Around Lake Trasimeno

Monday 17th May 2010, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno
Today dawned bright and sunny, so with high hopes we set off towards Lake Trasimeno, the largest of the lakes in central Italy. Tonight we are camped on its shore at the little town of Castiglione del Lago.

On the edge of Arezzo we filled up on everything – fuel, money and foodstuff. We'd had danger level registering for all of them.

Following the route towards Perugia we visited there in April 2008 when we were staying at nearby Assisi we turned off from the flat green plain towards Cortona, a delightful little town of around 24,000 inhabitants, which seems almost unchanged since the Renaissance. The old town has still not expanded to fill the space inside the extensive medieval ramparts which in places lie on top of the Etruscan walls with their massive blocks of stone. The hillside has several Etruscan tombs from the 6th century BC.

Cortona sits on the summit of a mount of olives. As we made our way up the steep and winding road, overlooked by the severe stone walls of the city, there were olive groves covering the entire hillside with enticing tracks leading between stone walls towards the hidden tombs. As we climbed higher we passed pretty roadside churches covered by heavy pink tiles coated in yellow lichen. The occasional dark green spikes of cypresses towered above the surrounding trees. It was a quintessentially Tuscan landscape. Amongst the olives the hillside was splattered red with poppies while fig trees and acacias overhung the stone walls beside the road.

Just below the town we parked. The view stretched back over the hillside of olives, down to the vines of the plain and away in the distance, the waters of Lake Trasimeno. It reminded us of the extensive view towards Florence from Fiesole, except that in this instance, the beautiful city was on top of the hillside above us rather than out on the plain below.

View towards Lake Trasimeno from Cortona

Once through the city gates the streets of Cortona are incredibly steep and we were astonished that residents somehow manage to get up there in their little Fiat Pandas when we were almost on our hands and knees! The main street seems to be as far as most tourists get. It's very attractive, lined with souvenir shops of a very high quality and several very attractive restaurants. We discovered a little stationery shop selling sheets of hand-marbled paper and notebooks bound in hand-tooled shining brown leather, decorated with marbled boards. They were captivating but they were really art books, far too expensive and beautiful to be wasted on travel journals, recipes or wine lists, as suggested. When we mentioned we'd tried marbling paper ourselves the shop keeper told us everything was made in Florence and showed us photos of the process used to create the different marbled patterns. Basically it consists of dropping specks of different coloured acrylic paints onto a surface of sized water before gently running a fine brush or comb through the paint so that the colours all flow together. The paper is then laid onto the surface and the paint transfers from the water to the paper. Not surprisingly, our efforts never achieved anything remotely as beautiful as the fantail patterns achieved by the Florentine masters!

Main square with Palazzo Communale and Theatre, Cortona

Main street, Cortona

Also on this street stands the Cathedral. In Britain cathedrals are few and far between but in Italy, with its history of individual city states, there are dozens of lovely cathedrals scattered across the countryside. Even modestly sized little towns like Cortona have one. Some are huge and magnificent. Cortona's is tiny, placed right on the edge of the town its parvis overlooking the stunning Tuscan countryside with the necropolis down across the valley. The Cathedral which was locked had undergone a major make-over in the 18th century with fragments of Romanesque detail peeping through the baroque facade.

Cathedral, Cortona

Surrounding countryside and necropolis seen from the Cathedral, Cortona

Curious to explore the residential streets of such an ancient city we climbed the narrow lanes that wound on, eventually to the summit of the hillside. There were tubs of geraniums on every doorstep, roses climbed around the door frames. Vegetable gardens and fruit trees were squashed in anywhere a tiny corner of earth could be found between the aged walls. Dogs and cats snoozed on the roads and doorsteps in the sunshine, confident nobody would tread on them. Sometimes we'd discover a more elegant building that had undergone many changes in its hundreds of years of existence. Its history could be traced on its façade. Windows and doors would have changed size, shape or position leaving the traces of the old lintels in the stonework. Sometimes too there were remnants of plaster and decoration dating from centuries ago that had never been removed.

High above the main town this house wears its history with pride, Cortona

Often, down a tiny side alley, we'd discover a crumbling statue of a saint, the town's ancient water cistern or a tiny abandoned church overgrown with grass and wild flowers.

Residential area, Cortona

Eventually we reached the very top and found the Porta Montanina the little town gate out of the city leading to the surrounding hills. Immediately we were in the open countryside with green hills of vines, olives and cereals rolling away to the distance, the roadside once again a haven for poppies, grasshoppers and lizards. We sat watching this stunning vista, unable to tear ourselves away, until approaching clouds reminded us we'd no protection if the rain returned.

Town gate at the top of the town, Cortona

View down along the city walls from the top of the town, Cortona

A green hill far away beyond the city wall, Cortona

Then we discovered a broad flight of stone steps leading even higher, between an avenue of cypress trees up to the basilica of Santa Margherita. We worked out from an Italian panel that Pope John Paul II had celebrated a mass there in 1999 and been overcome by the beauty of the landscape. We agreed with him, but cannot imagine that he struggled up there from below the town! He must have been flown in by helicopter. The basilica was recent and after what we've become used to in this part of Italy, was rather brash, hard and lacking in character.

Basilica of Santa Margherita, Cortona

On the way down we stopped to look at the simple but pretty church of San Niccolo, set in a tiny courtyard lined with cypresses. It was no bigger than the neighbouring houses. The rain started and we took temporary shelter in the porch before braving the weather to return down to the main street and the crowds. Here we had pizza and coffee until the rain eased.

Church of San Niccolo, Cortona

At the far end of the town we found yet another church, San Domenico, with a wonderful polychrome triptych dating from the 1440s. We were also very taken with a 15th century painting of the Virgin and Child that may have been painted by Luca Signorelli who died in 1523 when he fell from the scaffolding while painting a fresco in a nearby villa. An elderly lady wearing an apron and carrying a geranium nearly as large as herself commanded Ian's help in lifting it on to the altar. She then nagged him until he'd got it in exactly the right position before showering blessings and benedictions upon him. (At least that's what we think she was doing as we didn't really understand.)

Madonna and Child by Signorelli, Cortona

We'd spent hours more than expected at Cortona and enjoyed every second of it. Each town we see seems to be the best so far. They are all wonderful. We returned down to the plain and made our way to Lake Trasimeno. On our way to Assisi in 2008 we'd stopped off briefly to look at the northern shore, so this time made our way along the opposite shore to Castiglione del Lago where we are camped beside the water within walking distance of the pretty little town, set, as you will have guessed is the norm by now, on a hillside, but this time overlooking a lake.

While the lake is the largest in the region, with a circumference of about 40 kilometres it is quite shallow. It doesn't look very nice for swimming but there are esplanades with parkland, trees and seats along beside it. Out on the lake there are a couple of islands which can be visited by boat. One, Isola Maggiore is reputed to be a place of beauty and solitude. It was visited for several weeks by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century when he needed to be alone to fast and commune with Christ. He was left on the island with nothing but two loaves of bread and a live rabbit to cook when he needed to break his fast. When he was collected he still had one and a half loaves and a relieved looking pet rabbit.

Leaving Modestine at the campsite we walked along the shore of the lake and up into Castiglione del Lago entering through the city walls. Inside there are a couple of parallel streets of lovely old buildings and attractive souvenir shops, all selling wild boar sausage, dried pasta, dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, olive oil, wine, olive wood chopping boards, cork screws, aprons, tea towels and other assorted knick-knacks. At the far end of the two streets towers a powerful looking castle. It's a very pleasant little place for an evening stroll with views over the lake.

Lake Trasimeno near the campsite with Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Town gate, Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Inside the walls of Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Palazzo Communale, showing its history in its walls, Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Castle surrounded by an olive grove, Castiglione del Lago, Cortona

Eventually we found internet access for the first time since leaving Sardinia. It's become a real problem for us. Whenever we find somewhere it's either closed or not working or prohibitively expensive.

And finally....
We saw this sign in Cortona, a place that is wonderfully clean yet has quite a number of resident dogs. If Italy can do it, might there be hope for France?

100 euro fine if you fail to clean up after your dog, or cannot produce a clean, spare dog bag when asked to do so! Proceeds go to support the city dog shelter, Cortona

Tuesday 18th May 2010, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno
This morning Ian popped across to the campsite shop for fresh bread. He returned with best part of the left-overs from St. Frances's local sojourn. Italian bread really is dry and unappetising.

Today has been very hot and close. Shade beside the lake is provided by some sort of poplar with seeds attached to fluffy clumps of white wool. They float down in clouds covering the ground in a blanket of white. They get into everything, even into the food and all over the carpet. Even with doors and windows shut it finds a way inside.

This morning we needed some admin time so it was after lunch before we set off in search of Etruscan tombs in the environs of Chiusi. In the classical era this little town was Clusium, one of the twelve main cities of Etruria – Lars Porsenna of Clusium attacked Rome after that city had thrown out the last of its Etruscian kings. The defence of the bridge over the Tiber against his army by Horatius Cocles provided the material for Macaulay's stirring lay of Ancient Rome.

The area is an important centre of the Etruscan civilisation and the National Museum for Etruscan history and archaeology stands in the centre of the little town of Chiusi. (The name Tuscany is taken from the work Etruscan?)

We followed the signs for the tombs close to the city which we found in the midst of shady woodland where lizards and even a large snake scuttled away at our approach. Unfortunately, although we found the tombs cut into the hillside, they were locked with a notice advising that pre-booking is necessary so that museum staff can conduct visitors round. Personally, as the driver, I was rather annoyed to have had a wasted fifty kilometre round trip. In Chiusi however, the museum was open and most of the treasures were there, along with a reconstruction of one of the tombs, so something was saved from the day.

The Museum's collections are one of the most significant concentrations of material on this fascinating and mysterious people. They were much more powerful than Rome in the early centuries after the founding of that city. They gave the Romans many of their ideas on town planning, art and culture and above all the Roman alphabet, which the Etruscans had adapted from the Greeks. It is surprising therefore that no literature survives; only brief and formulaic inscriptions and that, although we can read their writing, we cannot understand the language, which died out in the first century AD. It does not appear to have been an Indo-European language and their origin is unclear – some early historians claimed that they came from Asia Minor. They seem to have been a people who enjoyed life. The tomb decorations and the funerary sculptures and ceramics are decorated with scenes of banqueting and dancing rather than warlike themes and the reclining figures of the deceased show them holding a plate, as if prepared for endless feasting in the afterlife. Their earliest art has an oriental feel to it with figures in profile similar to ancient Egyptian bas reliefs but they soon came under the influence of the Greeks and, besides importing large quantities of Greek pottery, they made very passable attempts at imitating it.

Etruscan imitations of Greek pottery, Chiusi

Etruscan sphinx, Chiusi

Etruscan sea horse bas relief, Chiusi

But most of the exhibits revolved round their funerary customs with early canopic jars to contain ashes shaped like portrait heads giving way to small caskets embellished with bas reliefs of classical themes and topped with the reclining figure of the deceased. Also found in the tombs were finely crafted bronze tools and implements.

Canopic jar placed in small throne, Chiusi

Polychrome Etruscan funerary casket, Chiusi

Mural of banqueting scene from Etruscan tomb, Chiusi

The Romans took over the town and there were also many exhibits relating to that period including a ceramic pot for breeding dormice – a Roman delicacy although we have always found them rather crunchy.

Roman pot for breeding dormice, Chiusi

Evidence of the Roman and Etruscan civilisations is scattered around the town, the massive stone blocks of the Etruscan walls and the sculpted spheres that used to mark their tombs and fragments of Roman inscriptions, many of them built into the walls of the Cathedral square. A Roman cistern had even been adapted as the campanile for the Cathedral and the gates of the town park were made from old masonry with other stones scattered around under the trees.

Cathedral campanile made from Roman cistern, Chiusi

Park gates made from Etruscan masonry, Chiusi

Etruscan tomb marker in town park, Chiusi

Chiusi is a very pleasant little town with a shady central square where the elderly people sat chatting together, and a nearby cathedral square where the children all played football together, using the arcades as goal posts.

Cathedral, Chiusi

In the main square, Chiusi

It was quite late by the time we got back to the lakeside where our plans to use the campsite wifi were thwarted as it was "broken". I cannot recall a single site since we left England where the advertised wifi system has actually been working.