Perugia, capital of the region of Umbria, is located midway between Lago di Trasimeno and Assisi. We arrived in Perugia on October 17, in the middle of the 2017 Eurochocolate Festival, after a two and a half hour drive from the Rome airport. Our hotel, Sina Brufani, had instructed us to park in their garage off the Via Indipendenza. Took us a while to find it since they’d given us the wrong address, but when we did, it was like driving into the side of a mountain or fortress through a narrow wooden portal into a cavernous stone parcheggio. This was a preview of the monumental structures we would find exploring Perugia.
The hotel, which we later heard was once quite expensive, cost a reasonable 130 euros per night, and had everything a guest could want– robes, slippers, lighted closet and iron, mini bar and fridge, safe, nice toiletries, 2 sinks, large tub and reasonable shower, thick towels, a magnifying mirror and a tie rack with space for 21 ties! The small pool in the hotel spa has a glass bottom through which one can see Etruscan ruins. It is situated right in the centro with its own little piazza and a nearby balustrade overlooking splendid views of Umbria.
We used The New York Times 36 Hours series from 2017 and 2011 to help us decide what we should see in our short two-day stay. We took a stroll around the city after settling into our hotel and were charmed by Perugia’s beautiful random pattern of bridges and arches, streets and pathways that give the city a rich, interesting texture that beckons exploration. At The Times’ suggestion, we had our first meal at Osteria
A Priori, a relatively new restaurant with a small shop selling regional products and a “slow food” kitchen. We ate an antipasto of artichokes with peppercorns and juniper berries, new 2017 oil and two kinds of cheeses– a sheepsmilk ricotta and a soft taleggio. Per primi we both had a maltagliata with zucchini, pancetta and percorino di Norcia– delicate, flavorful, delicious. And for our secondo: roasted maiale with shaved truffles and herbs and roasted potatoes, perfectly crisped.
Lick, the gelateria recommended by The Times had closed at 9, so we found another gelateria artigianale on our way home. Very intense flavors– the coffee so strong, it kept me up that night. The next morning, we followed The Times for breakfast at Sandri Pasticceria. This 1860 pastry shop has a beautiful old fashioned bar with elaborate pastries, cakes and chocolates. The cappuccino and cornetto were nothing special, but the atmosphere was charming and warm.
We continued our walk around town, entered the duomo, saw the main piazza and fountain, and came across the Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello, the historic home and now museum of a noble family of Perugia with 16 sons and a love of learning, having amassed a significant collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and decorative arts. The libraries were fascinating, but what stood out for me was the collection of embroideries, a product of one of the wives, an American, who brought her own needlework techniques from America in the early 1900’s, learned Italian traditional embroidery and taught local women this craft in order to provide them with jobs and an income. How enlightened! The patterns, craftsmanship and tassels were magnificent!
Also magnificent, the adjacent Etruscan well, dating from the third century, that served the house and the surrounding community. Its engineering and structural design are nothing short of brilliant with a four-pronged gigantic structural block of travertino that supports a well three stories deep using no mortar or cement. The drippy observation platform sets the scene for marveling at the innovative hydraulic engineers who designed this essential bit of infrastructure. We tried to follow The Times’ advice for lunch at Vecchia Perusia, but it was closed both days we were in town. Instead, we found a nearby stop for the city’s ubiquitous piadine made with focaccia, salumeria of Norcia in the mountains, soft cheeses and eggplant or tomato. Entirely satisfying, especially followed by a hunk of the chocolate sold by the vendors that lined the city’s streets.
After lunch we strolled to the Palazzo Baldeschi to see the esposizione of artwork collected by Italian banks. Titled “DA GIOTTO A MORANDI. TESORI D’ARTE DI FONDAZIONI E BANCHE ITALIANE” it was a bit disappointing. We saw no Giotto or Morandi, but many lesser works in between. Nonetheless, the installation was lovely, and a good dose of Italian Renaissance painting is always welcome.
We bought as much chocolate as we could carry to distribute to friends and neighbors. But honestly, after tasting two types and drinking a thick hot chocolate, we’d had enough and even the smell of chocolate was a bit overwhelming. The chocolate theme gave the town a festive air, the mix tape of chocolate-themed music was fun, but it felt much like a New York street fair where all the vendors sold nothing but chocolate. It seems attendance was a bit lower than normal– perhaps fear of earthquakes kept visitors away. Hard to know, but there seemed to be few foreign tourists and plenty of Italians and students enjoying the fair.
That night we had dinner with a friend who teaches chemistry at the university in Perugia. How nice it is to know an insider. “Give me a minute to run and get the key,” she said before showing us into a glassed-in room with a glorious second century AD Roman mosaic on the floor, a depiction of Orpheus taming the beasts, in what once was a public bath. It now forms the courtyard for the university’s School of Natural Sciences. Restoring the mosaic was a project of a Florentine preservation group. The accompanying text describes the restoration work and outlines in detail all of the environmental threats to the mosaic. Despite best attempts to create a climatised space around it, infiltration of particulates, vibrations from earthquakes, chemical reactions to moisture and pollutants, and the very position of the piece below street level create serious challenges for preserving this masterpiece. Luckily we were able to see this remarkable work of art at close range– it is worth the effort to find it.
Our friend led us to one of her favorite restaurants– Trattoria Borgo di San Francesco. The food was superb–a flavorful Umbrian Montefalco wine, a magnificent antipasto of salumerie and formaggio of Norcia, polenta with salsa and salsiccia, bruschetta, verdure with truffles; followed by excellent pastas– a Norcina for me and another maltagliata with herbs and pancetta; a lovely atmosphere, friendly waitress — we were in heaven.
The next day, after another breakfast at Sandri Pasticceria, we discovered the astounding Rocco Paolina. You know how in New York City, on a day of heavy rain, you can occasionally find a deserted, dirty subway concourse to get you from one block to another underground without ruining your suede shoes? Well, the Perugini have a shortcut from the parking lot to City Hall through the Rocco Paolina, a mid 16th century fortress built to protect the Pope.
Its immense, soaring spaces conjure Hogwarts at its most imposing. Labyrinthine passageways, arched stone ceilings, even the female sculptures feel menacing. A high octane son e lumiere captures the dangers and unpredictability of the times. But what a spectacular space! And how amazing that this priceless antiquity is part of the daily fabric of city life. We then walked to the fabric workshop of Giuditta Brozzetti. The most magical place, this workshop is housed in a tiny church where Saint Francis once prayed, built around 1200 AD. The tall arched windows now bring copious sunlight into a space that is alive with the mechanized sounds of hand looms weaving fabrics in the traditional techniques and patterns of old Perugia.
The beautiful, petite Marta Cucchia has lovingly kept this tradition alive, in the spirit of her great grandmother who founded a school in this space that once trained working women in the weaving trade. The hand and leg-powered looms and jacquard machines crash and creak, shuttles speeding through white warp threads, creating complex textural and pictoral designs. We’d read about this place in the 2017 NY Times posting. It is a magnificent temple to the preservation of antique handcrafts and to the artisanal work of women. The shop sells stunning table linens and cushions, scarves and curtains, all hand woven and richly textured, depicting Perugia’s ancient symbols of the griffin and lion.
The walk back to the centro took us over a long and narrow bridge that connects the Piazza 4 Novembre to the Università Per Stranieri, a beautiful walk that shows off Perugia’s residential buildings, unusual and varied with tiny gardens and splendid views of the surrounding countryside. What a lovely city! It’s the perfect size, lively with students, residents, cats, bicycles and of course, superb food.