Traces of Etruria

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After returning from San Gimignano and lunch at the Hotel Garden, we heard two lectures to prepare us for the next day’s excursions”one on Etruscan civilization, the other on a fresco cycle by Piero Della Francesca. Next morning our bus met the lecturer, Louise, at an impressive archaeological dig: a tomb complex dating back to the sixth century B.C. revealing steps to an altar, an underground entryway, and under a large roofed canopy, pieces of the tomb’s wall, some partially buried and others in various stages of reconstruction. Etruscan culture predated the Roman and was strongly influenced by the Greeks. On top of the large mound grew a grove of grand old oaks, which I believe were of the species Quercus pubescens or Downy oaks. Views of Cortona, the old Etruscan city on the mountain, were blocked by the weather, but our guide’s engagement, erudition and grace made the visit satisfying nevertheless. A native of Cambridge, daughter of a professional musician, she lives right outside Cortona in a 600-tree olive orchard and works as a restorer of paintings.

The next stop was the archaeological museum inside the walls of Cortona, which had just opened a new beautifully-designed exhibit of local Etruscan artifacts housed in a venerable medieval building. Most memorable to me were terra cotta funerary urns topped by reclining figures that seemed to have been molded very quickly and expressively. After the museum tour we had an hour and a half to wander in the pouring rain which didn’t deter the Saturday morning market from proceeding full swing. I hiked up steep deserted streets lined with terraced vineyards and olive groves and found a stone footpath for pilgrims climbing toward the Cathedral of St. Margaret. Though grand prospects of the Val di Chiama below were hidden, I was enthralled with the moody twisting path lined by dark cypresses. I reached the top just in time to pay for a coffee in order to use the bathroom at the café adjoining the Cathedral, which was just closing its doors after mass. Perhaps it’s age or perhaps it’s Italy, but never before in my travels do I remember the quest for the toilet being as frequent or dramatic as it was here almost every day.

I rejoined our soggy group for a sumptuous lunch and lots of wine in the brightly lit cellar at Pizzeria Fufluns, after which we piled back into the bus for a snoozy ride to Arezzo, a good sized city about an hour distant.
There we viewed a fresco cycle illustrating a preposterous but lively Tale of the True Cross by Piero Della Francesca. We had more free time to wander in the rain, and Jan and I tried unsuccessfully to follow the signs to the house where Petrarch was born. Instead we found another huge Duomo at the top of the town where a wedding was about to begin, and an elegant city park located in the old fortress.

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