Cycling to Umbria

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The mountains we’ve become so accustomed to have leveled out to terrain more accomodating to agriculture. Well-irrigated farms line both sides of the railroad connecting Arezzo with Rome, and we got off in Cornuccia / Cortona and snagged a taxi to our hotel, The Corys.

Cortona is a walled “hill town” dating back a couple thousand years to Etruscian times, and was constructed on a slopeing ridge. Our hotel is behind the upper part of town and about 500 meters outside the walls in a quasi-rural setting which was delightful. Soon after checking in, we strolled along the ridge and entered the ancient town through one of the 5 gates to the city. It was all downhill from there. Literally. All streets, alley ways, and sometimes stairs lead down to the North end of this small town, and some of the going was pretty steep. We considered it preliminary exercise in anticipation to our 54 Km. bike ride the next day.

Cortona is really quite small and easy to navigate. Up one street, over another, and you’re soon at another gate breaching the wall. We walked around the walls facing West with hillsides below us covered with restaurants, hotels, and condos – all with stunningly beautiful views. Back inside the walls, the development has been limited to existing structures climbing up from the narrow stone streets.

My excitement of finally arriving in Cortona was been dulled by the nearly suffocating influence of tourism; sure, we’re tourists, and in my red Keene sandals and Hawaiian shirt, I more than fit the mold. It’s just that in Poppi we were students of Italian, both culture and language, and the whole town was our classroom. Everyone brightened at our salutations, and willingly participated in both praising and gently correcting our attempts to master the language. We did not hear English spoken. Here in Cortona, everything has been impacted by “Il Libro” and “Il Film” (I’m of course referring to Frances Mayes “Under the Tuscan Sun”) which put Cortona on the map for millions of travelers and doubled the real estate market for the 20 or 30,000 locals. At least, that was the opinion of our taxi driver.

We took a coffee in a bar on the Piazza della Republica, and Sooney struck up a coversation with the server. While we were both busy doing our own thing, he had placed a pamphlet on our table that described the festival of the candles that was to begin in about an hour right in front of the bar. So shortly before 4, we found a wonderful spot on the Piazza, and the ceremony began with local residents appearing from the 5 “neighborhoods” of Cortona. Each group of about 50-60 adults and children were led by teams of animated drummers and everyone was dressed in gorgeous clothes of the period. And as is characteristic of reenactments, they maintained an air of regality befitting their garments. Trumpeters announced the introduction of each group’s dignatory as he presented their candle to the “Duke.” This annual obligation was brief, and a wonderful “flag” routine followed. The 8 young men and women have been practicing in a club outside the school day, and it was immediately apparent. Their 20-minute program was highlighted by tossing the 6′ square flags a good 40′ into the air – and catching it on the run. Performing in such a small Piazza was especially challenging, and the euphoria of the group when they completed their program was contagious. Everyone was pumped, pagent participants and spectators alike. The final selection of photos I kept were quite good, and this morning I gave a set to our hotel’s receptionist who we recognized among the 300 or so costumed participants as a lovely maiden. And indeed she is.

The Cory’s hotel boasts one of Cortona’s finest restaurants, and our week of cycling has some accomodations as full-board (dinners provided). Thankfully, the Cory’s is one. Antipasti was a buffet, and they had a basket of fresh fava beans still in the shell. We’ve been eating them with oil, salt, and a little pecorino cheese, but the owner suggested we try 2-3 with a small slice of salami. Delicious. This was followed by fresh pasta (taliatelle) with asparagus sliced into a white sauce and toped with fresh quartered strawberries. Who whoulda thought! Sublime. My pork medalions and Sooney’s wild boar (cinghiale) were marvellous, but the pasta dish merits a try at home some day.

Our bikes are light-weight Italian sport models, equipped with thinish road tires, bags for our gear and maps, and donning bike helmets we brought with us (they nearly comandeered a suitcase of their own), we set off on day 1’s ride from Cortona to an agriturismo near Castiglione della Valle. The distance surprised me (54 Km.) but the weather held and we were well-fed at Cory’s. Maps were delivered with the bikes, and a detailed Km. by Km. running account of where we should be at any given time in relationship to the “mile-o-meters” installed on the bikes. Only they didn’t work as expected, we got lost a couple times, and all things being equal, we performed admirably. Sooney caught me developing an attitude at one mis-hap, and reminded me how the whole week is an adventure, and this particular incident was just one aspect of it. ‘Nuff said.

We arrived at about 4pm, warm sunlight on fields of Umbrian grain. Our agriturismo is located at the end of a long drive boardered by tall Italian Cypress trees. In the low afternoon sun, we quietly (and slowly) cycled up the driveway, backed by a soundtrack of hundreds of songbirds with the manor house in the distance. It was breathtaking. I imagined sitting in the driver’s seat of a delicate carriage porting those same gentry we saw yesterday in Cortona, only this time to a social visit. But my sore butt reminded me how long we had been on our bikes, and we’re now showered, soon to be fed, and sleep will undoubtably follow shortly.