Esther Greenfield/Special to the Herald
CORTONA, TUSCANY, ITALY – Climbing up a cobbled lane behind the Convent Santa Margherita where we are staying, we find the Fortezza di Cortona, built 1,000 years ago on the highest hill above the Italian town of Cortona. Its crenellated towers are silhouetted in the early morning sun.
A young woman arrives, jingling a large bunch of iron keys. She opens a small door cut into the massive iron-studded door and slips in. It clangs shut behind her as we wait. It is not yet opening time.
From one of the towers, I can see the very plain where Hannibal and his elephants defeated the Roman army. To the right is the melon-colored Bramasole, Frances Mayes’ villa made famous in “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
The fragmented remains of a Roman road can be seen through the trees by her house.
Later, at lunch in a busy café in Cortona’s piazza, we watch an apple inexplicably fall off its display in the farmers market and roll through the piazza. It stops under a woman’s foot as she walks by. Laughing, we tell her how the apple just fell for no reason.
We decide to leave the apple there and watch what will happen to it next. A few minutes later, three teenage boys scoop it up onto their feet and begin playing soccer, flipping the apple into the air and passing it back and forth. Soon they tire of the game and move on while the apple sits, waiting for its next adventure.
“How can a small village like Cortona have such a museum?” we think as we buy tickets to the Etruscan Museum.
Inside are dimly lit glass cases filled with tiny bronze figures of Etruscan men and women with their characteristic kohl-rimmed eyes, astounded expressions and corn-rowed bronze hair. The Etruscans flourished for a thousand years in this part of Tuscany until the Romans came.
Surprisingly, also on display are the bones of a Paleolithic hippopotamus excavated only a few years ago. This caused a great stir in archaeological circles worldwide. We think those bones put Cortona on the map long before “Under the Tuscan Sun” did.
That evening, we stroll the twisting streets trying to find the source of the sugary, yeasty smells floating in the air. Finally, in a dark building with only one small window at eye level, we find it. Peering in, we see a baker wearing a paper hat in front of a stone oven from which all the good smells are coming.
I want a photo of the baker in his paper hat and ask, “Scuzi, permesso?” but realize from his shocked (actually rather Etruscan) face how I must look to him – a disembodied head floating in his window. Sighing, he nods “Si,” and slides his wooden paddle once more into the flames, thinking “Is there nowhere in this village to get away from these tourists?”
In a tiny restaurant nearby, we are greeted at the door by the owner/chef. She has a cloud of white hair and is wearing a starched white apron. Flour is dusted on her cheek, however. This night she will teach us how to eat as the Italians do. We begin to order everything we want at once, but she will not have it. We would like to have salad, the fat Tuscan pasta called pici with wild boar sauce and sautéed spinachi.
“No, no,“ she says, wagging her finger at us and shaking her head. She makes us understand that we must only order and eat each course in the proper sequence.
This means first the Antipasti, then the Primo Piatti, then the Secondi Piatti, then the Contorni, the vegetable. Lastly, if we wish, the Dolci, dessert. So we do what she wants and eat a meal for the first time in the proper order.
From this, we learn that orderliness is a good thing.
The moon shines on the stone-arched entrance to the convent. There, Sister Patrizia, the sweet-faced nun, smiles and says “Buona Serra” as she lets us in, knowing somehow that we have learned a good lesson that day.