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An Italian vacation in Tuscany embraces the sweet life

CORTONA, Italy

M

y first time was complicated. There was beauty, but shame, too, and a language of gestures and sounds I could only parrot inelegantly.

I speak, of course, of visiting Italy. I was 13. My father was sporty but cheap. Thus we skied on the Italian side of the Matterhorn, my va-va-voom blond American mother receiving a disconcerting amount of attention from Italian men, even in her subpar ski overalls. And, on a day trip to Milan, our car was broken into, coats stolen, followed by a spirited suspect chase through the streets with uniformed cops we'd buttonholed. (Okay, they were bus drivers. Who knew?) We drove back over the Alps, the flapping of garbage-bag-and-duct-tape on the window somehow reminding my 13-year-old self that I was still a kid, life's spectator and un-va-va-anything.

The next time would be different.

Fade in 30 years later. I'd been living well in Europe for nearly a year. All grown up, cooking from the market and living my version of la dolce vita.

Spring in Tuscany. I was ready: pecorino and sangiovese; cherub-faced babies cooed over by ancient crones in mourning-black housedresses; hot young futbol players on Vespas ignoring the insufficient signage of a government generally unruffled by the details. And I was going to the epicenter, at least from an American perspective — Cortona, the setting for Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes' bestselling book and the movie of the same name.

I would go where actor Diane Lane had mooned through piazzas and climbed narrow cobbled streets of an Etruscan hilltown, fields of olives and cypress, lanky as Giacomettis, swaying in the distance. We would rent a villa and go to the markets and head out in a tiny rented Fiat to nearby Sienna and Montepulciano, Assisi and San Gimignano. Oh, and Perugia, for chocolate.

The villa part proved easy. Loads of English-language websites can be sorted by town and price, cross-referenced to make sure you're getting the best price. Each is loaded with photos and lists of amenities: We needed room for five people, hopefully three bedrooms, pet friendly and with a good enough kitchen so we could cook. Maybe a pool and a nice garden. We fixed on Villa Serena, an aristocratic 19th century white house with huge green shutters, very Enchanted April, on a hillside about a kilometer outside of Cortona's city center, a 15-minute walk uphill.

It wasn't cheap: about 300 euros a day, which at the time was roughly $500, made it about $100 per person, per day. But the views of the Valdichiana (the valley of the Chiana River), the Apennine foothills and nearby Lake Trasimeno proved too mesmerizing, the stepped terrace and aquamarine pool too magnetic. But first we had to get there.

“Do you smell that?"

Okay, we weren't going to be zipping around Italy in a cherry red Fiat 500. We'd gotten a monster Ford in order to hold all baggage and people. Stop and go, stop and go, we approached the St. Gotthard Tunnel on the A2 in Switzerland, my left foot, evidently, riding heavy on the clutch.

About halfway into the 10.2-mile tunnel, we lost power, the car juddered and the husband riding shotgun looked up quizzically from his maps. The Ford Gargantua righted itself somehow and we ended up, many hours later, loosely where our directions indicated. Too loosely. We'd have to stop and ask.

Europeans have always traveled between countries, but the institution of the euro and the subsequent Schengen Agreement directive on the right to move freely (read: passportless travel within 26 member countries) means Europeans now travel up a storm. This has had a peculiar benefit for often monolingual Americans. A Dutchman and a German, meeting on a Paris street, revert to the common language of English. English seems more and more the lingua franca in Europe.

Except in Italy.

We got the Italian palms-up shoulder squinch, which can mean either "What can you do?" or "Who knows?" Both relevant in the case of locating Villa Serena. Finally, an elderly Italian man gave us an earful in his mother tongue. As we drifted off in Gargantua, dispirited by the language barrier, he leaped into his little car and chased us down, gesticulating for us to follow. He took us all the way, finding our host and having a rapid-fire conversation with Vittorio, our Italian-only landlord, which might have been translated thus: "When all these Americans saw Under the Tuscan Sun, didn't they notice the extras were speaking Italian?"

Vittorio walked us through Villa Serena. The Internet was on the fritz and there might not have been a superabundance of toilet paper, but it was breathtaking. Our dog snuffled the perimeter while we busted out the cushions for the patio chairs and I counted the number of Italian moka coffeepots (four; they must be just that vehement that we eschew the kitchen's tired-looking electric Mr. Coffee). We'd need to make a grocery list, walk into town, start seeing the sights.

Dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing. It's not just an Italian expression; it's practically a credo. We slowed down. We didn't make a list. We walked past the Piazza Garibaldi where taxis and buses unload passengers to gawp at the view of Lake Trasimeno; we ambled through the shops of Via Nazionale (one of the city's only straightish and flattish streets) and Piazza della Repubblica, with its medieval Palazzo Comunale. Above us hulked the formidable Basilica of Santa Margherita as well as the Convente delle Celle, founded by St. Francis in 1211. We ambled along kilometers of ancient Etruscan stone fortifications, looking out over the sea of tiled roofs on Romanesque and sometimes Gothic buildings.

But mostly we thought about our stomachs. We hooked up one day with Shirley Ofria, a Hawaiian from Santa Barbara, Calif., who makes her home now on nearby Mount San Egidio. Meeting for a cappuccino at Café La Saletta, we planned our day: We would learn to make the local eggless pici pasta (cheap to make, and filling, it historically was the pasta served to the priests when they came door to door asking for alms), and also focaccia and stuffed zucchini blossoms and chicken saltimbocca and olive oil lemon cake.

We followed Shirley from store to store, the proprietors listening intently to her mellifluous Italian explanation of our lunch to come. "Don't touch the produce," she cautioned. The proprietors choose for you, tucking long-necked young artichokes or delicate orange squash blossoms into bags along with strict advice and probing queries about your menu. For 110 euros, we learned to make a perfect Italian coffee, tasted half a dozen jewel-green local olive oils (Shirley's own was superb), sampled local charcuterie and an array of pecorinos, and then we got down to the business of cooking.

Eight hours later, we felt like we had some building blocks. In the following days we went to the vegetable market under the loggia at Pane e Vino in Cortona and we drove to neighboring Camucia to go to the main supermarket and the unglamorous Thursday outdoor market (unglamorous meaning you can buy sweat socks and toilet plungers, but it still has knockout porchetta stalls that sell fennel-crusted roasted pork sliced warm right off the bone). Black truffles from Cortona's Saturday morning open-air market, dried pici and other pasta shapes from the city's many pasta shops, vin santo and Chianti — it was hunting and gathering in a flurry of pantomimes and fake Italian more akin to pig Latin with "o's" at the end.

In the eastern part of Tuscany near the border of the Umbria region, from Cortona it is about a 50-minute drive southwest to the famous winemaking city of Montepulciano, a tiny bit longer due west to Sienna with its UNESCO World Heritage city center and the famous twice-yearly Palio horse race, and a little less southeast to Perugia, known for its chocolates. These are all lovely day trips in which the drive is part of the entertainment, past hilltowns and regimented rows of vineyard and ancient, crumbling villas flanked by silvery olive trees.

I dreaded the stop signs on hills, revving Gargantua's accelerator as I let up the clutch, lest I roll back onto the helmetless Vespa driver behind us. It was in Perugia that the Ford gave up the ghost, coasting to stillness off an exit of A1. What followed was hours of call and response, my pidgin-Italian followed by a Perugian doing the "What can you do?" palms-up shoulder squinch.

The clutch is shot, tomorrow is the weekend and it's nearly siesta (a misnomer, because unlike the Spanish, there's little napping involved, just a big meal and some far niente that means shops close roughly 2 to 4 p.m.). No, the rental company would not replace Gargantua; no, we could not drive one way out of the country from Perugia in an entirely new rental.

We had to think creatively, our pseudo-Italian growing expansive and somehow more comprehensible. Perugia back to Cortona and then to Florence in one car; a second car from Florence to Munich; a third from Munich home to the Netherlands. Like so many things in Italy, it was a little clunky and a whole lotta inefficient. So be it. We were masters of our destiny. The car packed tight with us and olive oil, I backed it out, careful not to ride the clutch, the red Fiat making a satisfying va-va-voom noise.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

. if you go

Cortona, Italy

How to get there

Fly into either Rome or Florence and rent a car. Airport car rental agents speak English and provide maps. Go with a known and reputable rental agency and read the fine print. (In the event of a breakdown, say, do they owe you a new car?) From Florence, Cortona is about

1 ½ hours southeast on lovely roads; the A1 being the most direct route. It is also accessible by train (exit at the Terontola-Cortona stop), but once there it's hard to navigate the Tuscan hill towns without wheels, and taxis are rare.

Where to stay

We rented through intuscany.net, which rents apartments and villas all over Tuscany, with loads of photos and lists of amenities. A lot of the websites (tuscanynow.com, traveltuscany.net) include some of the same properties, with prices listed by season, summer generally being high season. May is a good month because you can avoid high-season prices and crowds at the same time. If you go the villa route, which makes sense for larger parties and for those who want access to a kitchen, expect extra charges for Wi-Fi, pool heating and a final cleaning fee. In Cortona, as in many of the hill towns, it can be a hilly hike into and out of town, so plan your accommodation's distance from the city center accordingly.

Where to eat

Trattoria La Grotta (Piazza Balbelli 3, Cortona) Just off the main square, its stone interior has a medieval vibe and the fat pici pasta (a local specialty) with spicy tomato sauce or the Florentine steak made of local Chianina beef are the way to go.

La Locanda nel Loggiato (Piazza Peschiera 3, Cortona) It's got a second floor balcony (busy when it's nice out) that overlooks the Piazza del Repubblica; try pici with duck, beet gnocchi and a local red chicory that people get excited about.

Antico Caffe La Posta (Piazza Signorelli 32, Cortona) More than a century old, its piazza seating and super pizzas seem to attract tourists.

La Bucaccia (Via Ghibellina 17, Cortona) Welcoming and bustling, this often makes visitors' top pick for its combination of warmth of the husband-and-wife team and expert treatment of traditional local dishes.

Where to shop

It's not huge, but Cortona's city center is crammed with stores where you can buy

cantucci (crunchy hazelnut cookies) or

ricciarelli (soft almond cookies); terra cotta and painted pottery; leather goods (much more affordable than in Florence or elsewhere); and antiques (at the end of August the National Antiques Furniture Show is held in Cortona), paintings and etchings. Here are a few standout shops, but just walk along Via Nazionale and the streets bordering the piazza.

Gelateria Snoopy (Piazza Signorelli 29, Cortona) Festooned with a zillion images of the Peanuts canine, it's a major local hangout for a huge selection of gelato.

Enoteca Molesini (Piazza della Repubblica 22, Cortona; molesini-market.com) has been here since 1937 selling Tuscan wines. They also ship and sell from their website.

Papiro (Via Nazionale 8, Cortona) sells gorgeous pens and that swirly Florentine paper in stationery, notes and diaries.

Terrabruga (Via Nazionale 54, Cortona) is famous for its terra cotta, hand-painted in traditional Cortona patterns.

Macelleria Carnevali (Frazione Mercatale) is a well-regarded local butcher shop. Stop in and buy sliced Tuscan prosciutto or finocchiona (soft salami flavored with fennel).

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

An Italian vacation in Tuscany embraces the sweet life 03/31/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 31, 2012 4:30am]

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