Umbria's capital dates back to ancient times and is just perfect for a stroll.
"Remember to keep the button pressed.”
The words echo down the stairs towards us as the shapely brown legs disappear from view. We wedge ourselves and our luggage into the tiny elevator and I manage to get my finger on the button for the fourth floor and press it firmly.
Haltingly the ancient machine starts to ascend. We are staying in the mini resort the Fontana Maggiore which is in the centre of Perugia next to the Palazzo dei Piori, the main square in the old town.
Eva, our host for our three- day stay in Perugia, has told us that because the building is above ancient Etruscan ruins, they were unable to install a modern elevator. The one that is there has to be operated and called manually by pressing the button at all times. She didn’t mention how slow it was, nor how jerky the ride.
Finally it stops at the fourth floor and we manage to extricate ourselves from its embrace. The door to our apartment is already open and any thoughts that this may have been a bad idea disappear as soon as we climb the staircase and emerge into the tastefully decorated living room. We are staying in The Pearl room, the topmost of the three apartments available.
The Perugia skyline is visible through the small kitchen window and the French doors which open to the terrace.
What a sight it is, the terracotta colours of the Roman-era buildings a delightful contrast against the blue summer sky. I mumble my thanks as Eva leaves us with the keys and waves a cheerful goodbye.
Left to our own devices we head out onto the terrace and enjoy the view over a Birra Moretti and some nibbles while we decide how to spend the next few days.
We emerge later that evening and find ourselves right in the heart of the historic old town. Not more than 20 paces from the entrance is the restaurant Da Cesarino that has been recommended to us by Eva. We take a table in the packed courtyard setting and look around; the heart of the old town is open in front of us.
On my right is the Palazzo dei Piori, a Gothic palace constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries. To the left is the Cathedral di San Lorenzo, the medieval church completed in the 16th century.
Directly in between the two magnificent edifices is the Fontana Maggiore, a delicate pink and white marble fountain that dominates the Piazza IV Novembre with its bas-relief statues and polygonal structure.
The packed tables surrounding us and the exuberant babble of Italian voices promise that the quality of the food will match that of the setting. Happily we are not disappointed as we feast on that most typical of Umbrian pasta dishes, spaghetti with black truffle. After we complete our meal we join the throng of locals and head to the gelataria, then cup of gelato in hand we take a seat on the steps of the cathedral to people-watch as we consume our delicious dessert.
The old city of Perugia is a walking city, with its location on top of a hill and narrow winding streets. It would probably be more accurate to call it a strolling city. You do not do anything in a hurry here; it is a very relaxed and serene place, anything more than a gentle stroll would seem out of place.
We awaken early the next morning and are greeted with perfect summer weather. We make a short stop at the first cafe we come across to down an espresso and grab a pastry before we begin our day by taking a stroll around the walls of the city.
The Etruscan walls are the innermost of the city’s walls and were built between the fourth and third centuries BC. As you wind your way along these walls you will come to a series of gates, the most famous and impressive of which is the Arco Augusto. This is the largest of the seven gates to the old city, it is orientated to the north, and has two mighty trapezoidal towers rising into the sky.
You can almost hear the wheels of the chariots and the slap of sandalled feet as you march through the gates and make your way up the very steep narrow street into the city.
The reverie of the ancient past is snatched away by the urgent toot of the horn of the Fiat Bambino approaching at a breakneck speed down the street. Thankfully there aren’t many cars on the streets of the old town but you do need to keep your wits about you and be wary of the occasional one being driven with typical Italian exuberance. The lack of constant traffic noise certainly adds to the tranquillity of the walk.
Making our way back to the Piazza IV Novembre (handily for us, all roads in Perugia seem to lead back here) we continue our stroll on to the Corso Vanucci (the main street of the old town) and we head into the National Gallery of Umbria which is located within the Palazzo dei Priori and is entered from the Corso Vanucci.
The gallery is home to the greatest collection of the Umbrian school of painting with artworks ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries. The collections are held in 40 galleries over two floors with works from artists such as Pisano, Bonfigli, and Perugino. A word of warning to the awestruck visitor as you wander the halls, marble floors can be slippery and it is easy to end up on your backside if you are not careful. The crash I made as I landed had several museum employees appear as if from thin air.
Continuing our meanderings through the town, we make our way to the Piazza Italia where as luck would have it the monthly antique and collectibles fair (last weekend of each month) is taking place. A myriad of stalls are placed throughout the Piazza and a pleasant hour or two whisks by as we browse and attempt to decipher enough Italian to come away with some bargains.
After a very enjoyable day and another fine meal we find ourselves at a loss, because the local gelataria is out of our favourite coffee gelato and we go in search of an alternative.
Luckily 11pm on a Sunday evening is not an impediment to socialising in Italy and Perugia is no exception. We find ourselves sitting with the crowd at the B&B Caffe bar & bistro watching the TV which has been set up in front of the main window showing the local calcio (soccer) team Perugia FC, which plays in the Serie B league. They are losing 1-0 as the waiter brings us our coffee gelato when a shot flies into the top corner of the net, 1-1. The crowd erupts and I leap to my feet alongside them, Forza Perugia we chant.
Go Perugia indeed.
Top picture: Pretty Perugia by Alex Biasin
Perugina Chocolate Factory
For those with a sweet tooth the Perugina chocolate factory and museum would be a destination not to be missed. Perugina, perhaps most widely known for Bacci chocolates, is now owned by Nestle. The museum gives an insight into the history of Perugina and how its range of chocolates was developed. Included in the tour is a viewing of the current workings of the factory.
You can watch the workers as they go about the interesting process of making the chocolates. You will need to phone ahead to reserve a spot on the English-language 1¼ hour guided tour.
For those that are a bit more adventurous and not afraid of getting their hands dirty, you can join one of the three to four-hour chocolate-making workshops which are held on Saturdays. Check the website for details.
Go to baciperugina.com/us/en/perugina-school-of- chocolate-514.
- Perugia is a 90-minute train trip from Rome, with trains departing daily from the Grand Central Termani. The Trenitalia website has details and can be used to buy tickets in advance. Trenitalia
- Fontana Maggiore has three apartments in the centre of the old town. Bookings are by email, see Fontana Maggiore.
You may also like
One hell of a trip
Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago. What can his great poem The Divine Comedy still teach us about travel? WILL YEOMAN investigates
Toga party in Tarragona
It’s a gorgeous vision; one that is lodged in the memory and resurfaces from time to time, when I’m daydreaming about those heady, optimistic days of overseas travel.
Not so trapezey
Gorilla Circus not for the faint-hearted, finds RONAN O'CONNELL