Under the Tuscan Sun is a 1996 memoir by Frances Mayes about fixing up a house in the tiny hill town of Cortona, Italy, a beautifully written love letter to the country, its food and what Mayes calls “the voluptuousness of Italian life.” It is also the name of a 2003 movie which, as one critic tartly put it, has “as about as much in common with Frances Mayes as it does with Willie Mays.” For some reason, the movie people decided to pitch Mayes’s true story over the side and concoct a bummer of plot about a failed vacation romance.
They also dispensed with reality in other ways. After watching the surprisingly bad movie, I read an article that explained that the majestic fountain it features, seemingly at the center of the main piazza, was made of papier mache and existed only during the shoot. And despite the fact that the story was set in the 1990s, all the locals who appeared in the film were told to wear their parents’ or grandparents’ clothes.
As I saw upon my arrival last month, Cortona has always been attuned to the possibility of invasion — it is almost half a mile above sea level, with a view that let you see people coming when they’re still 50 miles away, and a wall that completely surrounds the town, built by the Etruscans in the 4th century BC. Now it’s big red tourist buses Cortonians spy in the distance, wending their way through the Val di Chiana to park in the lot outside the city walls. Cortona has been dealing with the fallout from both book and movie for decades now, which its citizens seem to both appreciate and be exhausted by. The tourists have passed judgment in return. Cortona? You can do it in a day. As long as you don’t waste too much time looking for the fountain.
Maybe you can do it in a day (or even 2-3 hours, according to one website), but I just got back from spending a lovely week there. Having grown up in a tourist town myself, I have a nostalgic appreciation for the jaded attitudes of the locals and the well-thumbed feel of long-discovered charms.
Furthermore, this particular week was planned more as a writer’s retreat/hangout than a sightseeing/touring expedition, so it didn’t matter that there isn’t much to do in Cortona beyond living la dolce vita: enjoying the amazing views, eating, drinking, and strolling the ancient cobbled streets, though getting around in Cortona is quite a bit more aerobic that what is usually meant by strolling.
The person who invited me to join this trip, Kate Nason, is familiar to readers of this column due to her appearance in an earlier installment, The Writing Teacher, The Drama Teacher, His Wife, and Their Babysitter. Kate has long since replaced the husband who cheated on her with Monica Lewinsky (wha —? well, it’s all in that column if you missed it, and Kate’s memoir is now available in print and audio) with a wonderful husband, an artist/urban planner named Tad Savinar. Kate and Tad live in Florence several months a year, Kate speaks Italian, and I’ve been secretly hoping to visit with her over there for a while.
So here’s how it came about. Back when Kate was a recently-betrayed single mother supporting herself and two kids in Portland, Oregon, she had a business sewing handmade upholstery and window treatments, and a client named Stacey came to her with a complicated project using antique Italian lace. When it was finally done, Stacey wondered how she could ever adequately compensate Kate for such intricate and beautiful work. Then she said, Oh I know! How about a week in the four-bedroom medieval palazzo I own in Cortona, which normally rents for many thousands per week?
That was almost five years ago, and what with the pandemic and other vicissitudes, Kate was not able to take advantage of her villa week until this year, tacking it on to the end of her and Tad’s annual visit. However, Tad said he had no interest in going to Cortona. I don’t know why. It could be that he saw that awful movie.
So Kate invited a few lady writer friends, and the three who ended up making it were: Holly Lorincz, a bookstore owner and ghostwriter from Manzanita, Oregon; Shawnee Shahroody, a somatic leadership coach and aspiring novelist from Bozeman, Montana; and yours truly. We were to meet in Florence the Friday before Easter weekend, spend one night there, and then travel together to Cortona on Saturday, remaining for a week and returning to Florence for one last night at the end.
I was a bit unsure about a week-long mystery date with people I didn’t know well, but finally, since my invitations to visit Italy are few and far between, it seemed foolish not to seize the day.
Getting There Is Half the Fun
Because I could not find any way to fly efficiently from Baltimore to Florence (long layovers, crazy routes, etc.), I decided to fly to Milan, where there is a train station in the airport with a high-speed express to Florence. When I looked up the schedules, it seemed there were many opportunities daily, so rather than gamble on an exact arrival time, I decided to buy the ticket once I got there.
Unfortunately, once I arrived in Milan and located this train station (by asking 8,000 people for directions with my single sentence of Italian – Dov’è la stazione?), I learned I would not be able to get a ticket to Florence till Monday. All the trains were sold out because of the Easter holiday. I was dumbfounded. Taking pity on me — an old, rumpled, desperate, American lady on her own — the salesclerks conferred and advised me to travel to the central station in downtown Milan and check with the other Italian train company. They couldn’t promise anything, of course, but at least I’d be in Milan, and not at the airport for the weekend.
At this point I saw that I had two options — take their advice in a spirit of hysteria and panic, or take their advice in a spirit of well, at least I’m in Italy. I went for Option 2. And on the hour train ride into the city, I met two adorable girls from Naples who were returning home from Tokyo. They looked up the schedules on their phones and saw that I would very likely be able to score a seat on the other train line. When we got into the station, they led me to the kiosk, which was a striped cardboard box with a man sitting in it, to buy a ticket. I hated to be separated from them. Ciao, bellas!
Florence? Today? Really? The bespectacled young clerk in the box made sure to let me know that this was both nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive with a protracted series of grimaces, grunts and sighs. As the line behind me got longer and longer, I kept turning to shrug apologetically — but the Italians seemed considerably less concerned than say, New Yorkers, might be in a similar situation.
Finally he sold me a three-part ticket which, indeed, cost three times as much as the ticket would have cost under normal conditions, 150 euros instead of 50. The first leg of the trip was first class, the second was standing room, the third was regular coach, but miraculously it was all one train — no changing required! And, because I was holding a first class portion, I got to await my journey in the VIP Lounge up on the mezzanine overlooking the train station, where there was free cappuccino and foccaccia and a nice clean bathroom.
And then I got on the train, and though I dutifully moved my seat three times, no one ever looked at my ticket — not on this or any other train I took in Italy. And despite the claims of sold-out seating, there were more than a few empty spots. I probably could have jumped on that one at the airport!
Third Time’s the Charm
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Florence so after all the planes and trains, I decided to drag my suitcase across town rather than take a cab. As I meandered through the piazzas and across the pontes, a couple of previous trips to Florence started coming back to me. I had somehow forgotten to remember the fabulous, disastrous junket with the Clicquot champagne people in 2005 which was the beginning of the end of my second marriage. And another one, fifteen years before that, pregnant and traveling with my first husband Tony, my best friend Sandye and my two-year-old Hayes, the latter chasing pigeons in the Piazza San Marco.
As these memories came flooding back, I noted this current trip was firmly situated in the post-marital phase of my life, which I have to say is short on drama by comparison. Gone with the hormones, as it were. I can’t say I miss it all. Oh, maybe I do, a little.
Kate had said to find her in the Piazza Santo Spirito, but since I didn’t spring for an internationaI phone plan, I had to track her down the old-fashioned way — by circling the perimeter, yelling “Kate! Oh, Kaaaa- aate!” When I passed through a spot of wifi, a text came in saying she’d had to pee and so gone back to the Airbnb at Borgo Tegalaio 29. I found that address — but not her. Turns out there are double street numbering systems in Florence. A red 29 is residential. A black 29 is business. I was at a blue 29, so who the hell knows. It just took a bit more hollering — and Kate appeared.
Kate is a small, elegant woman, a person who looks like she spent her early career in the L.A. art scene, which she did. All her clothes are beautiful, pressed, and either black, white or beige. Her hair is perfect, her glasses are cool, and her cream-colored trench coat is stunning. Her purse is delectable.
My signature look could be kindly described as “ragamuffin,” and in this moment was the subcategory known as “Eddie Bauer travel ragamuffin,” perked up with a stained hand-me-down blouse from my daughter Jane’s friend at Bard.
Eventually Kate and I found each other, and after a brief stop in the tiny Airbnb where she was letting me crash with her, we met up with Holly, who had put herself up in some Medici palace-type hotel across the Arno with her Marriott points.
Holly! I love Holly! She is an imposing woman of Norwegian extraction, with hair, skin and eyes in varying shades of ice and gold, and I knew from our first meeting back in Oregon that she is a genius. At the time, she owned two whiskey bars and a bookstore with her literary agent husband, and has since sold the whiskey bars, perhaps funding the afternoon I am about to describe. She also showed me the beginning of a memoir about being a ghostwriter which was stunning. It opens in the voice of a little girl in her father’s marble studio, and once you are completely swept into this scenario, it turns out that it was a ghostwriting project she never finished because the woman who was once that little girl died. I was convinced this project would be a hit, but she was only now getting back to it, after selling whiskey bars and ghosting a different book about a revolutionary treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Holly and Kate and I had lunch at Obica, an elegant restaurant built around a sunstruck courtyard, which Kate likes because they have great salads, and Kate is severely gluten intolerant. As we would soon find out, Shawnee also doesn’t eat gluten, so throughout the trip, all our shared pizzas and pastas were senza glutine. You know what, you could not tell the difference. I never would have imagined being gluten free would be easier in Italy than in the U.S., but it certainly seems to be.
At the end of our lunch, my companions were sort of surprised that I had the waiter pack up the last two slices of pizza and bits of salad — but yes, I did, and yes, I carted them around all afternoon, and yes, I did eat it all for breakfast the next day. My relationship to leftovers — the words “passionate” and “committed” come to mind — is something that takes a bit of getting used to. But we had a whole week ahead of us.
Kate’s Shopping Secrets
If you have any doubt that Italy is the design capital of the world, Florence will prove it in a matter of blocks. Pucci, Gucci, Dolce e Gabbana, Max Mara, Ferragamo and others are all lined up shoulder-to-polished-granite-shoulder on the Via Tornabuoni, and the windows are just magnificent. At Gucci, they had redone the carpeting, upholstery and wall treatments to match the black-and-white geometric patterned dresses in the window.
And so, we shopped. Holly was interested in buying some of Florence’s famous leather goods, and Kate had just the place for it. At a store called Il Bisonte, the source of Kate’s luscious handbag, we were warmly greeted by the sales staff, particularly a devastatingly handsome Frenchman named Axel. What’s this? — my hormones briefly returned for a visit as I fell madly in love with Axel and began babbling in French. Holly and Kate bought gorgeous briefcases for their laptops, and I bought a pair of driving gloves for my daughter Jane on clearance. I also discussed with Axel at length the possibility of purchasing a 2,000 euro bespoke leather golf bag for my son Hayes — God knows what I would have bought from this man if we had stayed there long enough.
Next, Holly needed a coat. Kate gets her coats at Max Mara. Soon Holly was decked out in a truly fabulous cream wool coat that matched her Nordic palette perfectly.
Though I got a contact high from the speed and definitiveness of Kate and Holly’s shopping, I resisted outfitting myself similarly. You’ve heard the saying, “this is the reason we can’t have nice things.” Well, it’s me. I am the reason. It would be a matter of hours before my laptop case would be ink-stained and grimy as I wept over the oil spots on my new coat. (I’m not kidding. Yesterday I arrived at a funeral only to find that while giving myself a manicure, I had drizzled pink polish all over the lapels of my black blazer and the bosom of my dress.)
At this point, our fourth member appeared on the scene. Fresh from Bozeman, Montana, Shawnee Shahroody, ladies and gentlemen, half Iranian, half mountain woman, a person with such a good heart that you can discern it even before you learn of her devotion to social justice and trauma victims. We celebrated her arrival with afternoon cocktails on the terrace at Gilli, our Aperol spritzes glowing in oversized stemmed glasses festooned with orange slices.
As I usually do, I volunteered to keep track of expenses for the trip and help figure out the evening-up later. Also as usual, everyone was happy to let me do it. But then Shawnee made a suggestion that, for me, will definitely be life-changing. She recalled some travel companions using an app called Splitwise to automate the expense-sharing process. Imagining how complicated a week-long operation like ours could get, I downloaded it right away, and it turned out to be beyond my wildest dreams. What if only three of the four people go out? What if you want to give someone a break because they didn’t drink? What if Kate buys cough medicine for Shawnee on the side? What if you could consolidate all the who-owes-who-what so that at the end, each person pays back only one other person? Yes, it does all this, and it is a lot easier to deal with than drunkenly scrawled columns of numbers on a stained placemat.
Some people get excited about beautiful clothing and leather goods — others reserve their enthusiasm for free iPhone apps. Takes all kinds…
While we were at Gilli, torrential rains began. Umbrella vendors sprang up like mushrooms — guess who didn’t buy one. Shawnee went back to her hotel to recoup, Holly and Kate and I went to an adorable spot for dinner called Gurdulu, where we were waited on by a 16-year-old, his first night on the job, so damn cute. This is when I first became aware that a glass of good wine in even a high-end Italian restaurant is rarely more than 5 euros ($5.50). So you can have two, no problem!
Do I Snore?
At Kate’s cute little Airbnb, there was a queen-size bed as well as a daybed I had planned to sleep on — but there were no extra sheets or blankets at all, so I shared with her. I insisted that I never roll around in my sleep and wouldn’t be a bother— then was quite embarrassed when she told me the next morning that my snoring had been so prodigious that she was sure the people upstairs had been up all night, too!
This was the first time I’d ever been told that I snore, so I was perplexed. It seems I also snored the next night in Cortona, where I had my own room but Kate could hear me downstairs. But after that it apparently stopped. Who knows. She really should have just kicked me, as she says she does her husband.
In the morning we grabbed a cappuccino at Kate’s favorite spot, Caffè Ricchi, which I could see would be a perfect place for writing one’s memoirs, then met up with our group at Holly’s hotel. A driver with an excellent playlist took us out into the countryside, across the valley, and up, up, up to Cortona. Yes, we are finally there! Thank you, patient readers.
Under the Tuscan Clouds
Cortona is a warren of narrow, cobbled streets, only one of them — the main shopping street, the Via Nazionale — relatively flat, the rest pitched at various steep angles. Only taxis and other essential vehicles are allowed inside the walls, and even those cannot turn into the majority of streets. Ours, the Via San Marco, was one of the impassables, so we were dropped off at the end of a long block. My shopaholic pals had plenty of luggage, but gamely schlepped it all.
And so we arrived at the regally appointed Casa San Marco, the second and third story of a 16th century rowhouse (well, that’s what we would call it in Baltimore.) Though everything about this place was superlative—photos and info on this website— my favorite things were: the kitchen (filled with light; huge; better pots and knives than I have at home; cabinets stocked with magnificent sets of dishes and glassware), the balcony (more on that in a minute), and the bathroom (a white marble altar to hygiene, with a vintage lace gown hanging on the wall for decoration.) We each had our own room — mine and Shawnee’s were in the gables on the third floor. The bed linens and towels were luxurious, all the furniture and fittings elegant, welcoming and full of character (and how the hell did they get it up here?)
The small library included a first-edition hardcover of Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter’s amazing novel, which I had only moments earlier, on the ride from Florence, declared my favorite book of the 21st century. This pretty much sealed the deal.
Kate had cleverly arranged for us to be picked up and taken to the grocery store our first afternoon in town, as Cortona’s Conad is down in the valley outside the city walls, and impossible to manage on foot. A handsome driver in a black Mercedes van (as it turns out, all the taxi drivers in Cortona are handsome, and they all drive black Mercedes vans) arrived as scheduled.
Shopping with our foursome was a madcap adventure. I had a few ideas of meals I wanted to cook — pasta with tuna and olives, shakshuka, something with quinoa — and everyone else had lots of things they wanted, too, some sensible and some mysterious. I don’t know what Holly thought she was going to do with the cut-up butternut squash or exactly what Shawnee planned for the giant pouch of unsalted walnuts and almonds. Perhaps they already suspected I would figure it out for them. I swooned over the array of anchovy options in the deli case, the purple Sicilian artichokes… what a store! Kate selected our cheeses with the surety of one who has been visiting Tuscany for decades.
While I had begun drinking tap water in the train station in Milan—I asked people, and I swear they said it was okay — and had no ill effects, the other travelers were sure that this was insane and that even Italians don’t drink the water. I didn’t argue, having been on numerous trips to Mexico and elsewhere where everyone but me was laid low. Though recent decades have offered substantial evidence that I’m not the immortal I used to think I was, my gastro-intestinal system still performs miracles.
As they were loading the baskets with plain and fizzy water, I hit the wine aisle, where Chiantis, Montepulcianos, Bolgheris and other Tuscan vintages started at a few euros a bottle. Yeah, baby.
Back at the house we had the first of many extremely happy happy hours, laying out in the salon that opens onto the balcony a decadent spread of meats, cheeses, olives, nuts and the world’s most incredible rosemary potato chips, which we all became quite addicted to. The balcony is narrow, so we lined up four chairs and little tables, and basically dangled off the side of the building. Kate is allergic to wine, so she drinks vodka with grapefruit and Campari, and some of us converted. Many pompelmos were squeezed as the week went on.
Our first dinner was at a lovely place called Bistro Cortona, almost straight down the mountain from us, accessed by steep stairways and viccolos. We were greeted by the owner, a dapper former graphic designer named David, whose enthusiastic solicitude was unmatched during our visit — so we returned for our last dinner, too. One of the Bistro’s specialties was “pinsa,” a type of pizza made from a combination of flours, fermented for 3 days, and baked at a lower temperature than usual. The gluten-free version was outstanding. I also tried spaghetti colatura d’alici. Colatura d’alici is the Italian version of fish sauce; this dish combined it with garlic, olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs. Great example of the stunning simplicity of most Italian food.
The first night marked the beginning of the Thermostat Wars. Because Casa San Marco is a very old house with high ceilings, made entirely of stone, it’s not surprising that the top floor is warmer than the one below. The early April weather in Cortona was chilly, very much pre-spring. While Kate gets cold very easily and Shawnee and I get hot very easily, we did not choose our bedrooms accordingly. Kate and Holly were down and Shawnee and I were up. This, plus the fact that we were going to be paying a heating bill at the end of the week, led to quite a number of late-night and early-morning adjustments to the little dial outside the kitchen.
We were also pretty hard on the house’s hot water supply and called the caretakers on Sunday to see if we could get more. The woman came over instantly, bringing her husband because, as she said, the balcony has the best view in all of Cortona! This made us happy. Also, he somehow got us more hot water. They were very solicitous and sent other people to check on us later in the week, each of whom got us even more hot water. It almost felt like we were in a Frances Mayes memoir. Or my all-time favorite in the living-abroad genre, Cooking With Fernet-Branca.
Of Course We Became Best Friends Forever
So, it turns out I needn’t have worried about spending a week with strangers. Somehow our group of four, with our different temperaments and eccentricities and internal clocks and thermostats, melded almost instantly into devoted companions.
Everyone spent some time each day writing, and we had a couple of readings in the salon, where we heard and commented on works in progress. Getting to know each other’s writing brought us closer together, as did the various pieces of good news and bad news that came in during the week. Holly heard very annoying things regarding some jackasses she had done work for a while back and we all furiously empathized. Kate was contacted by a journalist who was crazy about her memoir and wanted an interview — we were thrilled for her. I got word that the book I’m editing with Naomi Shihab Nye, collecting the writings of our late friend Ann Alejandro from Uvalde, passed peer review at Texas A&M Press. The four of us worked together on the pitch letter for Shawnee’s debut novel, which is a murder mystery with themes of social justice and self-realization.
Due to poor planning, I somehow ended up with a cascade of imminent deadlines: reviews of books by Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Tim Murphy, Dennis Lehane, Lorrie Moore and Brenda Janowitz were all due that week or immediately following. The ladies were very tolerant of my dragging my iPad everywhere we went and somehow I got it all done.
Everyone but me got sick, briefly — Holly with a ferocious 24-hour stomach bug, Shawnee with a head cold, and then Kate was struck down hard by something which might have been exhaustion right at the end of our visit. Everyone handled their various indispositions so gracefully you almost forgot how it would have been if the sick people had been, say, men. Or children.
I cooked! A lot! And since we ended up feeling that some of the restaurants in Cortona were underwhelming, these home cooked meals were a big hit. Quinoa with leftover chicken and roasted butternut squash (there you go, Holly.) Pasta with tuna, olives, tomatoes and anchovy. Shakshuka with fresh ricotta salata, which is not like any ricotta I have ever tasted. So, so good. Kate and I together made Stanley Tucci’s pasta fagioli, as there was a copy of his memoir in the salon, and she also made an amazing radicchio and pistachio salad to go with the gluten-free pizza we ordered for take-out. The last morning, I made an artichoke-tomato gratin that used up all the leftover quinoa, cheese, rosemary, and even the goddamn walnuts. The only thing that went in the trash was some mediocre restaurant pasta we never even should have had wrapped up.
If you ever do go to Cortona, the one other restaurant I’d recommend besides our beloved bistro is Ad Bracceria, located in a candle-lit cave. We had a three-hour Easter lunch alongside a huge, loud Italian family, and another group with a dachshund. We also had great experiences at a cozy, slightly formal cappuccino spot called Tuscher. Try the frittata.
The ladies continued shopping! Everyone got cashmere sweaters, and Holly bought some statement jewelry. I purchased lovely illustrations of medieval Italian villages for my grandchildren’s bedrooms from an artist couple who were showing their work at the church. We had planned only one outing, which was on Wednesday, when a handsome man in a black Mercedes van took us to Deruta (ceramics) and Assisi (sightseeing). I bought several pieces in Deruta, and a St. Francis sandal keychain in Assisi. Otherwise I confined my shopping to the Molesini empire in downtown Cortona: they have a family-run bodega, a fruit and vegetable market, a wine shop, and a deli counter, all just down the hill from us in the Piazza Signorelli (where the fountain from the movie is not.) I was down there getting grapefruits almost every day.
Our driver told us about a hike we could do from Cortona — a few kilometers up and around the side of the mountains to Le Celle, a hermitage established on the spot where Saint Francis rested during his long walk from Asissi. Shawnee and I walked the breathtaking route one morning. With creamy stone buildings set into the side of the mountain, enchanted-looking paths into the woods, and stone footbridges over a thundering creek, the hermitage looked like Northern California and felt like total spiritual renewal. I’ll never forget it.
If Beautiful Ruins wasn’t enough, our last happy hour at Casa San Marco was graced with a double rainbow. God. Okay. I get it.
Then we packed up, finished our leftovers, and went back to Florence on the train, bidding adieu to Holly at the station, as she was heading off for a few days at a spa. Kate, Shawnee and I hit a few of Kate’s favorite Florentine spots, including a return to Il Bisonte so Shawnee could get a leather bag. Axel wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say. And the next morning I left my dear friends, heading home through Lisbon on Air Portugal, a bare-bones type carrier that landed so far from the main terminal at Dulles that I found myself ending with the same question I started out with. Dov’è la stazione?
Other questions, though, had been answered. Like, if you somehow get the chance to spend a week in Cortona, Italy, at the fabulous Casa San Marco, should you go? Don’t stress about it as long as I did. Just say yes.
I think I need to head to Italy. Loved the article. You are amazing!
Loved the story: the three-part train ticket, the thermostat wars, the view from the balcony of Casa San Marco, the very idea of a vacation with writer friends – a traveling workshop, if not a feast. We’ll be in Milan and the Lake region in July, so thanks for the pointers.
Ah, Cortona! How lucky you were to spend a week there. (And Florence, of course — magical, otherworldly, a Renaissance dream.) I was lucky enough to see Cortona in 2000, before the hordes descended. And I agree — the movie butchered the book. What an embarrassment.
But who said it’s not safe to drink the water in Italy?? That’s crazy. Italy isn’t a third world country. It’s just as safe to drink the water there as here (well, Detroit is debatable). Of course Italians drink bottled, often sparkling, water as a matter of course, but that’s long habit, not a health necessity. (They’re also horrified at leaving the skins on potatoes — when I cooked a batch for some cousins years ago, they recoiled: “Tu mangi la terra!” “You’re eating dirt!” Oy.)
Very much enjoyed the article and the lovely photos. And I also really want to read your original draft of the Hilton Head article!
I have always been lucky when traveling with strangers.
Tried it first in college and never looked back
Passion and commitment to leftovers, the first laugh out loud(is that LOL? OY) and my only Brownie Badge.
Really enjoyed this – the depth, the covering of your different stops, the food – I need to spend more time in Italy, birthplace of my great grandparents!
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