traveling and meeting other cultures: ideas, destinations, reviews and tips
Hotel San Michele, Cortona
F or our stay in Cortona, Italy we wanted to pick up something extraordinary, and we decided to stay in palace Baldelli. This palace at number 15 Via Guelfa was named after Baldelli family which owned it in XVI century and is now the site of Hotel San Michele.
The palace is considered to be an "abridged history of Cortona" as it was the site of fortification in the 11th century, then the city residence of Marquis of the Monte Santa Maria in the twelfth century, and in 1200 it became public office, where the podestà administered justice. It passed into the possession of the Baldelli family in the 15th century and was remodelled two times in the 16th century. There were other extensive remodellings, but the palace essentially retains its 1500's appearance which we were curious to explore.
However, before I start writing about the hotel, let me tell you about Cortona. This is a town located on a big, steep hill almost completely surrounded by a huge wall built by Etruscans, civilization of ancient Italy. It has very steep, narrow streets paved with stones. You cannot drive in Cortona: it is prohibited and, anyway, for a driver who has never tried start driving a car up a steep (really steep) hill, it will be frustrating and dangerous experience. Our advice: better does not even try it. If you arrive with a car, you should leave it at the town wall or reach your hotel (it is allowed) with the car (if you dare), and it will be parked for you in a garage till your departure.
The space in Cartona is scarce and practically not existent for parking. The majority of Cortonesians (people of Cortona) does not have garages and park their small cars on streets as close to the walls of the houses as possible and this is a valuable skill in Cortona. Sometimes there is hardly an inch left between a car and the wall. Even Hotel San Michele does not have enough garage space for its clients, and our car used to be parked overnight in different garages all over Cortona when we came back from our trips to other cities of Tuscany.
Via Guelfa where the hotel is located goes from one of the gates in the town wall to Piazza della Repubblica, the center of Cortona, with Palazzo Comunale. Remember - "ding dong, ding dong" in "Under The Tuscan Sun" movie, - clock and bell tower? Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of Cortona with people gathering in groups, laughing, talking, exchanging news, sitting at small tables with their drinks, buying souvenirs in small shops and fruit, wine and vegetables in small markets. You can't say better than in the film "Under The Tuscan Sun" that this is a holiday and everybody is invited.
Hotel San Michele is only few steps from it. Actually, everything is within a walking distance in Cortona. If you want to eat you can find a bunch of good restaurants. Our choice was La Bucaccia. With typical delicious Tuscany food and excellent service it won our hearts. Another restaurant where you can have a good breakfast or lunch is literally two steps from Hotel San Michele. It is restaurant Il Preludio. Osteria del Teatro did not empress us at all, though we read about it in every guide. Food was mediocre, vegetables not fresh, and we were under impression that it was more assembly line dishes and not speciality.
Hotel San Michele massive entrance leads you into a reception room. But don't expect a big hall like in other hotels - it turned out to be a rather small space with glass doors opening into a small inner courtyard. Hotel does not have a bar, and they use this courtyard as a place to offer refreshments in the evenings. Check-in process was fast and the hotel staff was friendly and ready to help. They offered a city map and other necessary information about the town, restaurants and events.
When you get into the depth of the hotel, you understand that it is a real medieval palace which was built and rebuilt perhaps many times. With time it ended up as a rather hectic collection of spaces, buildings, rooms and passages joint together rather randomly without a particular plan or knowledge - everything has the feeling of the passage of time. On the way to your room you pass narrow corridors, furnished with medieval benches and trunks, stairs which lead to nowhere, small windows with wood shutters sitting in a meter thick walls and small halls.
There is also a big one - big like a grand hotel hall with huge fireplace and plaster cornices and decorations on the walls. The hall looks beautiful, but we did not like it - it has no usage. It is on the second floor of the hotel and people simply pass it by. Although ancient appearances of this hall are impressive, don't expect find here even something very simple - no chance to get an espresso, glass of water or wine to sit and sip. One can expect more from 4 star hotel.
We booked a suite (the best accomodation available in the hotel according to the hotel's general manager who promised beautiful views of Tuscany countryside around Cortona. The price for this suite is € 400 per night in 2009 (also the most expensive suite in the Hotel San Michele). The room size was good (approximately 40 sq. m or 430 sq. foot.) And indeed, four big enough windows gave beautiful panoramic view of Tuscany fields, hills and valleys up to the horizon with Lake Trasimeno. Red tile floors, silky curtains, marble fireplace, air conditioning and refrigerator served to the advantage of the room. Unfortunately, lack of a safe box in our room, spots on the floor and carpet, small wardrobe with not closing doors which hardly can sustain three shirts and three dresses took away significantly from the atmosphere of the place.
For example, that small wardrobe (as the only closet space available) drastically transformed the appearance of the room because most of our stuff ended up on a couch and armchairs making our staying inconvenient and our experience less pleasant. We got the same impression about facilities - for example, good sized bathroom but without separate shower and even without shower curtains on the bathtub turned out to be depressing. With the temperatures well above 90 degrees ( 32C and 36C) to be deprived of a good shower seemed not fair.
By the way, Tuscany and, in particular, Cortona do not have enough water to use especially during long and dry summers. This results in poor water pressure in the bathrooms and even small notes on the walls warning you not to throw towels on the floor because they won't be changed. In the bathroom we found only a couple of tiny pieces of soap - we had to buy soap in Cortona. Add to this, no shampoo and conditioner - only some king of washing gel.
Among attractive features of this suite was its big terrace with more than180 degree view with a gazebo in the middle, round table with chairs and a couple of suntan lounges. The terrace can serve equally well for a romantic candlelight dinner (you have to organize it yourself - no room service) or dolce far niente under the Tuscan sun. Absolute quietness of the place during the day and at night was amazing. To sit there at dusk looking at stars, red tile roofs of the town, beautiful valley with the far away lights burning here and there, listening to the fluttering sound of pigeons' wings was relaxing and enjoyable.
Our overall experience with the hotel is mixed. It has both, pluses and minuses: its location in the town is excellent and the building it occupies represents a historic interest. Hotel is clean, and the staff is friendly. However, some facilities and services anybody would expect in a more or less decent hotel clearly turned out to be either missing or in a need of improvement. I would also invite anybody who is considering staying in this hotel to take into account two things. On one hand, we were in the hotel's best suite - what someone can find in lower graded rooms? On the other hand, Cortona is an old medieval town with certain life style and environment. What are the chances that you can find a better place? So, to sum up, if you set your expectation correctly, most likely you will find (as we did) your experience not only acceptable but also quite refreshing.