The trees in the garden of my house in northern Italy are taller than many four-storied buildings. They sway precariously on windy days, are weighed down by snowfall every few years but remain standing up to ancient age. And like other old and useful things in Italy, they are well taken care of.
Right before spring begins to heat up, cherry-pickers line residential roads as gardeners lean out of their little buckets up in the air, trimming and cutting wayward branches, preparing them for their seasonal business. Street lights need to be protected from the expected foliage, the weight of the branches on either side needs to be balanced out, unruly strands must be nipped in the bud before growing unabashedly into neighbouring balconies.
The arrival of The Gardeners in a flurry of activity is a mark of the changing season which always seems to come a bit later than desired. Hibernating plants are rudely awakened to noisy leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers that slay the beautiful daisies along with the unruly grass. It is the necessary sound of spring. Babies can’t nap in the afternoons but the daisies grow back the very next day.
And as soon as Easter break beckons, townspeople speed away for a holiday out. It’s a mixed celebration. Some are anxious to get a bit of the long-awaited sunshine and head south to bathe in its new glory. Others head north into the mountains to bid farewell to the last vestiges of snow.
Last week, for Easter break, we aimed for somewhere in between. Tuscany. The place of destination weddings, pricey holidays, filmmaking workshops and indulgent retreats.
My family and I often go to a village called Cortona where my husband’s family has a little cottage. Cortona awoke to international stardom soon after an American author wrote the bestselling book Under the Tuscan Sun set in the town, and Hollywood turned it into a successful film of the same name, but a slightly re-imagined story with Diane Lane playing the lead role. Soon, one American followed another and Cortona became a Tuscan hotspot promising a steady flow of English-speaking young explorers, looking for a quintessential, romantic — and perhaps, Hollywood-perfect Italian experience.
I first came here when my then husband-to-be and I were filming a programme for Geo TV ten years ago. Over the years, we have brought friends and family from Pakistan and beyond and made plans repeatedly to settle in the farm house for a while — read, write, dream, in a truly hanging-out-in-Tuscany kind of way. But it hasn’t happened. Perhaps because phone signals and 4G work only up to the road leading to our little cottage. A week without Twitter, for all its dreams, seems rather difficult.
Our trips to Cortona are mostly about food. My husband, a true Italian in a myriad of ways and not in others, takes his food very seriously. On any trip, anywhere, there is no such thing as “we will just grab something on the way”. Even when we eat on the go, we eat well. He gets away with it, but on me, it shows.
Our first stop on the night we arrive, after our five-hour drive from Monza, is to feast at the Osteria del Teatro, a Michelin recommended restaurant, boasting walls full of endorsements from top Italian actors, directors and musicians and non-Italian superstars like Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, and Robert Redford. Emiliano Rossi, the chef and owner and his very sociable wife, Ylenia have created a truly unique experience in a restaurant that started small but has now become the heart of Tuscan cuisine with their restaurant situated right across the main Theatre, Teatro Signorelli, whose steps became famous in a short but memorable scene in Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (La vita e’ Bella).
On one indulgent night, many years ago, while we were eating deliciously shaped tortellini covered in fresh truffle, Ylenia told us that Abbas Kiarostami, the acclaimed Iranian film director, was filming in town. This was a huge fan moment for me. I had just completed my Masters in Documentary Filmmaking and seen and loved almost all of Kiarostami’s work.
My husband and I spent the next day waiting on the Teatro’s steps for Kiarostami to walk out of his shoot from the museum next door for a lunch break. He was filming inside with Juliette Binoche for Certified Copy. It was clearly a surprise for him to find a Pakistani fan in this neck of the woods. “I feel at home in this part of the world,” I remember him telling us, in an awkward, hurried conversation in the middle of the town square. “Cortona is old fashioned, traditional and warm. Just like home.”
And for those who have known Cortona as their holiday destination since many years, this still holds true. A guide book for the town, published in 1980, describes the local townspeople as having essential traits belonging to “one of the most fascinating ancient civilisations”. I am not sure what those traits are, but the guidebook promises that Cortonese are an extrovert, welcoming people with a strong, genuine handshake. This, I have experienced, to be true.
The numbers visiting Cortona has risen rapidly over the years as the town centre and the adjoining areas adapt to facilitate the growth. Swimming pools and spas have been added to old villas with rustic, touristic appeal and property buyers from the United Kingdom priced out of old favourites like the Chianti region are being urged by advertisers to invest in the ‘authentic Tuscany’ region of neighbouring Val di Chiana where Cortona is cosily nestled.
This influx of travellers may have taken away some of Cortona’s essential rustic beauty. On holidays, like Easter last week, thousands of people swarm the pedestrian lanes of the town, blocking residential areas with traffic and flooding the landscape with ugly rows of parked cars.
The outsiders must have created a new dynamic, perhaps one disliked by many locals who don’t directly benefit from increased tourism. But it has also offered Cortona an opportunity to show the visiting world what it is all about. Away from the packed lanes of the town centre, the Tuscan landscape remains untouched in every way. It is still swathed in the beautiful light, dotted with sunflower fields, and church towers that reveal ancient towns on hilltops far away.
“After many years of mass tourism, now the kind of tourists who visit us come here to experience who we are traditionally, and not what they imagine us to be,” says Ylenia from the Osteria del Teatro. Aside from the more philosophical nuances of her observation, people come to eat the tartare di chianina, not burgers and fries. So, while the colour of a crowded town changes and looks more “touristy”, it may also be the reason for it to thrive and be itself. In small villages like Cortona, this may mean that the second generation is likely to stay and continue the trades and traditions of their families.
And there will always be Tuscan wine — as they say, locally, “non ti mettere in cammino se’ la bocca non sa di vino” (don’t start your journey without the taste of wine in your mouth).