Saturday, June 5, 2010

It’s a bright and beautiful morning in Arezzo and I’m standing on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Continentale surveying the city streets. Directly below me is Piazza Guido Monaco, a small octagonal park named for the Benedictine monk who invented musical notation. Beyond, an assortment of stone towers dot the landscape, including that of Santa Maria della Pieve, but the overall effect is a mixture old and new, owing to the fact that much of Arezzo was bombed heavily in the war, especially here near the railway station.

In a newspaper account published by The Times on July 16, 1944, it was said that the “main street through the town… was a melancholy line of battered shop fronts and doorways.” And yet, “at the end of this sombre route one came to the Piazza del Duomo and it was a refreshing sight. There stood Arezzo’s fine cathedral, serene on its height above the streets of the town and remote from the damage and havoc that war had wrought below.”

Today, the city has risen from the rubble and rebuilt itself around its surviving landmarks, and when I see the cathedral perched high on the hill in the distance, the miracle of its survival makes me smile.

It’s a Saturday morning and the streets are already teeming with people, and I can see a row of white canopy tents that have appeared overnight for the Fiera Antiquaria, Arezzo’s monthly antiques fair. I’ve been told that it’s the oldest and the largest of its kind in Italy, with over five hundred booths that wind up the hill past Piazza San Francesco to the duomo, then back by the Palazzo Comunale, and under the Vasari Loggia, before spilling out into Piazza Grande. Aside from the convenience of the city’s railway hub, this is the main reason for my visit, so I rush to the elevator, eager to descend and join the crowd.

In truth, there isn’t much I can afford, or for that matter, fit into my suitcase, but I thoroughly enjoy wandering the hilly streets nevertheless. There are chairs and tables and wrought iron beds, stacks of books and prints and gilded picture frames, porcelain figurines and ceramic bowls. I fall in love with a pair of 19th century paintings of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and a beautiful landscape by Pier-Antonio Gariazzo, but in the end seize upon a small and far more affordable pair of modern paintings, each depicting people browsing an Italian antiques market, just as I have done all morning. Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, I head back to the hotel thrilled with the purchase.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM and while I had originally thought I might head to Florence for the afternoon, I’m feeling as lazy as Henry James and want nothing more than a pretty place to explore in a thoroughly “uninvestigating fashion.” I decide to catch the bus to Cortona instead, a tiny hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, and when I arrive there at Piazza Garibaldi an hour later, and gaze out across the hills, lakes, and valleys of neighboring Umbria, I’m glad I came.

I begin to follow the narrow straight line that is Via Nazionale towards what my map tells me is the center of town—Piazza della Repubblica and the Palazzo Comunale—but I stop off along the way for a late lunch at Tuscher Caffé. I sit back and relax at a small table by the side of the street with a gorgeous plate of cured meats, bruschetta, and pecorino cheese before me, as well as a glass of chilled prosecco. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Half of the Palazzo Comunale is wrapped in scaffolding, which is a bit of a disappointment, but the town itself is not. It has a romantic, easy charm and the hours slip by gently on the mind, if not the body, for Cortona is a hill town indeed, and on either side of Via Nazionale, there are alleys and stairways that branch off into breath-robbing inclines. I shop for ceramics, eat some gelato, and peer down Etruscan wells, walk down to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the town’s duomo, and stop into the adjacent Diocesan Museum to see works by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico. But mainly, I just walk, as far as my legs will take me, out along the walls for another sweeping view of Lake Trasimene and the Val di Chiana, all the way back to the shade of the Parterre gardens. Somewhere along the way, I fill the last space on the first of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards and reach into my bag for another, wondering if I will make it through the rest of my trip at this pace.

It’s just after 7:00 PM when I finally catch the bus back to Arezzo. I sink back into the seat and enjoy chatting with a young Korean student living in Florence, whose name is Yun-Mi, but who asks that I call her Stella, which she says is her English name. She is as amiable a traveling companion as I could hope for, and her facility with languages impresses me deeply, and not only because she is far more capable than I in confirming our route with the driver.

Back in Arezzo, a deep fatigue has started to set in. My legs are aching, and yet my stomach is growling like mad. From the bus stop in the piazza, I head up Via Guido Monaco to a kabob shop and order a sandwich and a can of Coca-Cola to go. I slump back to the hotel feeling guilty. After all, I should be dining on classic Tuscan fare—a steaming bowl of Acquacotta, or a juicy Chianina steak—but alas, what I crave most is sleep. Exhaustion is, perhaps, something Henry James would have understood when he wrote of “the familiar tax on the luxury of loving Italy.”

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