Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In the Footsteps of John Paul II and Killer Hamsters (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Nine)

Our next Tuscan destination, Cortona, took us about as far west as we would go in Italy, and introduced us to many Etruscan wonders. But first, we met a couple of Jayhawks at breakfast. Imagine, travelling halfway around the world to meet people that live about a hundred miles away from you. Strange, really.

But enough of our domestic neighbors. On to Cortona, a town much larger than any we visited the day before, and, it seemed to us, much steeper and higher. We parked on the street at the foot of the Public Gardens, which was really just a shaded park with gravel on the ground and walked a short distance to the Piazza Garibaldi, trying to use one of our guides to walk us through the town. It was a relative success.

The view from Piazza Garibaldi was big, but nothing compared to later views we would get from a higher vantage point. Frances Mayes, the writer of Under the Tuscan Sun lives in the area of Cortona. If you're ever in Cortona, and you're interested, according to our guide, her villa is behind a hill to the left of the view from Piazza Garibaldi. For me, not the most fascinating tidbit of info. I liked the hill, regardless of whose villa is behind it.

The one thing you notice during the first half of your visit to Cortona: you are always walking up. Steeply. From the main piazza, we found some level ground within the walls of the Etruscan Museum. We spent a couple hours in here, looking at clay pots, jewelry, helmets, weapons, rocks, mosaics, and various interpretive videos whose effectiveness was diminished due to our own ignorance of Italian. In addition, this museum also had some works by Severini, a son of Cortona, who gained some fame in the early 20th century as an artist and critic. The coolest thing in the museum, however, was a heavily decorated oil lamp from the 4th century BCE.

Our next stop was Santa Margherita, which is at the penultimate point of the town. As we made our way higher and higher, climbing along switchback steps that seemed to wind through neighborhoods and nowheres, we came across a marker that stated that Pope John Paul II had made this trek in the 1990s. I was impressed. I'm pretty sure they didn't roll the Popemobile up there, and, unless he was ported up in a rickshaw or on a pillow-laden platform, then, he was one fit old pontifus maximus. Of course, in my mind, it is more than likely that he reached the church on the back of some poor, yet infinitely grateful local, huffing his way up the rocky stairway, bearing his heavy-robed burden, and imagining himself on the white-lighted stairway to Paradise, a beaming Saint Peter standing next to an overcome-by-pride Saint Margaret waiting to punch his ticket and welcome him aboard. But, that's just my speculation. The church is not the town's cathedral, but the residents spend most of their time and money on the beautification and decoration of this church, because Margherita is a home girl. It is a very beautiful church, and choc-a-block full of Margherita relics.

From here, we did some backtracking (mercifully downhill), had some pizza, and visited the cathedral (not very impressive next to Margherita's final resting place) and the Diocesan Museum (you know, these church folk got some damn nice art). The museum is mostly the structure of another church (Chiesa di Gesu), reconstructed and with additional pieces from the diocese. Highlights included an Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an elaborate baptismal font, some stations of the cross by Severini, and a wonderfully frescoed lower chapel.

In Cortona, we did the same thing as the day before in Montepulciano, buying some local stuff to eat with the remainder of our pasta and cheese. We brought home a bottle of Cortona Sangiovese, but, we didn't like that quite as much as the previous night's wine.

That night, as I sat on the veranda, a fox walked right past me. I thought that was a nice sight. However, a few moments later, I spied the tiny head of an unidentified animal poke out of the bushes around my chair and seem to look up at me. I looked down at him, and he seemed to be unfazed by my presence. I decided to take that as a hint that it was time for me to go inside and go to bed. This unidentified mammal was dubbed, "The Wild Hamster of Pienza." This later became, after time and the predictable hyperbole that accompanies an unidentified anything, "The Killer Hamster of Pienza." So, future travellers of the Pienza area: beware the killer hamster!

1 comment:

La Fashionista said...

We're back from our west coast adventures! What better way to wind down jetlag stylee than to catch up on missed installments.

The steep uphill treks you describe - and the older people who walk them - remind me especially of our time in Cinque Terre. It's super rugged there, and the old woman who took us to our room could move!

Also, when we were in San Gimignano P encountered a priest who grew up down the street from his mom in Philly! Crazy.

Good times. Small world.