Suzy and I are from Washington, DC, a town that calls itself “a capital city.” A half hour’s drive from our Italian villa lies the ancient city of Perugia, the capital of the region of Umbria. Like Washington, DC, Perugia is a capital city. But after visiting it dozens of times, it is clear that Perugia is much, much more.
It is the height of folly to attempt to write about Perugia, to use words to describe a place that is at once tangible and concrete yet even more a place of the spirit. One can walk the ancient streets of Perugia and look at the buildings, but it is a town that needs to be experienced, to be felt, in order to be fully appreciated.
Built on a commanding hilltop by the Umbrians and transformed over two thousand years ago into one of the most important city states in the Etruscan federation, Perugia has flourished and occupied a place of importance in a number of ages. Recognizing its strategic importance, the Romans began cozying up with this independent state and not so much conquered it as co-opted it, renaming it Perusia. Today reminders of both the Etruscan and Roman past can be seen all around the town, from the enormous Etruscan walls and city gate to the remains of Roman roads. But despite these ancient roots, Perugia is clearly a medieval and Renaissance town.
Visually, Perugia is stunning. As you approach it from below, it seems to spill from the hilltop, buildings tumbling over other buildings, dripping down the hill like a scene from a medieval Salvador Dali painting. This sense is confirmed when you walk its streets. Houses seem to have been built on top of houses, oozing under the weight of gravity, like the drippings of a sandcastle built from wet sand at the beach. Narrow, twisting streets and alleyways are mostly covered by bridges, buttresses and passageways that connect the houses above, obscuring the sun and giving the streets an eerie darkness that matches their quiet. Urban planning was clearly not a centralized affair here.
This is an important university town, housing several world class faculties, including the Univerista per Stranieri, a school of languages that attracts foreign students from all over the world. The youth and the diversity that this lends the city is palpable, especially around the stairs leading to the city’s cathedral, which is most often jammed with students enjoying a beer, a smoke and a good conversation.
In front of the cathedral, which houses what is said to be the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, is an immense public fountain, one of the most important fountains of medieval times. Perugini engineers apparently figured out how to bring water through the aqueducts left behind by the Romans and celebrated this feat by building this enormous fountain. The outside is carved with ancient calendars and scenes of various saints. The fountain today remains an emblem of the city.
The fountain and cathedral lie at the end of the Corso Vannucci, a long pedestrian street flanked on either side by important municipal buildings, shops, restaurants and hotels. It is the spiritual center of the city from which most everything else radiates.
Being perched on a steep hill and with its main artery closed to traffic, driving to Perugia is not so much a challenge as an impossibility. At least for the uninitiated. This is a city where a GPS is a must. To visit the town you must park in one of the many municipal parking garages that ring the main center and make your way uphill to the center. Our favorite is the parking lot Mercato Coperto, the “covered market” parking lot that is below a – you guessed it – covered market that is literally suspended over the valley below. Once you park and pay, you jam into one of two impossibly small, terrifyingly rickety elevators that rise so slowly you cannot tell if they are working, and then announce that they have arrived at their destination by an abrupt shaking followed by a long delay before the door opens. During that pause all passengers hold their breath. A ride like that makes you appreciate even more the beauty that awaits you when you emerge onto the roof of the covered market, with its breathtaking panoramic view across the Umbrian valley and then again when you arrive in the historic center.
Another favorite approach to the center is from the parking area called Piazza Partigiani, near the bus station and the arena Santa Giuliana (where the Umbria Jazz main stage is located). When you arrive at Partigiani, you cross the street and are directed to the scala mobile, a set of subterranean escalators that take you through the bowels of Perugia into the Rocca Paolina. The Rocca, a fortress erected by Pope Paul in the 1500s is one of the marvels of Perugia. Today the garrison no longer exists, but underneath that site, where the scala mobile deposits you, are the foundations of the old fortress. The Pope built this garrison to maintain order over the city he had just conquered, payback for Perugia’s refusal to pay a tax on salt, an important commodity in Italy at that time and a principal source of papal wealth. To send a stronger message, though, he demolished the tops of the residences – dozens of enormous towers – of the aristocratic families that lived in that neighborhood, and used the towers’ foundations to serve as the foundation of his fortress. What remained below the garrison and can be seen today are the original streets as they existed at the time of the occupation. The underground passageway of streets and entrances to houses that were abandoned over 500 years ago is absolutely unique and contributes to the aura of mystique that suffuses this city.
Back above ground, however, Perugia is very much a living city. And as host to several important festivals each year it is a magnet for people living in the present.
Our favorite festival is Umbria Jazz, one of Europe’s premier jazz festivals that has been taking place for more than 35 years in Perugia each summer during the first half of July. We have been regulars at UJ for the past four years, organizing a group of our friends to see such headliners as Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, B.B. King, Gilberto Gil, Sergio Mendez and Sonny Rollins. Each night for ten nights international superstars perform outdoors at the Santa Giuliana arena, while dozens of others are featured in the city’s smaller theatres, auditoriums and hotels. Street bands play wherever there is a free corner and two enormous outdoors stages, one on either end of the Corso Vannucci, are set up for free concerts as well. For ten days it is a town that is crazy for jazz.
Chocolate is another Perugina craze. Literally. The famous Italian confectioner Perugina was established here at the turn of the last century and today, just a few kilometers away in the Peruginian suburbs an enormous factory churns out Bacci and other Perugina treats. In addition to tours of the factory, it is possible to sign up for a two hour chocolate making class at Perugina’s Scuola di Cioccolato, something we have done several times. It is fun and educational, and at the end of the class you walk out with your own homemade chocolate.
Capitalizing on its importance as a chocolate town, Perugia annually hosts an international Eurochocolate festival during which the Corso Vannucci is lined with booths exhibiting chocolates from the best manufacturers throughout Europe. The main street is literally choked with visitors seeking free samples and interesting new, and delicious, products. While Eurochocolate seems to have become less unique in the past few years, it is still a must for chocoholics.
And what review of a city would be complete without mentioning restaurants? Perugia is, indeed, a great place to eat. Two of our favorites are Osteria del Ghiottone, which literally means the osteria or restaurant of the glutton (with our picture on the menu) and the pizzeria Mediterraneo. The former is a wonderful example of typical Umbrian foods, served in a very nice atmosphere and with a great deal of attention paid to authenticity. The latter is about the best pizza we have ever eaten, served in two small rooms by a pizzaiolo who cranks them out in three or four minutes. Just around the corner from Mediterraneo is a wonderful enoteca called la Bottega del Vino, where you can get some excellent local (as well as other Italian) wines by the glass and enjoy some good jazz music.
Perugia. One of Umbria’s musts. A visit to Perugia is a capital idea because, after all, Perugia is a capital city.