Margherita of the mountain

Cortona at dawn….

The basilica di Santa Margherita is outside the center city walls and up curving stone pathways. I wonder if Margaret climbed a mountain because it’s quite a hike up to see her.


Around the side of the church there is a long, steep staircase that leads down to a path that goes about a half mile downhill. At intervals along the path are small stone structures housing mosaics depicting the staziones di croce, the stations of the cross.

I head down to start at the bottom, and pardon the pun and the sacrilege, but it looks like a hell of a hike up. The $64,000 question is: will I lose weight, gain weight, or break even on this trip, because I am eating deliciously if not healthfully, but I’m walking more in a morning than I probably do in a week at home.

My exercise habits are depressing, back to the crucifixion.

The first mosaic is Jesu Condemnato, Jesus is condemned. There are two almonds along the stone ridge and I wonder whether they’re an offering of some sort. A lot of the stops have offerings – figurines, cards, crosses, flowers… Up close, I can see all the different color tiles used — the shades of browns and beiges for skin. some pieces are missing, the mortar crumbling behind the glass. It’s hard to get a picture. Even in mosaic, the image of a nail being driven into someone’s foot is less than wholly pleasant.

Up the hill, the church bells ring.

Passing through the parking lot again, on my way back down toward the center of town, a man – the caretaker I think – notices me, so I nod and say “Buon giorno, signore.”
He wishes me a good day as well, and gestures to the skies all around, “Bella, si?”
“Si, si,” I agree, in broken Italian, “una bella giornata.”

Walking through the streets of Cortona, I notice, as I often do, the doorways. Some are elaborate, some ramshackle. I don’t know why it is I have a fascination with photographing doors when I travel. Doors and stairs. Maybe it’s because they always lead somewhere unknown and going away from home is about seeing something new. Or at least, it should be.

After stopping off at the hotel for breakfast and to pack, I decide to walk up to the convent of Santa Chiara. A woman tells me it will take about 20 minutes to get there. Her timing is off, because in about five minutes I come to a fork in the road, and am not sure where to go, but a heavy door opens and two nuns walk out. I figure they’ll know which way I should head, so I ask “Scusa, per favore, Santa Chiara?” They graciously understand my mangled attempt at communication, and point me toward a little cathedral that almost looks like a school room, save for the elaborate altar. If I were the type of person who attended religious services, I would prefer an environment like this one to the cavernous arena.

As I walk out, the door next to the chapel opens and a young sister comes out, escorting an older, hunched over nun. I sit and watch the sisters exit the convent doors. I’m more than a little thrown when one walks out, talking on a cell phone. I didn’t know nuns had cell phones.

Walking on, I wind my way through some streets where there are houses. A German shepherd approaches, from behind a fence, thank God, and starts barking loudly, scaring both the hell and the bejesus out of me. I do not like dogs, in any language.

Several houses later, I come across another dog, smaller this time, but in a yard with an open gate, so I stand still, hoping it will retreat. When the lady of the house comes out to investigate why her dog is barking, I hold my hands up to indicate that I’m not a threat and she greets me with a warm “Buon giorno.”

I encounter an older man along a rocky path and ask if I can take his picture. The only word I can understand of his response is brutto, ugly, and I shake my head no until he relents.

My theory of all roads lead home eventually is definitely applicable here. I follow random, unfamiliar paths and find myself in places I’ve been before.

Soon it will be time to leave, so I head back toward the piazza, to sit and relax for a while, and just soak up the last hour in Cortona. The streets are alive now, and people are milling about, wishing one another good day, and chattering on. Sitting outside the Teatro Signorelli is a group of adorable children, on a field trip perhaps. A visiting woman walks by with two girls, presumably her daughters, speaking loudly in English. The kids overhear them and begin enthusiastically showing off. “Hello!” They call out. “Good morning. We are from Ee-taly! How are you? I am good. Bye! Good-bye!”

When I move to snap their picture, they pose happily, grinning and waving for the camera.

Ice cream before lunch is a wonderful travel habit, I’ve decided, so I decide to have a late morning gelato. I want to get the best flavors possible, but I don’t know how to ask the gentleman working at the shop what his recommendations are. I want to avoid that whole ugly American thing, so I try to at least offer options.

“Scusi, per favore,” I begin, praying I have the words right, or at least comprehensible. “Non parlo Italiano. Francais? English?”

Now, please, bear in mind that my French is far from perfect, and after being out of practice for quite a while, my vocabulary is extremely elementary. But compared to the 30 words of Italian I know — most of them food — I feel pretty confident. If pretty confident translates to being able to get by. Or, at least, ask a man what flavor gelato he likes.

Que preferez-vous? I ask, and he creates a concoction of nocciola (hazelnut), fico (fig) and mascarpone for me. It’s rich without being heavy, the flavors complementing one another well, and it tastes deliciously Italian.

I want to pick up some food for the train, so I go into a small alimentari, mini-market, and buy one euro worth of bread, another of cheese, and several clementines. As I’m walking out, I step right into a sea of tourists in matching hats.

“Good morning,” a woman says to me, speaking slowly and deliberately.

“Good morning,” I reply.

“Do you live here?” she asks, still very slowly, I guess presuming I’m Italian and don’t understand English well. I shake my head.

“No ma’am.”

“Where do you live?” she asks stiltedly.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee,” I say, and now she looks almost affronted, and I can’t help but be amused.

“You don’t have a Southern accent,” she accuses, and yes, her tone is now accusatory.

I shake my head. “No, ma’am.”

Before she can say anything else, I smile, nod, and move along on my way. Apparently, though, this encounter has set off a chain of meetings with North Americans, because not ten minutes later, I overhear a couple mention bed and breakfast. I don’t generally care to engage, but I’ve had such a pleasant stay at B&B Dolce Maria, I interject to offer a recommendation.

They, especially the woman, are tickled to hear another English speaker that they start chatting. David and Yolanda are a sweet couple visiting Tuscany on their honeymoon. And, it happens, they live in Knoxville.

She hugs me when we part ways and I head back to the hotel to pick up my bags and to thank Paola for being a wonderful hostess. On the way to the train, I share a taxi with a Canadian mother and daughter. The girl has been studying in Cortona and her mother came over to travel with her for a couple of weeks. They’ve been moving around Italy, staying in hostels (something I can’t see my mother doing), and are now headed to Rome before they fly home to Winnipeg.

They couldn’t be more pleasant, but after days of barely speaking, I’m not really in the mood for idle chatter, so I’m not sad to bid them farewell at the train station. This afternoon, I’m heading to Lucca, on the recommendation of my friend, Kelli. It’s the stop I know the least about. Sometimes, unknown places are the best…

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About twistedivy

In March, 2011, I spent a week wandering Italy on my own. This is the story of that time. I hope to see other parts of the world soon.
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