Smithsonian Journeys

January 12th, 2016

Two blogs back, I mentioned that I had a great time exploring the Venetian lagoon last summer while writing for Smithsonian Journeys. My article is in the winter issue, in the very good company of Robert Draper, Donald Sutherland, Jack Turner, Nan McElroy and others who love the non-touristy, cultural side of this most enchanting of cities.  Do check out this magazine–it’s different. It’s conceived exactly for readers of See You in the Piazza–the curious, hungry, literate traveler. The first issue focused on Paris. Coming up, I’m excited to read the issue on India!

Here’s the site:

Out in the lagoon:

Browse all articles from January 2016

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39 Responses to “Smithsonian Journeys”

  1. Jackie Smith says:

    Hopefully we can find it on a newsstand somewhere. Looks like our kind of magazine; our kind of travel.

  2. Margaret Mullins says:

    Frances, Loved this magazine. It was a Christmas gift– found at Barnes& Noble. Your article was very revealing. Have visited Venice several times but never the islands in the lagoon.. Torcello is now a must -see.. Burano has always been on the list– thanks to Katherine Hepburn & Rossano Brazzi in “Summertime.” Do they still make lace there? Thanks for a wonderful article! !

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Margaret, I didn’t see evidence of the traditional lace making. Maybe no call for it anymore? It’s still a lovely riot of color, tiny lanes, bridges, and water, water.Go! Frances

  3. Margaret Montepulciano says:

    hi Frances,

    Talking of “non-touristy” and the “cultural side of places”, I read an interview with you in The Florentine today in which you are quoted as saying (Cortona) was “sombre and quiet 25 years ago …. most of the change has been for the good”. Yet you later state you love being in Cortona in winter “as it’s like it used to be”. There’s a contradiction there, surely? I enjoyed your original memoir Under the Tuscan Sun hugely and rate it as the best of its genre alongside Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence but having known Cortona as long as you have, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the popularity of the book, and even more so the film of the same title, has had a negative impact on this previously very charming Città d’Arte. Today, on a typical summer’s morning when the narrow lanes are heaving with foreign visitors to the point of gridlock, the Diocesan Museum will remain empty as tourists discuss instead how best to reach Bramasole. For that’s what they come to see, not Fra Angelico or the Signorelli’s or Etruscan artefacts. There may be some nicer shops (albeit at the expense of those servicing local people), there may be a better choice of places to eat but even during a recent December visit it was clear to me that the main corso in Cortona has now reached saturation point with caffes and bars, burger joints and ice cream parlours. And personally I believe that’s a great shame.

    • Scott says:

      I have been to Cortona twice–the first time a bit of serendipity because, although I’d read “Under the Tuscan Sun,” my thought had been to visit Tuscany and not necessarily Cortona. We were fortunate enough to find the perfect place to stay (and returned there for our second trip in November/December 2014). We will be returning there again for three weeks in October 2016 and now, especially, after two visits there, we feel like the returning warriors coming home. Our friends (who own the villa we rent) make us feel like family. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

      It very quietly brought home the point Frances Mayes made in her books and I encountered a kindness, a joy of life, and the feeling of being sincerely welcomed (and not just because of my tourist dollars, although I believe they certainly help the local economy) that I don’t think I’ve encountered any where else. To be exposed to kindness and hospitality in its purest form is not something to minimize!

      I’m sure Cortona has changed–but so have so many places right here in the United States–because change comes with time. Recognizing that change and savoring what you have is a very special part of knowing Cortona (and I don’t pretend to “know” Cortona–but I think of it as a warm, familiar place that makes me feel good when I’m there).

      I have not been there in summer since, after many years of traveling during the summer due to a school teacher’s schedule, we relish traveling in the off-seasons of fall and spring (and even the winter, which was lovely there) but have been told that the tourists do seem to be every where. I suppose that is true of so many places!

      Not every tourist is a brash traveler, camera and map in hand, while looking for the next gellato stand. I think it’s important to remember that there is something new around every corner and the smart person recognizes the beauty of what he/she is seeing. That’s what Cortona means to me and why I’m so grateful to have found it; first in Frances Mayes’ wonderful books and then in person. It made the world seem a little smaller and friendlier (especially appreciated during the election process here in the United States!) and that’s a good thing, don’t you think?

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Scott, yes! A most excellent thing. So glad you revel in the special atmosphere of Cortona. Oh, yes–many tourists in summer. We avoid Venice especially then. Now the Chinese are on the move and they are enamored of Italy. Off-season is always best! I’ll be back in Cortona soon and am so looking forward to greeting la primavera there! Happy travels, Frances

  4. Michael Stambaugh says:

    Congratulations, Frances! Another intriguing and revealing article on one of my favorite places in Italy . . . as is Cortona.

  5. Elisa says:

    uscirà anche in Italia ( o in Brasile ) Under Magnolia? grazie.

  6. Andrea Ashmead says:

    I always check your site before traveling to Italy just for updates and of course fabulous restaurant finds. I was delighted to find this Smithsonian publication on Barnes and Nobles’ shelves. Donald Sutherland’s piece was so eloquent. I had no idea he was such a talented writer. Naturally your article was fantastic as well and I learned so much about an off-the-beaten-path area that unfortunately I won’t have time to visit this trip but was just now in the process of researching anyway. Thanks for all the travel tips. I, for one, really rely on them.

  7. Elisa says:

    il tuo ultimo libro uscito in Brsile “Todos os dias na Toscana” è veramente stupendo!
    Sei brava, molto brava. Leggerlo mi ha fatto un bene dell´anima.
    grazie a te, Frances.

  8. Dyanne says:

    Dear France’s,

    I guess there is some truth in Margaret’s reply but if not for the movie myself and many others we would of never heard of the beautiful town in Italy that is Cortona. I have been there once many years ago and hope to return someday! I met you a couple of years ago in Norfolk, Virginia and enjoyed so much meeting you and Ed. I have all of your books and go thru them often. Maybe some day you will come thru here again.

    Thank you….

  9. Katherine says:

    Does the Tuscan Sun Festival still happen every year? I checked the website but it doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2012?

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Katherine, no, very sadly, it’s over. We had a wonderful ten year run but the finances caught up. I miss it! Frances

  10. Kristiina says:

    I have been travelling to Cortona about 15 years. Seen Rugapiana developing, old business, new business. Light green athmosphere in Spring, crowds and funny buzzing in Summer, still days in Wintertime. Still very much in love with my favorite hill town in Tuscany. Cannot think why it should not develop in time..

  11. Sandra says:

    Dear Frances,

    thanks for sharing this! I bought the magazine and enjoyed a very good read. Also, your interview in the Florentine was a pleasure. Is it true, you’re writing t h r e e books all at once? Such good news. I thought I’d ask you how a typical writing day looks like for you although I have a feeling there’s no such as a typical day. But as someone who is currently writing an ebook about marketing I’d love to know how you go about a writing project. Do you have certain times, do you dedicate full days and even weeks to one project in your study or do you split it up in hundreds of little mini sessions? I’m always tied to my desk for weeks once I get to work. I love the focus, but of course it can feel lonesome after a while, too.

    Sending you warm wishes from my London desk,

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Sandra, you’re right–no typical day. I admire those organized writers. 9-1, lunch, 3-5, much accomplished. But years ago in Italy, I started writing when I wanted to. It has gone well for me not to impose rigorous demands.I leave plenty of time to do what I want and oddly enough that’s what seems to fuel inspiration. Best luck, Frances

  12. RiccardoDeMedici says:

    I always think of Venezia as described by Thomas Mann – as “half fairy tale and half tourist trap.” It has been my experience that it seems to be impossible to encounter one without the other. The back calle are wonderful for escaping much of the undesirable, but they lack those cinemascopic views of Canaletto and provide another kind. They are not bad – they are different. They take you away and provide something else that most never experience. But it is always difficult to leave feeling you have not seen the world of Canaletto – those sweeping fairy tale views that have formed what Venezia is in our minds. But those lovely views in the narrow calle of reflected sun, a cat sunning itself upside down, the light on a shutter or a geranium, a fabulous campo or listening to an Italian voice that echoes between the walls and creates something lyrical with language… It’s all Venezia and part of the experience and can be intoxicating. I suppose being inebriated by Venezia is better than being sober. There is nothing quite like being pie-eyed by culture… At least, I haven’t found a substitute yet!

    I look forward to finding this edition of “Smithsonian Journeys.” Thank you for the alert!

  13. RikiD says:

    “Alligator Patch” is not exactly the literary capital of the world. It’s difficult to find things at our “One Stop” where we buy gas, Moon Pies and Nehis… There, TV Guides, from as much as a year ago, seem to sit in their wire holder and go unpurchased. But with luck, I found “Smithsonian Journeys” on Amazon – right here in my own home. So people who are interested, or just too plain lazy to get out and look, can find that issue easily. I suspect that the mailman will be toting it to the door, curious to know what’s in the brown wrapper…

    I am glad I found it!!! I cannot be so sure about the mailman…

  14. Patricia says:

    Hello Frances Mayes~I have read all your delightful books, many times. I find so much joy in your writing. One of my favorite lines is “I walked down to town, bought a white cotton dress, navy linen blouse and pants, pink nail polish, expensive body lotion, a great bottle of wine” (paraphrase) when the men were driving you crazy. I loved that! I am a patron of Saint Anthony of Padua and wish to visit his shrine. I do not speak Italian, am a recently divorced woman of 60, and I would wish to ask your advice on making a pilgrimage to Padua. BTW, I was thrilled to read you are the Writer In Residence for Victoria Magazine. “The path to the playhouse-take it”. Loved it! Any suggestions for my wish trip would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Patricia Barnes

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Patricia, Will just say that Padua is a great destination because of Giotto’s paintings–as well as for Saint Anthony! And you’re so near Venice. Do take a few days there. I have always wanted to take the Brenta canal trip to see the Palladio villas. Have a grand trip!

  15. Yvonne Wilson says:

    Having read Margarets text and Scotts response, I felt the need to just add my “two cents.” I love Cortona as though I was born and raised there. Whenever I get the chance to head back I feel a sense of returning home. Thanks to “Under The Tuscan Sun” I made a quick trip to just see what it was all about many years ago. Since then we have returned just about every year for a minimum of a month at a time. When we go there we feel that we are reconnecting with family rather than vendors. Their joy at our return is valid and true, the feeling that we are not just a dollar sign is real. I do understand when Frances says that she believes that the books and movie have helped the town while at the same time she relishes in the “old” Cortona during the winter. I have experienced the same emotions myself firsthand. You can stand back and see the wonders of what Cortona has become today while relishing what was. That is what makes going at different times of the year so exciting. We all hanker to find heaven on earth, which is why the crowds flock to Cortona. But when the tour buses have left, when the summer crowds have gone back to regular life, then you can enjoy the true Cortona in its glory, but more so because it has been able to survive because of the attention that was focused on it from the books and movie. I can’t wait to head back again this fall to visit the people we have discovered and learned to love, thank you Frances!

    • Scott says:

      Yes–a giant ‘thank you’ to Frances for the joy she has shared with us in her books! I have them loaded on my kindle and enjoy them when I travel–kind of like a cozy security blanket to keep me warm, simple and comforting and, thankfully, a familiar joy. I’ll also be returning to Cortona in the fall and, in my sleeplessness, I sometimes walk the piazza and remember the joy of that first espresso in the morning (with a cornetti, of course!) and the thrill of knowing that I’ll be there again soon.

  16. RiccardoDeMedici says:


    FYI! I found a photo on the net advertising a show of Etruscan works being shown in Cortona. It seems the show is centered around writing. I tried to include the picture here but I am unable to do so. But the caption reads:

    CORTONA.- A picture shows a sculpture from the Etruscan era on March 18, 2016 at the Etruscan Academy Museum of Cortona during a press preview of the show “The Etruscans, masters of writing: society and culture in ancient Italy”. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

    It may interest you. It does me!!! I will keep looking for a catalogue online…


    • Frances Mayes says:

      Thank you Riccardo, We just arrived and I am very much looking forward to this show. There’s something about the writing that really seems intimate. Will you see it? Frances

  17. RiccardoDeMedici says:


    The article I read was on They only keep article for a day or so. In tthe photo the Etruscan figure was holding what appeared to be a codex – but must have been wax tablets fastened together. But who knows! Those Etruscans never cease to amaze!!! I continue to look for the catalogue. But I have not been fortunate to find one. I have tried the museum site, but it does not have much. I fear it is one of those lovely things that will not add much to my life as I will be unable to see it. I feel certain there is a wealth of information there… I will just have to dream about it and make sure other people see it! I am pleased for you that it is in your own “hometown”! R.

  18. Denise W. says:

    Hello Frances:

    I am so excited to be returning to Italy, and specifically to Venice and Cortona, this coming September. I was in both places back in the Summer of 2015, and it was hot and crowded. Now, I am finally able to visit during a cooler and quieter time of the year. I befriended the woman whose apartment we stayed at in Rome, and she has generously asked us to be her guest at her apartment, as well as her home in Venice, when we return. Venice was so hot and crowded when we were there last that I want to give it another try, in the fall, with less people, and with a plan to visit places we didn’t see on our previous visit. We are also staying in Cortona for eleven days, and I am excited to be there when there will be less people and more time to explore the town.

    We did see Bramasole (I can’t believe that I am writing this to the person who owns that iconic and beautiful villa) when we were last in Cortona, and I just stood on the street, looking up at it and smiling. I am grateful that I have your books to read and re-read, about your experiences at Bramasole and in Cortona. I can only imagine how it must feel to have so many people make pilgrimages to your private home, but as with so many other readers, your books brought a far-away place closer to me, and as a result, I love Italy, and especially the hill towns, all the more for it.

    Thanks for giving the world your books. They truly are as comforting as they are informative. I wish I had been a student of yours while you were teaching at San Francisco State. I am a long time Bay Area resident, and I would have loved having a class with you as my teacher!

    Very sincerely,


  19. Engla says:

    4/4 Buon Compleanno !

  20. Helen Swindlehurst says:

    We also love Venice and as well as having been there with crowds of others we have also been in February when it was quiet and no queues for vaporetti and we were able to sit out in the sun for a drink every afternoon.
    I have read your books about your life in Cortona and read Under the Tuscan Sun so much there are pages falling out. We are just in the process of buying our own very modest bit of Umbrian sun overlooking Lago Montepulciano and will be getting the keys in 3 weeks. We are very excited as this is a long held dream. Your books will be coming with us and I intend to try some of the recipes after going to the market to buy fresh local produce and wandering the local wineries to buy our supplies. We have visited Cortona a couple of times but now will be able to visit regularly. We are lucky to have retired relatively early and intend to be mezzo e mezzo in Italy and UK.
    Thankyou for all your inspiring books which will be coffee table reading in our new Italian home.

  21. Judy da Atlanta says:

    Frances, Congratulations to you and Ed for winning a gold medal at the New York Olive Oil competition. I have purchased your oil and can vouch for its’ wonderful taste. In Cortona for a month and hope to “see you in the piazza”.

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Thank you, Judy–The oil is great this year. We were pleased but not surprised. Have fun in Cortona. We are just departing and hate to leave. Frances

  22. Scott says:

    Hello, Frances: It’s a beautiful day here in New Jersey and makes me think Spring is here to stay for a while.

    We have made all of our travel plans for the fall and I wondered if you’re going to be in Cortona during October? (We will be staying beneath Ivan and family again for three weeks, soaking up their joy and happily seated around their dinner table!) It would be wonderful to ‘see you in the Piazza’! Best regards: Scott

  23. Judith says:

    Dear Francis. I cannot begin to express your absolute love and magical way you describe Italy especially Tuscany valley. My first experience was in 2015 because of the loss of my beautiful daughter after age 44. I had never flown and had no intentions of ever doing do. My daughter passed Nov 2014 my husband was so sad I had to do something to give us a little happiness. Well one day I said to him were going to Italy

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Judith, What an awful, awful loss. I am so sorry. Nice to hear that Italy provided distraction. Best, Frances

  24. Judith says:

    I’m sorry I must have saved the first part. Well I decided to go to Greve in Tuscany Valley. When we arrived and stood on top of the hill where our villa was located we looked at each other and said this is heaven so magestic we both cried. Our time of 2 weeks were the best life would ever offer us to feel some peace. When we arrived home I happen to watch cityline and Marilyn Denis was in Tuscany with Debbie Travis and she surprised her with having lunch with you. Oh after the show I wanted to know all about you and that’s when I discovered your love for Italy and its beautiful people. I have since read your books and Everytime felt I am experiencing this magestic land with you. I am returning to Tuscany for the month of September and I am bringing my youngest daughter and my granddaughter. I want them to have the same breathtaking experience we did. Thank you so much for giving the world you love for Italy. Judith

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Thanks, Judith, I’m glad to hear that Tuscany could help a little with such an unbearable loss. Hope you have and even better time in September! Frances

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