When we started having children, a dear friend began giving us beautiful Christmas Village houses every year to collect and someday pass on to the children. Every year, as we would unpack the village, one building at a time, we would imagine what it would be like to live in such a place. We would place the ceramic characters carefully, connect the cobblestone paths, and talk about what the crunch of the snow sounded like on Christmas Eve. When it was set up perfectly, we would turn out the lights and the amber glow would pour from the windows and lanterns casting an ethereal radiance on our season.
As we prepared for this journey, there was no room for the Christmas village in our suitcases. We talked about how we would have to come up with some new traditions while we were away. As we drove up the winding Tuscan lane to the little and stately hilltop village of Cortona, the kids exclaimed “It looks exactly like our Christmas village! We are going to live in our Christmas village!” We were all beside ourselves as we explored the village and found our favorite Christmas Village businesses complete with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Cortona is astonishing. It is bathed in fiery Tuscan light and rooted in generations of Italian families with a generous mix of monks, students, and expats to keep things bustling. There is a fine air in the perfectly presented shops but there is no pretense. There are famous works of art in very accessible, yet proud museums and piazzas, that have pulse rain or shine. The movies Life is Beautiful and Under the Tuscan Sun were filmed in Cortona.
Although Cortona has every reason to be “touristy” in its offerings, it has remained artisan and grounded. Less than 2,000 people live within the partially Etruscan walls that date back to the 4th Century B.C. The Cortonese love to say: “Cortona è la mamma di Troia e la nonna di Roma,” that is, “ Cortona is the mother of Troy and the grandmother of Rome.”
So far, we have been in thirteen churches in Cortona. Some of them have ancient foundations from pagan temples that support awe-inspiring examples of Renaissance or Byzantine architecture. Although the architecture varies dramatically, there is one constant when we stand before these many churches. When we are lucky enough to be near a church as the bells begin to swing, we can hear them rocking in an ancient dance and they prepare to sing. For just a moment, after the bell tolls, the rocking can be heard again, until stillness overcomes them.
As our footsteps crunch along a pea gravel path and we watch the sunset over the Tuscan valley and hill towns, we know we have imagined our way right inside our own piccolo villaggio di natale.