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Italy

Finding Italian magic in Cortona

Sometimes you find exactly what you didn’t even know what you were looking for

Travel often provides moments that offer magic in the most unexpected places. Every now and then though, there is a place that provides a connection that resonates on the most existential level. For us, it’s often Italy. This time, it’s Cortona. Made famous by Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Cortona is one of those places that threatens to disappoint, but for us right now, it delivers soul enriching memories.

We leave Montepulciano and drive through Tuscany, down winding roads cutting through vast vineyards and olive groves. It’s autumn, and the colors seem unusually bright. As we approach Cortona, my heart is torn. Montepulciano was everything we had hoped for, and I wonder if Cortona, now famous after Diane Lane makes it her own in “Under the Tuscan Sun,” might be overrun with tourists and somehow rendered inauthentic. The road winds up and up along strong stone walls, and we even manage to find a parking place right next to the city wall. Our suitcases clack clack clack on the narrow cobblestone lane as we try to navigate our way to the hotel. The neighborhood is so quiet we wonder if we took a wrong turn. Suddenly we come across an unassuming set of glass doors that whoosh open to beckon us into the new Hotel Monastero di Cortona.. The elegant lobby, with subtle touches of white and gray, whispers elegance. It even smells like a spa. A kind gentleman welcomes us and asks us to be seated while we are served a refreshing welcome drink and hot towels. We glance at each other and smile. “I think we’re going to love it here.”

Located in a 700 year old former monastery, the hotel has taken every care to restore the property to exacting standards, providing a friendly and luxurious experience for guests. The entire property has a hushed ambience that invites you to sit back, relax and be pampered. We even walk slower as we explore the property, almost as if an ancient monk might come around the corner to meet us. It’s October so the pool is more of a lovely courtyard centerpiece than a place to swim, but the flowers are still bright in the autumn sun. The hotel sits at the top of the town, and the views over Tuscany are a dream. The hotel staff teases us with an invitation to the underground spa and we are sorely tempted. We don’t usually stay at the same hotels twice but I assure you, we will stay here again.

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As Frances Mayes will tell you, the center of small town Italian life is in the piazza. Her new book, |See You in the Piazza., is a beautiful testament to this (do read it!). Cortona is no different. One morning, we sit down to have a cappuccino and watch the world go by and soon notice a flurry of activity near the town hall. “What would be happening at the town hall on a Sunday?” we ask. “Oh, today is a wedding!” the cafe owner tells us. Since Italy is such a religious and primarily Catholic country, we wonder out loud why a couple would be getting married at the town hall on a Sunday. The older gentleman next to us gestures and explains in a rather passionate fashion. Luckily, the couple next to us speaks Italian and translates: since the groom has been married before, and is not catholic, they have to get married in a civil ceremony. As always, everyone knows everybody’s business in small town Italy.

Friends and family gather, tourists stop to look, and just like that the bride appears and the celebrations begin. The entire piazza becomes a part of the celebration, and soon the cafe owner brings out bottles of Prosecco for guests and visitors alike. Toasts are raised, glasses clink and pretty soon it’s “Spritz for all!” It’s a joyous day, and for a little while we are all a part of the community.

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Our worries about Cortona being overrun and commercialized turn out to be unfounded. Perhaps in the summer it might be different but in this fine, clear October weather, we find it charming, endearing and perfect.

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Our days are spent exploring the countryside and looking forward to our favorite evening ritual - the passegiatta. In small towns all over Italy, the early evening is a time to walk, mingle and spend time with your neighbors. Hugs are shared, conversation buzzes and people connect. I often imagine how things might be if we did this in the U.S. No TVs, no internet, just...people.

We hear a crowd, walk to the piazza and see a large group of people in costume gathering on the town hall steps. Spider-Man, Captain American, Shrek, Batman...they are all here! I spot Beauty and the Beast, Dorothy and the Scaredrow and (of course) Elvis. We ask what’s happening, and someone tells us it’s a birthday party. The entire group sings, cheers and pops champagne before heading off to celebrate the night away. What a crazy mess of fun!

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Have you ever had nights that make you want to pinch yourself because they seemed so perfect? That’s how it feels on this night in Cortona. An amazing dinner in a thousand year old cistern, a stroll during passeggiata, and a turn into an alley that ends up as magic. These are the travel moments that imprint in your brain and change you forever. “Contentezza totale” - total contentment.

“Is that Crosby, Stills and Nash I hear?” Paul asks. We follow the sound and see a group of young men singing and playing guitars on the steps of an enoteca. We order Prosecco, sit on pillows on the steps and settle in. I don’t know if it’s the music, the night air, the Prosecco or the company but it turns into one of those nights you remember forever.

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Posted by traciekochanny 14:23 Archived in Italy Tagged italy cortona tuscany piazza hotel_monastero_di_cortona Comments (0)

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