As everyone who has been following us on Facebook will know, our visit to Perugia is now some weeks behind us (I am in fact writing this in Naples), but my tidy mind is nagging me to write something about our visit before it will allow me to cover more recent events. And fair enough – Perugia deserves some space of its own.
We arrived there by train from Spoleto, encumbered as usual by our baggage; though we are travelling fairly light for a full year’s trip, it’s still quite an effort to lug two big bags, plus a backpack each, plus sundry smaller shoulder bags, on and off trains and around cobbled streets. It was something of a relief, therefore, to discover the first of Perugia’s charms, an excellent system called, rather prosaically, the Minimetro. This consists of a simple double track along which small, driverless carriages, each reputed to hold up to 20 people, whizz past every few minutes, taking passengers from the railway station through a steeply-inclined tunnel to the centre of the city, some 480 metres above sea level. Having left behind the fairly prosaic surroundings of the station, planted as it is in the middle of the new town, the first thing you see when you emerge from the station is a marvellous vista across the Tiber valley, the city of Assisi clearly visible on the slopes opposite.
Perugia, on its long ridge separating two wide valleys, seems literally to float above the landscape. The geography of the old city itself is pretty simple – two long streets more or less, that widen into generous piazze at various points, from which a network of narrow lanes meander down the sides of the ridge. The buildings are tall and handsome, and for the most part you can wander among them and be completely unaware of the city’s splendid site – until you walk around a corner, or come to the end of the ridge, and suddenly a glorious panorama opens up, the breeze washes across you, and you can do nothing other than stand and drink in the spectacle. We have been in a number of hill towns on this journey, and in each case we have had something of the same sensation, but nowhere is the vista as splendid and as unexpected as it is in Perugia.
Speaking of the unexpected, one thing we did not plan for was the Umbrian Jazz Festival, which started the day after we arrived, and concluded the day that we left. Not being jazz people, we were sublimely ignorant of this event, which is actually massive. A big stage had been erected in the Piazza IV November, the city’s largest square, and there were three or four other performance spaces placed at various strategic points throughout the city. Between these formal spaces and the various impromptu performances that popped up in between, the whole city was well and truly taken over by the festival and the happy crowds of jazz-lovers. Now this is the one musical form that neither Robert or I have ever really taken to – hence our ignorance of the whole event – and so we were probably not in a position to really appreciate or participate in its finer moments. But it was fun to drop in to the occasional concert, and the presence of the crowds of enthusiasts certainly gave the city an extra buzz.
Our cute little two-room apartment was located at the southern end of Perugia’s ridge, just a few steps from the piazza that anchors that end of town, the Piazza Italia. Unlike the rest of the centro storico, which is medieval and renaissance in character, this piazza is a beautiful little square surrounded by Liberty-era buildings, that graceful late 19th century style that was popular after the unification of Italy in the 1870’s. Architecturally, it is an anomaly, the reason for which became apparent with a little research. The area surrounding the Piazza Italia is called the Rocca Paolina; rocca is a common Italian term for a fortress, and though there are enormous bastions still visible surrounding this end of the city, there was no sign of a castle as such.
A chance trip down a small escalator in a corner of the piazza unravelled the mystery. At the bottom, we emerged into a rather cavernous space that looked like an arched tunnel, perhaps 30 feet high, leading down into the rock below. On each side there was a network of further tunnels and larger open spaces that have been deployed as display areas on one sort or another, in one of which we came across a series of models and drawings that explained what had happened. Originally this site was indeed a powerful fortress, but shortly after the risorgimento, the decision was made to raze the building down to the level of the surrounding streets, and then create, in honour of Italian independence, the Piazza Italia. That explained the uniformity of the piazza’s architecture, but what was even more extraordinary was the realisation that the “tunnels” that we had been walking through were in fact the original medieval streets, which had simply been bricked over when the original fortress was built! The mind boggles at the sheer scale of both the building of the Rocca and its demolition. Today, these rather extraordinary spaces are used by the Peruginos to move between the upper and lower parts of the city, utilising a network of escalators that connect the two, with barely a glance at their surroundings.
We had intended to use Perugia as a base from which to explore all of the other hill towns of Umbria, and we did do a little of that, but the city itself was so beguiling that we found ourselves reluctant to leave, spending our days wandering in and out of museums and exhibitions, dropping in on the odd jazz concert, and on more than one occasion just hanging out having a drink and an aperitivo while admiring the view across the valley as dusk crept in and the lights of the other towns across the valley began to twinkle.
Fortunately we had our friends Jack and Anne to coax us out of our slothfulness. They have been having a parallel journey through Italy, though of shorter duration and going from south to north, and so we met up with them for a visit to Cortona, a pretty little hill town probably most famous (at least recently) as the setting for Frances Mayes’ book and film, Under the Tuscan Sun. Since this was the first time we have met up with anyone from Australia since Florence, it has to be said that our focus was probably more firmly fixed on finding a nice place for lunch than in exploring the sights of the city!
Our other excursion – again to meet Jack and Anne – was to Arezzo. The Lonely Planet guide says that the city “may not be a Tuscan centrefold”, though “those parts of the historic centre that survived merciless WWII bombings are as compelling as any destination in the region”. That somewhat tepid description had caused me to put Arezzo in a sort of second-order list of places to visit, which just goes to show that sometimes guide books are completely wrong, because Arezzo turned out to be completely charming. It is also home to one of the greatest works of Italian art, the Bacci Chapel in the Basilica di San Francesco, where Piero della Francesca painted a fresco cycle depicting the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The frescoes are luminous, incredibly bright and well preserved, and an outstanding example of the use of frescoes as a means of telling a religious story. Oh, and film buffs might be reminded of a scene from Anthony Minghella’s film The English Patient, in which Juliette Binoche views the frescoes by the light of a flare.
After all that culture, of course we had to have another long lunch, this time at a very charming restaurant on the loggia overlooking the town’s central Piazza Grande.
So that was our sojourn in Perugia and its surrounds. From there, we were heading southwards, into another world …