Smack in the center of Italy, this medieval city has roots older than early Roman civilizations and its hilltop location has some of the most glorious views of the fertile valleys of Umbria. Welcome to Perugia, a culture-rich city with lots of charm!
Perugia is a stone’s throw from Assissi, and a quick 2.5 hour train ride from Rome. It’s full of winding stone streets, countless hidden nooks, and boasts beautiful surviving structures from eras long gone. It’s a great place to wander; if you get lost all you have to do is head upwards.
I’ve been bouncing around the cobblestones of the Historic Center trying not to sprain an ankle and think the place is just right for a taste of life in Italy with a historic flair.
An Ancient City
The region (and much of Italy) is a goldmine of antiquity for archaeology lovers, with Umbria being the heart of Etruscan treasures. Some of the Perugia’s landmarks were erected by Italy’s ancient people, and the National Archaeology Museum of Umbria in Perugia holds a wealth incredible artifacts. The Etruscans are their own mystery; they left no written account of their ways and most of what we know is gleaned from surviving pieces of art, sculpture, and pottery.
Relics from the Middle Ages also speckle the city, the most famous being the Fontana Maggiore in the Piaza Grande; a symbol of Perugia and the critical center of the city’s busiest and most important square throughout history.
To walk amongst the arches and paths is to walk through their same steps, just everyday people doing everyday things; albeit over two thousand years ago. In some places, ancient stonework is literally the foundation of other buildings and of the future.
Scheming Popes and Renaissance Art
Modern times brought an original Raphael oil painting to the San Francesco Al Prato church in the early 1500’s…which was then pilfered by a Pope’s nephew because he liked it so much and HAD to have it. The Pope arranged for an exact copy of “The Desposition” to replace it to ease tensions with Perugians. Funny enough, the copy is in much better shape that the original that lives in Rome’s Borghese Gallery.
There used to be a few other Raphael paintings in the city that are long gone, and all that’s remained of his mark on Perugia is a wall in the Chapel of San Savero. A fresco illustrating the Holy Trinity and several saints is the combined result of his efforts and of his teacher and celebrated master in his own right, Pietro Perugino. It’s tucked away in an intimate room of the chapel, and if you ever wanted a one-on-one with the work of Italian Renaissance masters, this is the place to be.
So, how’s the food?
Italian cuisine is glorious and I am very glad to be walking uphill most of the time because of it, although the bread leaves much to be desired. I know! Bread in Italy that’s terrible?!
Legend has it that the Salt War of 1540 made Perugians protest salt taxes with a boycott, meaning some pretty bland bread that still exists today. The reality is that any salt that was imported and purchased was probably used to cure meats instead. Still, people will swear that Perugians really wanted to stick it to the man and are proud of their crusty rebellion.
That same Salt War and Papal power abuses ignited Perugia’s uprising against the church that resulted in parts of the city being demolished when rebel forces failed. A huge portion of the city was bulldozed over and replaced with the Rocco Paolina, an intimidating fortress and symbol of Papal power that was built ON TOP of entire city blocks. Though the fortress is no longer standing, you can still walk through the “underground city” and see remnants of the buildings upon which it once stood.
What else is there to do?
Seasonal markets pop up with local wares depending on the month, and you’re sure to smell the truffle oil before you see the vendor. There’s an old church or building around every corner, but the most fun lies in exploring without a destination in mind.
Perugia is a hotspot for studying abroad and you’re sure to pick out the students from the locals. There’s an Italian language school as well and plenty of activities to exercise your new language skills.
I highly recommend Alphaville Coffee as a nice place to get your bearings, and if you want someone to give you ideas of what else there is to do, they have a multi-language social night every Tuesday.
It’s a glorious little city that is sure to get you hooked on the undeniable allure of an Italian romance. If the history of it isn’t enough, maybe the daily espressos and terrace views of never ending valleys and blue sky will be 😉