Famed Tuscan Sun Shines on Cortona; Arts Flourish in Hill Town Once Home to Etruscans

Article excerpt

Byline: Octavio Roca, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

CORTONA, Italy - This hilltop city, the home of the Tuscan Sun Festival, is one of the loveliest places on earth. Less crowded than most cities by Tuscan standards, and sublime by any measure, it claims to be "the mother of Troy and the grandmother of Rome," a nearly hidden city of art and a giddy cauldron of life.

It is a place of spiritual respite from the usual tourist mobs, but also an ideal place to discover or rediscover nature's blessings on Tuscany and the Tuscans' blessings on the world.

The town looks like a fortress and sits on a spur of Mount Sant'Egidio at an elevation of 2,200 feet, overlooking the patchwork of vineyards and flowers of the vast Val de Chiana. At the hilly edges, not just atop the imposing Medici Fortress, the views are breathtaking: The mountains of Siena, the Amiata and the Cetona, appear like open arms offering the immense expanse of Lake Trasimeno.

Cortona's medieval walls are built on fortifications that were erected by the Etruscans millenniums ago. Myth and history mingle. Virgil credited Cortona's foundation to the legendary Dardanus, and visible evidence is hard to ignore even today of what must have been an already impressive ancient Umbrian fortress before it became a landmark of Etruscan civilization in the eighth century B.C.

It subsequently, of course, became Roman, flourishing later still during the time of the Rabieri-Casali, sold to the Florentines in A.D. 1411, then jealously hidden for centuries as the rest of Tuscany became a center of pilgrimage for lovers of art, for lovers of wine, for lovers of the well-known splendors of the Tuscan sun.

Some of those lovers have kissed and told, but we should be thankful for their indiscretions. They are each other's friends, as it turns out. Frances Mayes created a best-seller, a movie and a cult with her love letter to her adopted hometown of Cortona, "Under the Tuscan Sun," which can be found in several languages not just in airports everywhere but, handily, in Cortona's little bookshops.

Her neighbors, the cellist Nina Kotova and her husband, Barrett Wissman, a powerful arts impresario whose own musical studies were completed in nearby Siena, came together with Mrs. Mayes and her husband, Ed, to found the Tuscan Sun Festival. They turned it overnight into one of Europe's most prestigious and exclusive arts events. It is also, like Cortona, unique.

The Tuscan Sun Festival (Aug. 5 through 21, www.tuscansunfestival.com) is an intimate feast for the five senses, offering up not only an embarrassment of musical riches, but also food for thought and just plain delicious food. Internationally celebrated chefs gather here for culinary demonstrations and vie for time on the daytime schedule with lectures on everything from Plato and Dante to classical ballet and film.

For the 2005 edition of the festival, soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, play orchestral concerts alongside the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra of Milan. Outdoor concerts on the Piazza Signorelli are the musical bookends for the festivities; they promise Beethoven's Ninth rubbing shoulders with the cutting-edge Cuban salsa sounds of the exile band Tiempo Libre.

The chamber and vocal recitals are starry affairs, and small receptions with artists such as the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the pianist Lang Lang and the violinist Midori - as well as with artistic director and cellist Kotova - alternate with pampering sessions at Ponteverde, one of Tuscany's premier spas.

Contemporary art exhibits, including works commissioned for the festival, emerge alongside the centuries-old treasures that are Cortona's everyday marvels. The Cortona Wines Consortium is hosting a wine festival at the hilltop Fortalezza Girifalco. All this and time for breezy naps, too.

"We are creating a multifaceted, multisensory event that unites the world's best classical music with intimate experiences of the pleasures of life in Tuscany," Mr. …