Cortona has clung quietly to the side of a hill in Tuscany for centuries. Art cognoscenti knew of it for its hidden treasures. Other tourists stumbled upon its quaint, steep streets...
CORTONA, Italy Cortona has clung quietly to the side of a hill in Tuscany for centuries. Art cognoscenti knew of it for its hidden treasures. Other tourists stumbled upon its quaint, steep streets.
And then along came Frances Mayes, an American university professor and poet who bought a rundown villa outside town and began to restore it. While doing so, she wrote “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a heartwarming paean to Italian country life.
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The book became more popular than bruschetta and turned Mayes into a cottage industry. The book was followed by another, “Bella Tuscany”; a PBS special; a coffee-table book; a line of furniture; and now the recently released film “Under the Tuscan Sun.” All of this attention has brought more tourists by the busloads, resplendent in L.L. Bean comfort clothes and toting cameras and shopping bags.
“It’s been a mixed blessing, really,” says David Lloyd-Edwards, a British expatriate who takes small tour groups through the region that straddles the Umbrian border. “(Mayes) has brought in the tourists, which is good for the economy, but they were coming before her, just in smaller numbers.”
Indeed, tourists have been coming for nearly 4,000 years.
The Val di Chiana is a fertile plain about 150 miles north of Rome. Cortona sits nearly 2,000 feet above the valley. Its history pre-dates the Etruscans and writers such as Machiavelli, Dante and Goethe have included it in their works.
Visitors have included England’s late queen mother, France’s former prime minister François Mitterand and Pope John Paul II. Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni filmed parts of “Life Is Beautiful” in Cortona’s Piazza Signorelli.
But that was before Frances Mayes. Those high-profile personages came, they admired and they left with little fanfare.
“Cortona is more known now because of Frances Mayes’ books,” says Alessandra Federici, a local jewelry-store merchant, “But this, for a well-known art town, is a good thing.”
Mayes was made an honorary citizen (“Something we do not do often,” Federici says) with a simple ceremony witnessed by the whole town on the steps of the 15th century town hall. Cortona also recently launched the Tuscan Sun Festival. The 10-day event featured classical-music concerts, art lectures, cooking lessons, food and wine tastings, spa experiences and tours of Cortona.
People living in Cortona who don’t stand to profit directly from tourism, however, adhere more to the “mixed blessing” theory proffered by Edwards.
Thomas Pallen, an American who teaches at Austin Peay University in Nashville, Tenn., has spent summers and sabbaticals in Cortona for decades. He sees the changes Mayes has wrought.
Buildings that stood empty for many years are being renovated as apartments to rent to tourists,” he said, “and two luxury-level hotels have opened.”
But he sees the other side of the coin as well. “The streets are more crowded, not only with strolling tourists, but also with the trucks bringing in more goods to keep the tourists happy. (Dinner) reservations have become almost obligatory.”
Pallen notes ruefully that the pace of life is becoming almost, well, un-Italian. Restaurants that opened at 8:30 in the evening and served dinner until 11:30 are now opening earlier and shutting later. What may be slipping away is that Tuscan appreciation for time spent with friends and family things that Mayes so cherishes about the Cortonese.