The Porta Santa Maria
For today's outing we have come 30 km or so south east of Arezzo to visit Cortona, which has the distinction of being one of the oldest towns in Tuscany. It is also fully surrounded by walls which date back to the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, the Etruscan period.
We parked outside the walls and entered the city through the Porta Santa Maria, but almost immediately looked left into via Jannelli, a street which contains a group of medieval houses - among the oldest in Italy apparently - with projecting upper storeys supported on wooden braces.
We located the Tourist Office, at the back of the nearby Palazzo Casale, now the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca, and set forth on the best approximation would could manage to a tour of the walls.
First stop was the Duomo, a 16th century reconstruction of an earlier romanesque church.
Opposite, the diocesan museum contained a wonderful Annunciation by Fra Angelico.
We now walked along inside the walls to reach the Porta Colonia and went to admire the view from the Piazza Mazzini, just outside the walls. Cortona is at 494m and we looked across to a higher round and down to the church of Santa Maria Nuova, it dates from 1554 and was designed by Giorgio Vasari, who has been a presence throughout this holiday.
After a steep climb, we reached the next gate, the Porta Montanina. The startling thing was that as we climbed the city seemed to fall away and we passed vineyards and small fields. We gradually understood that the circuit of walls contains both a tightly built up town and its immediate hinterland. A first!
We now followed the steps of the via San Croce to climb up to the convent church of Santa Margherita.
We had seen no-one since we left Piazza Mazzini, but in front of the church there was a coach party. We did then see one or two others who had ventured forth from the centre of Cortona, but most people's experience will be of Cortona as a pleasant, typical Tuscan hill town. This is a shame when it is perhaps unique. The church is late 19th century.
Now came the final ascent - to the remains of the Medici fortress. Less well preserved than that in Arezzo, it was still a reasonably impressive sight. You could just make out Lake Trasimeno from the viewpoint at one of the corner bastions, but it was too hazy to see clearly.
We now began the long descent. First back to Santa Margarita and down the long via crucis (way of the cross) which was laid out in the late 19th century with futurist mosaics depicting the passion of Christ.
At the bottom, the path turns right to follow the long south east flank of the walls. This is one place where you can actually walk on the walls rather than beside them. The views over the plain below were very hazy.
At the bottom, we joined Via Nationale which leads back to Piazza della Republica. This has the distinction of being the only level street in the whole town. Alleys in the form of steep stairways lead off from it in both directions, up and down. This is the well-named Vicolo del Precipizio - Precipice Alley.
Conditions: 28 degrees, sunny.
Distance: 4 miles or so.
Rating: four and half stars.
We could not help noticing the large number of American tourists in Cortona, especially in the area around the Piazza della Republica. They seemed to us to be like the parties you sometimes see off-loaded from cruise ships, wandering around seeming and sounding rather lost. We spent some time pondering what it was all about. Then we remembered the book by the American author Francis Mayes called Under the Tuscan Sun. In it she describes how, after her divorce, she buys a derelict house near Cortona and does it up. Later came Bella Tuscany, A Tuscan life, Every day in Tuscany and others. Apparently she is very popular in America.