Cortona gives a great first impression when you see it stumbling up its hillside from the valley. The striking town exudes a dignified air and retains its medieval atmosphere despite the passing of centuries. While it has recently enjoyed tourism fame thanks to Francis Mayes' book, Under The Tuscan Sun, it has been a tourist draw for hundreds of years; it had already garnered a mention in a guidebook in 1639. It hasn't lost any of its appeal since then and is well worth a visit.
The city started as an Etruscan settlement, and its importance can be seen at the Etruscan Academy Museum housed in in the lovely Palazzo Casali. Piazza della Repubblica is still the seat of civic politics, as it has been since the Roman era when the Forum was located there. Today you can admire the Palazzo Comunale, the Palazzo dei Capitani, which was the dominion of the "captains" of the people, who ruled the town during the Middle Ages, and enjoy the vibrant city scene in the piazza that is the hub of Cortona's life.
The Diocesan Museum, in front of the cathedral, contains nine rooms that span two millennia of art. The famed Annunciation by Fra Angelico is here, along with many other treasures. The cathedral is a simple Romanesque structure from the 1400s attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo, built on the ruins of a pagan temple.
Outside town is the delicate-looking domed church of Santa Maria Nuova, designed by Vasari and still beloved by the people. It enjoys a magical setting amidst the green undulations overlooked by the town itself. Also outside town is the Hermitage Le Celle, founded by St. Francis in 1211 when he came through Cortona. It enjoys a beautiful setting with a breathtaking waterfall and is well worth a visit.
The appeal of Cortona lies in its setting and ambiance. It is well-tended and picture-perfect; its meandering streets are lined with lovely homes and palaces, and still contain artisan shops and markets. There are plenty of outdoor cafes and an abundance of eateries for sampling the local flavors. Views sweep out over the classic Tuscan landscapes of hills with distant mountains, fluffy clouds, and vineyards and olive groves, all bathed in that mystical golden glow that characterizes the region.
Cortona is a user-friendly town where most people speak some English and are welcoming to visitors. It's a great stop to see a perfectly preserved place where the rhythm of life through the centuries is still maintained in an attractive setting.
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