Frances Mayes’ hit novels Under The Tuscan Sun (later turned into a major Hollywood film starring Diane Lane), Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy and In Tuscany inspired a whole generation of buyers to follow in her footsteps and buy property in Cortona, Tuscany.
So rapidly has Cortona’s popularity risen since Mayes’ trilogy in the late 1990s that this enchanting hilltown is now the fifth most visited area of Tuscany, behind Florence, Siena, Pisa and the Chianti.
A good number of those visitors drawn to the idea of owning a property in Italy so fall in love with Cortona that they opt to buy here. It of course helps that property in Cortona can be surprisingly affordable, especially given that it is one of Tuscany’s jewels. As little as €50,000 can get you a two-bedroom apartment, albeit needing a little renovation, while around €110,000 should secure a restored two-bedroom home.
Even aside from attractive house prices, this serenely beautiful southern Tuscan hilltown has been drawing admirers long before Mayes brought it worldwide fame. Cortona, some 60 miles south-east of Florence, sits majestically on the slopes of Monte Sant’Egidio, overlooking Lake Trasimeno to the south and the hills of Siena to the west.
It is one of Tuscany’s oldest hilltowns and medieval legend has it that it was founded by a son of the Biblical character Noah. Another legend claims the mythical Greek warrior (and founder of Troy) Dardanus established Cortona after dropping his helmet (corythos) here in the heat of battle. Either way, by the fourth century BC Cortona was a thriving hub in the Etruscan era. Nearly two-thirds of the two-mile wall that still rings the town lie on its ancient Etruscan fortifications. The walls offer fabulous views of the valley below.
As with most Italian hilltowns, Cortona has a warren of charming medieval streets that are a pleasure to explore on foot. The town also prides itself on its rich artistic heritage and its famous sons include painters Pietro da Cortona, Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelica. Indeed, around 140 youngsters from America’s University of Georgia come here once a year to study art. Make time to visit the Etruscan Academy museum (Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca) in Piazza della Repubblica’s 13th century Palazzo Casali. It houses Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian artefacts as well as Baroque and Renaissance paintings. A short stroll away is the town’s Renaissance cathedral, built on the site of an Etruscan temple and boasting an 11th century facade.
Beyond Cortona’s walls are also a number of sights worth seeing, in particular the Basilica of Santa Margherita; the 13th century Convente delle Celle sanctuary, founded by St Francis of Assisi; and the Fortezza Medicea fort, built in the 16th century and offering great views over the valley and Lake Trasimeno.
In addition, the town holds a number of festival, the two most important being the Giostro dell’Archiado medieval archery competition in May and an outdoor beef festival, the Sagra della Bistecca, in August.
How to get here:
An international flight to Perugia, Florence or Rome, from which Cortona is respectively around 45mins, 1hr 20mins and 2hrs by road. Or take a train from any of those cities to Terontola-Cortona or Camucia-Cortona rail stations and then a bus into Cortona itself.