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Leopoldina

14 Jan

The first time I remember seeing a Leopoldina was in 2014. It was a warm summer morning and we were headed to Rome from Cortona for our flight home. The driver took a different route than we had been accustomed to – one that avoided the interstate as long as possible and instead wove past a beautiful field of sunflowers and a fascinating abandoned structure. I was intrigued by the structure, and at the time, knew neither its name nor its history. I soon learned that this farm-house is called a Leopoldina.

The following year, Len and I set out to find that same field of sunflowers (girasole) and that Leopoldina. With no place to be but there, we parked the car and took in the sights. Thousands of sunflowers, with faces open to the sun, spread out before us.

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And at the end of a curve in the road, still standing proudly albeit tired and worn, stood the enchanting Leopoldina.

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To me, the abandoned structure looked much more like a lovely watercolor subject needing to be loved and preserved than an abandoned structure needing to be forgotten and demolished.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Leopoldine (plural) could be found in many areas around  Cortona as well as in northern Umbria.

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As I photographed many of them, I wondered… Who had lived in these houses? How long ago? And why did they all look the same?

While learning the name of the structure was easy, finding the history not so much so. Although I spent hours searching the internet, I mostly came up empty-handed. So I turned to my friend Ray, a history buff, for assistance. Happy to have a history project, he provided most of the following explanation.

Some of the most iconic sites in Tuscany and northern Umbria are the rows of abandoned farmhouses, with their distinctive dovecotes, spread throughout the countryside.

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Called Leopoldine, they look ancient but they are of relatively recent origin, at least by Italian standards, dating from the late 1700’s until the middle 1800’s.

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Much of what we know as modern Tuscany, including the Valdichiana, Maremma, and lower Valdarno, was swamp for most of its history. The hill towns that we love were built there not only for defense but also for health reasons to avoid malaria (mal aria: bad air, marsh fever) from the mosquitoes.

 

Plans to drain the swamps (clearly no connection intended) had been proposed since Etruscan times. Probably the most famous map depicting the swamps was the map of the Valdichiana done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502, (supposedly at the request of Cesare Borgia), which shows the water extending right up to the hills in the area of Montecchio Vesponi.

Valdichiana by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Major efforts to drain the area began in the mid 1600’s and continued through the next century. A significant impetus came with the ascension of  Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765. A  younger son of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, he started a series of public improvements designed to strengthen agriculture and improve the position of the peasantry.

 

The drainage projects produced huge amounts of rich reclaimed farmland (bonifica) which was distributed to peasant families under a share-cropping system (mezzadria) similar to that in the American South. On an inspection tour of these properties in 1769, he commented on the poor quality and condition of the peasant houses. He commissioned a study by an institute in Florence to design an ideal structure for the peasant families. The farmhouses, named after him, are the Leopoldine we see today.

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The design was for a structure of three levels. The ground floor had space for the animals as well as storage and the oven. The upper floor included a kitchen, living space and the bedrooms and the upper floor was the distinctive dovecote. Every part of the building was planned including the size and positioning of the windows. The external staircase and loggia were designed on the south side to protect the farmer from the tramontana (cold north wind) when he went to check on the animals.

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The bedrooms were designed to accommodate two beds each for the large families. Even the positioning of the different stalls for horses, pigs, sheep and mules was designed around the peculiarities of each animal. 

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While originally designed only for the grand-ducal properties, the obvious value of the structure led private landowners to copy the design. The project continued under Leopoldo’s successors and the last Leopoldine were probably built in the middle of the 19th century just before Italian unification.

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After the World War II, with the movement of Italians to the cities and the increased mechanization of agriculture, the Leopoldine gradually became abandoned and fell into the ruins that we see today. 

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Currently, there is a movement underway within the Regione Toscana and some of the communes to save the Leopoldine. Let’s hope.

And thanks to Ray, we now know both the name and the history of the intriguing Leopoldina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Still Saying “I Do!”

30 Oct

Wednesday was the last night in Cortona of our 9th stay, and also happened to be our 30th anniversary. 

We began the day with a wonderful walk through the parterre, bathed in sunshine and enjoying the magnificent October weather and views.

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We ended the evening, surrounded by friends, at our favorite Tuscher Caffè.

We had told Massimo and Daniela we wanted to host a Brindisi D’Anniversario, or Anniversary Toast, with simple finger food…but of course, they always do so much more than expected. 

We arrived a bit early to find Dani and Edoardo making the final touches on the buffet…

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and Massimo ready to open the Prosecco.

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The food was not only delicious, but so creative! 

As we waited for our guests, Len rehearsed his toast. When all had assembled, we took our first group photo. Well done, Francesco!

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After more toasts and eating, Len asked for attention. He began by apologizing for his Italian, but was quickly reassured by the group that his effort was well appreciated. Toasting our friends in his best Italian, he thanked them for their sincere friendship and for making us truly feel that Cortona is our second home.

And then he turned to me, with these words, also in Italian… “You are the butter on my bread and the fire in my heart.” Melted.

While the food was being cleared, we made some attempts at gender photos…

And then we were doubly surprised by the dessert…

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First, that it was a gift from dear friends from Toronto, Carrol and Larry, and second, that all this time I thought I was married to LEN! (Technology can be great as we were able to FaceTime them in Toronto while cutting the cake!)

Such a wonderful evening, full of laughter, smiles, stories, and most of all dear friends. 

30 years ago, 

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And today…

As I reflect on the the past 30 years, what comes to mind most is how blessed we have been and how thankful we are for our loving family, our dear friends, and our ongoing adventures. 

Hoping to get just one more group photo before we departed, we stopped a person walking by outside and asked him to take a photo. It was quickly evident this was not something he was used to doing… with his finger half over the lens and quite shaky!

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But alas, with pure luck, he took this. A little finger shadow top left, but all in all, a great memory of a wonderful evening!

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Many thanks to Daniela and Massimo for their hard work…we so love having parties at Tuscher. And our heartfelt love and thanks to family and friends, whether with us at Tuscher or from far away, for the wonderful anniversary wishes. I hope they all do come true and that we have many more years to celebrate.

And yes, after 30 years, I am still saying “I Do!”

Ciao,
Judy

The 2017 Olive Harvest

23 Oct

Every year, around mid to late October, many Cortonese hope to begin harvesting their olives. I use the word hope because Mother Nature plays a huge role in the success of the harvest. While 2015 was a bountiful year, the complete opposite was true for 2016 due to the dreaded mosca (fly).  And this year, the 2017 harvest was severely limited by the drought…hence,  small quantity but good quality olives depending on the location of one’s olive grove.

Nonetheless, October begins the eagerly anticipated time “olio nuovo” (new oil) signs begin to appear in restaurants and stores. And it is also a time when locals invite friends to celebrate their production. Lucky for us, friends invited us to dinner last night, but didn’t tell us they had already been to the frantoio (mill) to begin processing their olives.

As soon as we entered the cantina, we knew we were in for a treat. The bright green color and the light peppery taste of freshly pressed olive oil is unlike that of any other oil.

 

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Lapo and Paola like to call this a peasant dinner – simple and fresh food picked from the garden or locally sourced, all designed to highlight the taste of the new oil.

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New oil is traditionally first tasted as a bruschetta  – toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with the oil. We each made our own. Delicious.

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We also added the oil to a dash of salt in tiny bowls – a wonderful dip for fresh vegetables from the garden.

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Next came what Len calls an Italian version of hummus, this one made from ceci (chickpeas), drizzled with the oil and topped with a sprig of rosemary. Can’t wait to try this myself.

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The dish that followed was a type of bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, topped with a drizzle of oil. Simple, delicious and perfect for an autumn evening. 

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Now this is Italy, remember, so you know there is more to follow, and what followed was rosemary roasted chicken and potatoes, with a splash of oil of course!

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Now not all olives are turned into oil, as was the case with these tasty herb and orange marinated olives, served as a side dish.

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For dessert, we were treated to Paola’s delicious torta della nonna, (grandmother’s cake), a traditional Tuscan dessert with a light custard. (I forgot to ask if she added a drop of the new oil to it!) Not being much of a baker, I bought the others at a local pasticceria. 

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So that’s how we celebrate the olive harvest in Cortona, enjoying what Mother Nature provides, combined with the hard work of locals who pick by hand. 

From this…

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to this. Doesn’t get much better.

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Our thanks to Lapo and Paola for an always entertaining and delicious evening together. Complimenti to the cook and grazie for your friendship!

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Ciao,
Judy

Cortona: Expect the Unexpected

31 Aug

Teatro Signorelli, built in 1854, is an imposing and beautiful theatre gracing the upper part of Piazza Signorelli. Over the years, it has been home to many cultural and theatrical events. Today, in addition to these events, one can see a movie or attend a conference.

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The Teatro’s grand portico also serves several functions, from a place for coffee, lunch or dinner to hosting a wedding reception. Last night it was host to us, a large gathering of friends coming together for dinner. And while the group size was a bit larger than normal last night, these gatherings are a familiar and wonderful way of life in Cortona.

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And while we expected the evening would invariably be fun, little did we know there would be a DJ in  the piazza. As we sat for dinner, the DJ began with some Italian classical music, including Andrea Bocelli singing Nessus Dorma.

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After our first course, however, the tempo changed to disco and we were out of our seats dancing to such classics as I Will Survive, sung by Gloria Gaynor. 

After our second course, many in our group formed a human chain and invaded the piazza below to join others near the DJ.

Even the canines were enjoying the entertainment.

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My favorite moment of the evening was our rendition of Village People’s Y.M.C.A. Every local Italian I know is familiar with the arm moves – Y-M-C-A– and we didn’t miss a beat. Unfortunately, I was too involved myself to get a photo – che pecato!

I did, however, manage to get a great group photo. 

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Thanks to our “organizers” and Caffe del Teatro Signorelli for such a fun and memorable evening filled with good friends, good food, and some unexpected and much appreciated good music!

Ciao,
Judy

 

How Does My Orto (Garden) Grow?

26 Aug

Many have asked me that question, especially due to the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rain in Tuscany. In Italian, the saying goes, “non c’è male” or not bad, and that’s my answer. Not great, and not poorly, simply not bad, especially compared to what I’ve seen.

Usually in late summer, sunflowers look like this…

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This year, they look like this.

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As for the orto, since it is small, it has been watered and has some shade. While not nearly producing the quantity of last year,

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it’s not barren either.

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And although small, the tomatoes still taste delicious.

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So while I enjoy them,

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I’ll dream of sunflowers and hope they return healthier than ever next year.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Reconnecting

23 Aug

Ever since we arrived in Cortona, lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber keep playing in my head:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

When people ask how long we are on vacation, we reply that Cortona is truly our second home.

I know my way around here
The cardboard trees, the painted scenes, the sound here
Yes a world to rediscover
But I’m not in any hurry  (I know my way around here)

But first our trip.

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We departed Chicago on a new 777-200 at 5 p.m. The pilot said we’d make great time – less than 9 hours non-stop. But around two hours into the flight, he advised us that a light was on, our plane was unable to fly across the ocean, and we’d be landing in NY to change planes. It was 5 hours before we took off again. If there was any good news, it was that we were upgraded and actually slept a few hours before landing in Rome. 

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Three hours later we were home in Cortona.

Although the tourists change, the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells remain familiar and constant. And best of all, so do the people. We are quickly immersed in this wonderful town, greeted with genuine smiles, warm embraces and greetings of ben tornato  – welcome back!

With deference to Mr Weber, I’d like to modify a few of his words in parens:

The lively (whispered)  conversations in overcrowded piazzas (hallways)
The atmosphere as thrilling here as always
Feel the early morning happiness (madness)
Feel the magic in the making
Why everything’s as if we never said goodbye

It took just two nights to be back in a familiar Italian setting – a large dinner with some friends.

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And while most things remain the same, the weather has taken a toll. From a 0° freeze last April to scorching summer heat with no rain, all vegetation has been severely affected.

When we left in June, our views of the hills were lush and a deep verdant green.

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Today, sadly, they are scorched.

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How much this will affect the grapes is not clear, but the olive oil harvest will definitely suffer. Many people we know will not be picking olives this year.

But neither rain nor sun will deter the Cortonese, who pack much into the summer months.

Cortona on the Move International Photography Festival is in full swing, occupying 8 historic buildings, some rarely open, as well as a photo exhibit in the parterre (park). More on these as we visit the exhibits. 

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The Cortonantiquaria, a national antiques exhibition market, is in the lovely 18th century Palazzo Vagnotti.

Various food festivals, called sagra, are held weekends through the summer. The Porcini Sagra was last weekend in Cortona’s parterre.

So much more to come, but for me, Cortona is always about the people, both local and international friends, who make this wonderful town home. 

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With gratitude to Andrew Lloyd Weber for helping me share what’s in my heart:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

Ciao,
Judy

S. Margherita Festival Cortona

21 May

This weekend, the people of Cortona celebrated the feast of S. Margherita, Cortona’s patron saint, and kicked off the two weeks of the Medieval Giostra dell’Archidado.

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Events began Friday night with the Colata dei ceri, or the casting of the candles, a religious practice that dates back to 1325. At the time, wax was collected and used by churches for candle making and also sold as a source of income.

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Locals dressed in traditional costumes of the time and processed into Piazza Repubblica accompanied by drummers and flag bearers.

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S. Margherita was eventually led into the piazza

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and a few events from her life were reenacted.

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If you look closely in the pink part of the photo, you will see a headsman or executioner. After Margherita was willing to sacrifice her life in place a convicted criminal, her followers cried out, “She is a saint!” and the criminal’s life was spared.

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Saturday was the Offerta dei ceri or the offering of the candles. Large candles were carried into the piazza and blessed by the bishop.

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Each quartiere or neighborhood of Cortona was represented in a procession that portrayed nobility, religious and workers of the time.

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Following the blessings, the flag bearers delighted the crowds with their skills.

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Then the candles were taken to the Basilica of Santa Margherita.

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On Sunday morning, several masses were held at the Basilica. We walked up Via Santa Croce…

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where beautiful mosaics of the stations of the cross are built into the wall.

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S. Margherita died in 1297 in a room behind the old church where she had lived the last years of her life. Over the years, the beautiful Basilica of Santa Margherita was rebuilt in her honor.

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Her body is preserved in a silver casket on the altar. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII on 16 May 1728.

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On my way out of the Basilica, I turned once again to admire its beauty, said one more quick prayer, and as I headed toward the door, a gust of wind blew it open. Really.

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Such a wonderful weekend and such an interesting way to understand and celebrate this important part of Cortona’s history.

Ciao,
Judy

San Feliciano Umbria

18 May

After many years in Cortona, I thought we had visited most towns and villages that surround Lake Trasimeno, but not surprisingly, there is always another gem to discover. Knowing we love fresh fish, some friends suggested we head to Ristorante Da Massimo in San Feliciano, Umbria. The restaurant is nestled on a quiet hill overlooking the lake.

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Meet Massimo, chef and proprietor of this over 25 year-old restaurant.

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We began with appetizers, and they were so good, we jumped right in and I didn’t get photos. Len and I shared an enormous plate of spaghetti con vongole (clams), one of the best we have eaten in Italy, while our friends shared a mixed seafood appetizer – first cold seafood then hot.

While this is not what we ate, I was able to get a photo of this spaghetti with mixed seafood.

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For our second course, Len and I shared grilled spigola, or sea bass, and it was delicious!

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Our friends ordered the oven roasted version with potatoes and olives.

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To accompany our meal, we drank a light sparkling white wine, perfect with seafood.

After coffee, we decided to take a walk in the town. From Cortona, the winding scenic ride along the lake eventually brings you to this small fishing village, perhaps “on the map” as it is one of the places you can catch a ferry to Isola Polvese in the lake. San Feliciano is about 35-45 kilometers from Cortona, depending on your route.

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Being that it was a weekday, and not quite summer, the town was quiet and we had much of it to ourselves. Not sure how busy it gets in summer, but there are campgrounds nearby, so our timing was perfect. In addition, in late July each year, the town hosts the annual Festa del Giacchio, a festival that pays tribute to an old fishing technique dating back to Etruscan times. Although the technique is no longer used on the lake, during the festival there are demonstrations, competitions, and opportunities to participate in all kinds of events.

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Len has long wanted to rent a small boat and fish in Lake Trasimeno, and San Feliciano seems to fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps the best part for me is that Len can throw back whatever he catches, and after a relaxing day, we can all eat well at Ristorante Da Massimo, no fish cleaning or cooking required.

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Ristorante Da Massimo and San Feliciano, two great additions to our list of favorite places!

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Ciao,
Judy

2017 Orto Planting

6 May

Finally, finally, our plants are in the orto, or vegetable garden. We waited two weeks later than last year due to cold weather and are so happy we did. We have some friends who planted in April and now need to replant due to frost and a recent 0° night. In fact, we know several people whose fruit trees suffered a lot of damage and now won’t produce fruits like figs, apricots, cherries, etc. this year.

It’s hard to believe this small bunch of plants will populate Fernanda’s orto…
12 tomatoes (4 varieties); 12 red onions; 4 zucchini.

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As you might recall, four of us, all novices, planted a vegetable garden last spring at our friend’s home in the country. And here’s a reminder of last year’s success!

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Having set the bar pretty high, and wanting similar results, some advice was sought (“offered”) from more skilled neighbors. It’s a funny thing about “orto rules”…there seem to be as many as there are vegetable gardeners. In addition, Italians who live in the country are known to have superstitions about doing things on certain days of the week – but we didn’t let that bother us.

First step was for Len and Loreno to count off the space needed for the tomato plants.

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Once measured, building of the cane structure commenced. There was some “debate” this year about teepee style (last year’s) vs. box style, but after much consideration, box style won.

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Looks like a tying lesson is going on here.

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Tomato plants were added, water troughs dug, and once completed, the perfectly aligned tomatoes looked like this.

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Then the onions and zucchini were planted in the rear of the garden where there are also garlic and artichoke plants, hardier plants which had been planted earlier in the season.

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After a very productive afternoon, Fernanda treated us to a delicious dinner and the day treated us to a beautiful sunset.

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When your daily view looks like this…

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how can you not want to plant your own orto?

Here’s to our orto trio, our hard-working contadini (farmers)…can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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Ciao,
Judy

Remembering Ted

25 Apr

Sometimes, people land in a place by chance, yet leave a lasting imprint. Such was the case with Ted Walker.

In late 2013, Ted discovered Cortona. Like so many others, after reading or seeing Under the Tuscan Sun, he found a rental online, booked it, and set his course – never imagining the impact on his life or others.

Over the next several years, Ted became a familiar face to many, and even an important extended family member to some. He also learned to speak Italian quite well.

Ted had hoped to put several health problems behind him and return to Cortona this spring, but it was not to be. His absence has left quite a void in the hearts of his Cortona “family” and friends, who placed a tribute in the local paper L’ETRURIA, dated April 15:

Gli Amici di Cortona ti Salutano

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With apologies for a non-exact translation, it reads in part:

“To our great friend Ted, who arrived in Cortona like many, filled with curiosity to discover what brings people here from all over the world.  

“We are convinced he discovered it right away because he never got away from us until the last moment when his watch stopped.”

The article pays tribute to Ted for reminding locals of what a privilege it is to live in a place like Cortona, and describes him as a generous and kind man. It ends with this wonderful thought:

“If there is life after death, we will meet again to laugh and joke like we started here in this world you loved so much.”

The following are of some of my favorite memories shared with Ted in Cortona.

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Rest in peace, Ted. Riposare in Pace.

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And yes, we raise a Prosecco to you!

Ciao,
Judy

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