town hangs by its fingernails from the top of a mountain, with glorious panoramic views in every direction of the surrounding Val di Chiana.

Cortona's main square, Piazzo della Republica

Palazzo Communale in Piazzo della Republica

The 12th century bell tower of the Palazzo del Comune

We started our exploration of Cortona in Piazza della Republica, the heart of the town — the spot where the forum stood in Roman times. Today it's presided over by the Palazzo del Comune, whose handsome bell tower dates back to the 16th century. As we made our way to the Duomo through Piazza Signorelli, we found ourselves in the middle of Cortona's weekly market, with local merchants selling everything from luggage and linens to fruits and vegetables, as well as open sided trucks serving tempting treats such as roast porchetta, fritto misto and a cornucopia of local cheeses, salumi and fresh seafood. Judging by their brisk trade, this was a popular destination for Cortona's hale and hungry.

Market day in Cortona, in Piazza Signorelli

The ever popular Porchetta truck selling hot pork that has been grilled on a spit with garlic and rosemary, and served sliced piping hot on a chiabatta — a real Umbrian treat

The cheese lady who sells pecorino, cheeses, salumi and bufula mozzarella

Wonderfully ripe and juicy Sicilian oranges

The fish truck with an extraordinary selection of prawns

Fabulous fritto mista with calimari, prawns, smelt, white fish and shrimp balls -
we had to buy some to sustain ourselves for our trek to the very top of Cortona

Braced with a steaming bag of fritto misto, we made our way to Via Jannelli, one of the town's oldest Medieval streets, with it's rd brick and wood beam construction. Then it was uphill to Cortona's 14th century Duomo which stands on the ruins of one of the oldest churches in the city dating back to the Christian era, with the famous 'Nativity' painted by Pietro de Cortona. True to the town's religious roots, Cortona boasts three other churches of note, which required an arduous climb upwards to the top of the hilltown. Next stop was Chiesa di San Fransesco, one of the historically most significant churches in the town, being built by Brother Elia Coppi, successor to Saint Francis of Assisi.

One of Cortona's most famous streets — the medieval Via Jannelli

Cortona's 14th century Duomo

The 'Navity', painted by Pietro da Cortona

The long strenuous hike up the quiet cobblestone streets of Il Poggio,
the upper part of Cortona

Chiesa di San Francesco built by one of St Francis of Assisi's successor Brother Elia

Onwards and upwards...

The charming tiny Chiesa di San Cristoforo

Chiesa di Santa Margherita at the top of Cortona

When we finally reached Chiesa di Santa Margherita after an exhausting forty minute hike, we found the doors all locked. We should have realized when we passed the parish priest coming down the hill about 15 minutes earlier, that the Chiesa would be closed as he went to lunch from noon to 3:00pm! Not to be outdone, we decided to do the same. Fortunately, the walk back down to Piazza della Republica was much easier going downhill.

The charming cobblestone walkways back down to the old town

The intoxicating smell of woodsmoke as a farmer burn his garden trimmings

Arriving back at the main square, we sought out Ristorante La Loggeta, a charming outdoor trattoria overlooking Piazza della Republica. We were fortunate to have arrived just in time to get a picture perfect table for two out of the hot Tuscan sun, and ordering some aqua frizzante and a delicious bottle of Cortona Sangiovese, put us in a much better mood. Feeling quite virtuous from our strenuous walk, we ordered a fabulous lunch from Logetta's extensive Tuscan menu, including a selection of local Criostini and a delicious Orechiette al Fumo, a hearty ear-shaped pasta in a creamy tomato sauce with bacon and rosemary. I honestly don't know what they do, but everything just tastes better in Italy! 

Ristorante la Logetta, overlooking Cortona's main square, Piazza della Republica

Our picture perfect table for two

Aqua frizzante to quench our thirst after our trek

La Logetta's menu

A fabulous Cortona Sangiovese seemed like a natural choice

The influence of the ancient Etruscans—who favored the use of fresh herbs—is still felt in Tuscan cuisine three millennia later. Simple and earthy, Tuscan food celebrates the seasons with fresh vegetable dishes, wonderful bread-based soups, and meats perfumed with sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Orechiette al fumo — typical ear-shaped pasta with a bacon, rosemary and creamy tomato sauce

A selection of Tuscan crostini

Taking full advantage of Logetta's 'cucina typici', we ordered Ribolitta, a traditional Tuscan dish that's a cross between a soup and a stew, made with white beans, tomatoes, mixed vegetables and bread; and Galletto alla Divolo, a wonderfully flavourful Tuscan grilled game hen, served flattened with a contorni, or side a dish, of local Steamed Spinach. 

A traditional Tuscan Ribolitta

Galetto alla Divolo - flattened grilled game hen

Creamed local spinach

I don't know whether it was the gorgeous sunny weather, the fabulous food or the bottle of Sangiovese, but when I expressed my appreciation to La Logetta's chef with an enthusiastic "Molto bene!", he smiled knowing how much we had genuinely enjoyed his authentic Tuscan cuisine, with our front row table overlooking the lunchtime opera of Cortona's Piazza della Republica. 

La Logetta's chef

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