The first time I visited Cortona, located almost on the Tuscany/Umbria border, it was because of the book, and subsequent movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
I came, as most do, seeking the gorgeous landscape and views that we were shown in the film.
One of the oldest hill towns, Cortona’s medieval streets offer hours of delightful browsing, shopping, dining and breathtaking views of the valley below. Driving up the hill to Cortona, the sights of olive trees, Renaissance churches and Etruscan tombs prepare visitors for a step back into the past.
The main street is Via Nazionale (which the locals still refer to as Rugapiana). It is the only flat road, and extends from Piazza Garibaldi to the beautiful community squares of Piazza Republica and Piazza Signorelli. Here the locals still gather, and a tourist can partake of life in small town Italy.
But, I think, the best part of Cortona lies beyond the city walls. There are two sites, Le Celle Hermitage and the Church of Santa Margherita, that are exceptional.
Cortona: Rare gems beyond the city walls
Five kilometers outside is Le Celle. Deep in the woods, following a winding, single lane road, is a spot unknown to most tourists, and even Italians. It is a sacred and serene respite in a busy day.
St. Francis of Assisi first constructed nine simple cells into the mountain side, in 1211, at the place that would come to be called simply, Le Celle. He came here to meditate in the silence and beauty of nature, and escape the demands of Assisi.
While the structures have expanded to include more cells, the simplicity and serenity remains the same. Beautiful vegetable gardens, waterfalls, and lush greenery surround the cells and chapel. Visitors can walk over the bridges, and back through tree lined paths into the forest to listen to the sounds of nature.
Inside, the cell where St. Francis lived and prayed remains in its stark simplicity. Seven friars still live at Le Celle, and are occasionally seen walking along the paths or working in one of the many gardens.
I have visited Le Celle in each season, and it immediately transports me to a sweet and meditative place. People visiting are asked to do so in silence and prayer, and are welcomed into this profoundly peaceful experience.
The Church of Santa Margherita can be reached by walking from the main square in Cortona. It’s steep, and a bit of a climb, but a great hike, rewarding those that make the trek with a beautiful view! High on top of the hill is the church, bell tower and ancient Franciscan monastery, with adjoining park.
Margherita joined the Third Order of St. Francis and chose to live in poverty after a rather colorful prior life! As the mistress of a wealthy man in Montepulciano, she lived in a castle with many worldly possessions. She lived there for ten years, but was never was able to marry him, even after giving birth to their son.
When her lover was murdered, Margherita returned all the gifts and money to his family, and tried to return home to Cortona. Her father and step-mother would not take her back into their home.
She pursued a life of prayer and penance in Cortona, and there established a hospital for the sick, homeless and impoverished. To secure nurses for the hospital, she instituted a congregation of Tertiary Sisters, known as “le poverelle” (French for “the little poor”).
The church is beautiful and simple at the same time. In the altar, at the back of the nave, is the precious wooden crucifix that Margherita prayed in front of daily. Originally kept in the Church of St. Francis, it is from an unknown artist in the early 1200’s. Also, on display, are the remains of Saint Margherita.
On the right side of the church are the relics donated in devotion by the Cortonese Knights of Malta. There is another large chapel in memory of the Cortonese that died during the war.
Off the beaten path, away from “Tuscan Sun” fame, both of these spots are rare gems…located just outside the bustle of Cortona.
Author’s Bio: Lisa Condie is a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, now living in Florence, Italy. She writes for Better Way Moms, A Better Way to Italy, as the Italian Experience Coordinator, and Huffington Post. Through A Better Way To Italy, Lisa welcomes other women to Tuscany, and has hand-picked the excursions, hotel rooms and restaurants for the next tour in Tuscany, April 7-14, 2014.