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Valda & Claire Casucci (Valda, Saint_Bambi)
A Companion Guide to the Tourist Map Distributed by the Perugia Tourist Office, Piazza Matteotti, Perugia
OK, OK, I admit it. I am an passionate lover of Perugia, that gem of a city perched on its hilltop overlooking the valleys of the green heart of Italy - Umbria. Oh! how it hurts when travelers, eager to get to Florence or Cortona or Tuscan wherever, whiz past in their bright little rented cars with hardly a second glance. Don't they know what they are missing? Can't they slow down and spend a few days in this proud little city so saturated with history? I did, many years ago. I learnt a beautiful language, met and married a beautiful Italian and lived the dream that is Perugia.
I have written this guide for Slow Travelers who want to experience the best Perugia has to offer. All you need to do is print out this page, arm yourself with a map from the Tourist Office in Perugia and you are ready to discover a new world.
Go to the Tourist Office and get your map
This article uses the numbers from the Perugia tourist map available at the Tourist Office. Once you are in Perugia, go to the Tourist Office at Piazza IV Novembre, next to the Fountain in the main piazza. The Tourist Office is under the arches near the flight of steps and behind the fountain. There are usually piles of these maps (pictured above) on the front desk in several languages.
The TCI map of Perugia is included with this article (see below). Click on it and you will see a larger version. This map does not have the site numbers used in the article, but will help you see the layout of things in Perugia.
Note (March 2006): The tourist office recently moved from Piazza IV Novembre to Piazza Matteotti.
Go see Perugia!
Map of Perugia, © Touring Club Italiano, Milano - click for larger version
Perugia has its origins as one of the main cities of the Etruscan civilization hundreds of years before Rome and the Romans were even thought of and is one of the major archeological centers of Etruscan remains. If you're really interested, there is the National Archeological Museum of Umbria adjoining the Church of San Domenico (17) where you can see sarcophagi, inscriptions, statues and the like dating back to prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman times. Otherwise, you can see the remains of the massive wall which surrounded the Etruscan city at (22) where you see "Mure Etrusche" and at (23) where the Etruscan Arch is (the bit on the top is a later addition but the gateway with its huge blocks of stone erected without mortar is totally original). Five of the gates to the city are of Etruscan origin although they were modified a little by the Romans.
The Etruscan Well (Pozzo Etrusco), opposite the side entrance of the Duomo (1) in Piazza Piccinino, is where the water supply was, and is well worth a visit (it's an engineering feat and I really don't know how they did it!). When the 3rd-century BC Etruscans needed water, they sank an 18-ft. wide shaft more than 115 ft. into the pebbly soil under Perugia. To support the cover over the well, they built two massive trusses of travertine that have stood the test of more than 2,000 years. You can climb down past the dripping walls to a bridge across the bottom. Scary!
An out of town, half day excursion can be made to the Ipogeo dei Volumni, the 2nd century BC tomb of the Etruscan Velimna family situated at Ponte San Giovanni. It is a lavish construction with various rooms containing relief carvings and funerary urns. What appears to be wooden beams supporting the roof are actually the ceiling cut out of rock. Very evocative and if Etruscans are your thing you'll have a great day (not over-run with other travelers, either!)
Then the Romans moved in, raped the Sabine women, merged with the Etruscan tribes and Perugia became a Roman city. The Romans built strong walls with gates into the city. At (14) is the Porta Marzia with the name of the Emperor Octavius Augusta Perusia emblazoned triumphantly over the top to mark the capture of the city and his defeat over a bitter rival. He had the city burned to the ground after the siege, burned with all her wealth of monuments and temples (they didn't do things by halves in those days!), so, apart from the walls and gates and a few inscriptions, there is little trace of Roman architecture to be found. The Romans were probably happy just to build strong walls and houses suitable for a fortified town. This no doubt fostered the warlike character of the Perugians which was to be so evident in following centuries.
Lots of invasions by barbarians followed and the history of the Goths, Vandals etc. for domination is a twisted and violent one. Italy was ravaged by war, plague and famine. Perugia didn't escape untouched. It fell into the hands of the Goths after a terrible seige. St. Ercolano, the patron saint of the city, tried to save the city with a cunning ruse. He didn't succeed, angered the Goths in the process and was put to death in a rather nasty way. He was stripped of his skin from the neck downwards, beheaded and his body thrown into a ditch. Eeek! There's a very interesting octagonal shaped church dedicated to him on the spot where he was martyred (15). It is at the end of one of the many flights of steps which take you from one level of the city to the other.
Perugia became even more warlike as her citizens fought to survive. Perhaps (who knows) here were the origins of one of the Perugians' favorite games in later times - two teams indulging in rock throwing competitions on what is now Corso Cavour. Winners were the ones who killed most men on the opposing side!
Over the centuries Perugia, engaging in countless small wars, innumerable treaties, self-interested alliances and outright bullying, managed to subdue all the neighboring towns and become "top doggie" of all of Umbria. Wars were waged against Siena, Spoleto, Gubbio, Todi and, of course, Assisi. It was when he was captured and imprisoned in Perugia that the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi took place. St. Francis and St. Dominic supposedly met each other once in Perugia, embraced warmly and went on their way. A plaque commemorating the meeting-place of can be found with lots of searching and eagle-eyes about three quarters of the way up Corso Garibaldi on the right hand side, going towards to Porta Sant'Angelo (31).
Mediaeval Perugia is the one most in your face. The city is a tangle of dark, narrow, twisty lanes and byways. The whole area inside the fully encircling town walls is up and down, in and out - the original city is little changed. Around the Palazzo dei Priori (3) (the powerful city rulers were called Priori) and down Via dei Priori alongside it, there is a labyrinth of little streets which are pure Middle Ages; Via della Gabbia (where wrongdoers were placed in a cage as punishment and people threw rubbish at them) and Via Ritorta are good examples.
Just explore at will, it's very evocative and you can see examples of the Doors of Death if you look hard. These were narrow, pointed doors built high up from ground level with no steps leading to them. They were only opened when somebody died to take the body out. This was supposed to fool Death into not knowing how to get back into the house!! There is a good example just behind the fountain (not working) at the beginning of the Maesta della Volte (20). It has steps leading up to it now but there it is over a meter above ground level.
Piazza 1V Novembre is the heart of Perugia with the Duomo (Cathedral) (1) on one side and the Palazzo dei Priori (3) on another, and wonderful little boutique shops/bars in mediaeval buildings on another. The Duomo is supposed to house the Virgin's wedding ring - believe it if you want to - and you can see it on July 30th and on the second-to-last Sunday in January each year, traditionally the wedding anniversary of Mary. Three popes are buried there including Martin V who died from eating too many eels at a sitting.
The best thing about the Duomo is the steps leading up to the main door. This is where everyone sits - students, tourists, children, residents, everyone - to watch the world go by and to just gaze in wonder at the Fontana Maggiore (2) which is considered to be an artistic miracle. It is the creation of two sculptors from Pisa, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, who executed a splendid fountain in a symphony of pink and white stone. It is decorated with exquisitely carved panels showing the months of the year, astrological signs, Aesop's fables, mythical monsters and a million other eclectic themes. Luca, our grandchild, loved the pictures on it, the pigeons sitting on it and the various pizzas which he ate while clinging to the rails. It is lovely and there are whole books written about all the scenes/people engraved on it.
Go into the Palazzo dei Priori (3) up the big staircase from the Piazza, under the mythical griffins (Perugia's symbol) and take a look at the astonishing Sala dei Notari where the town councilors used to meet. It's a vaulted hall, covered with 13th century frescoes and with high wooden stalls and steps of walnut. It's beautiful.
You can also wander into the principal doorway of the palazzo which is guarded by two big, stone beasts - a griffin and a lion (symbol of the Guelphs who were Perugia's rulers). It's a vast stone vaulted hall, these days used as the entrance hall to the various art exhibitions. The National Art Gallery of Umbria is housed upstairs and you can see exhibitions of the exquisite paintings of Perugino. (You can't afford a painting but you can buy a poster to frame later. We did and it's in our kitchen reminding us of glorious Perugia.)
The Corso Vannucci, named after the painter, Perugino, who was Pietro Vannucci, is the main street of Perugia. It is closed to traffic and is lined with lovely and expensive boutiques, bars, shops and outdoor eating areas. This is where the passeggiata (the stroll) takes place every night but particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. Just be there after about 7.30pm, link arms with each other and stroll up and down from the Cathedral steps to the wall at the end (about 250 meters) and then come back again as many times as you like. The hum and the thrum of people talking and laughing is exciting.
Along the Corso you will also find Sandri's, a bar with amazing pastries and good coffee. Their windows are a display case for their artisan work. We usually go to Caffe di Perugia in Via Mazzini for its evocative surroundings, excellent coffee and hot chocolate to die for. If you're interested in shopping you can window shop at will at the frighteningly expensive boutiques along the Corso with their up-to-the-minute alla moda stuff, the dernier cri of Italian fashion.
Just past the Benetton shop, about 50 meters up on the right is a great gelateria, Antica Gelateria Veneta, with an impressive range of flavors and quite reasonable prices. There's a flight of steps nearby which leads down to Via Bonazzi and another section of mediaeval Perugia to discover: go lose yourself in it.
Nearly at the end of the Corso Vannucci is the dazzling Rocca Paolina (8). This is the great fortress of Pope Paul III who built it to subjugate and terrify the Perugians. The Perugians were pesky Pope haters who went to war very enthusiastically with whichever pope was in power. The Pope eventually got sick of their resistance to his "salt tax" in 1540. He razed the entire district of Borgo San Giuliano to the ground, destroying all the towers and houses of the hated Baglioni family who opposed him. He built a great fortress on top of their buildings. Over a hundred houses, as well as churches and monasteries were destroyed and used as building material and as substructures for the fortress. It served as a great oppressor and Perugia lay under its bitter shadow until 1848 when a change in power allowed a freer method of government. The Perugian population tore the fortress apart literally stone by stone. The whole town joined in its devastation and tore down the entire top level. There are gardens and late 19th century buildings where its top level used to be. You can now go down into the bottom level of the Fortress by way of an escalator and you can wander through the streets and houses of the razed buildings. It is extraordinary and it's free. Don't miss it!!!! There are often exhibitions, shows, dances etc in the eerie old spaces. Fantastic.
Just as a little point of interest, the Perugian bread is still made without salt; a relic of those distant days when they boycotted the use of salt to defy the Pope! If you're like me and need your daily dose of salt, you'll need to ask specifically for "pane salato" at the bakery.
Parallel to the Corso Vannucci are Via Baglioni and Piazza Matteotti. Lots of traffic but very, very atmospheric. Behind the Palazzo del Capitano (12), which is a lovely building with a balcony where the Capitano spoke to the populace, is the Mercato Coperto (the Covered Market). The market is on three levels, with haberdashery on the first level (check out the terrace at the back with a magnificent view of the old red rooftops of Perugia), vegetables/fruit on the second level down, and meats/fish etc on the third level. To go down, use the staircase on the left as you enter the haberdashery section. Just inside the entrance to the second level is a porchetta stall where you can buy wood oven rolls filled with spicy, whole, spit roasted pig freshly sliced on the spot. A huge roll will cost you about 2 euro. The little man behind the counter has been there forever. I remember buying porchetta from him in 1967 when I was a student there! You can put together the makings of a gourmet meal here in the market for practically nothing. If you like fresh eels you can select your own from seething tanks; I can't come at it but, hey, who can account for personal taste?!
On Tuesday mornings there is a ceramic sale of pots, bowls, jugs, plates etc on the back steps of the Duomo. It isn't top-quality artisan work, but is reasonably priced. Even if you don't it's just a very colorful and interesting display of Deruta ceramics with traditional designs. Fun to watch what people buy, too!
Have a slice of the best take-away pizza in Italy at the little pizzeria "Giancarlo" at the top of Via dei Priori (3). It comes out in huge slabs from the ovens and you can buy big slices for about 2 euro, more or less. Always fresh because that's where the Perugians buy their take-away pizzas!
There are any number of long or short walks which take you to interesting/unusual/romantic/picturesque parts of Perugia. Here are just a few suggestions!
Tempio di Sant'Angelo
Go to the Tempio di Sant'Angelo (30). This is where my husband and I met in 1967 so it has a special place in our family history. It is a 5th century Roman temple probably built on the site of an early Etruscan temple. To get there, go up Corso Garibaldi and keep walking until you come to Via del Tempio, turn right into the street leading to the simple, exquisite little round building.
There are generally students and mothers with children sitting on the lawns and enjoying the sunshine. Not too many tourists, usually. The stone bench on the far left as you enter the little square is "our" bench.
The church inside is very spare, simple and quiet. All the columns are different, filched from other sites when the temple was originally rebuilt. The upper windows are of alabaster.
Once outside again, go down the flight of steps to the Porta Sant'Angelo (31). You can walk around the outside of the town walls for quite some distance and it gives you an idea of the countryside and also the massiveness of the walls.
Oratory of St. Bernadino
Walk down the entire length of Via dei Priori (3) to the church with the most beautiful, delicate facade I know, the Oratory of St. Bernadino (35). A wonderful cycle of sculptures, depicting Saints and Celestial Hierarchies, and the Glory of S.Bernardino are important examples of the Perugian Renaissance style. The 15th century interior, in the Gothic style, contains the tomb of Beato Egidio, a Roman sarcophagus from 4C A.D. Take your camera!
Next to it is the abandoned church of San Francesco al Prato (36). It is immense but unusable. It started crumbling as soon as it was built because it is on unstable soil and it was also too big and heavy. I don't think you can go inside but you can sit on the lawns outside with the students (part of the university is nearby) and just enjoy being in Perugia.
A short walk from the back of the Duomo (1) takes you to the Via Appia and Via dell'Aquadotto (37) where you will find the aqueduct built in 1215 to bring water into the city from Monte Paciano. The aqueduct is now a walkway fringed by quaint little houses with characteristic terracotta tiled rooftops, windows festooned with pots of geraniums and doors with brightly polished doorknockers. It's fantastic.
Via della Proma
Walk up Via del Sole from Piazza Dante (near the Duomo) and onto Via della Proma. There's a really special view of the walls and valley from the top. The view of the winding staircase that leads to the Etruscan Gate at the bottom is special. It's a great photo of the staircase as you go down.
Outside the city walls, at the end of Borgo XX Giugno, is the richly decorated church of San Pietro (18) with its slender and elegant bell tower. It was founded by the Benedictines in the 10th century and, as well as the stunning frescoes, has an important collection of manuscripts. Once again, you'll find students everywhere here as it is part of the University. Next to it is the stupendous reconstructed Mediaeval Botanic Garden with all its herbs, symbolic trees and plants and mystical motifs for you to walk around (self guided tour pamphlets available).
For something really, really different go for a half day (at least!) jaunt to the Monumental Cemetery (27) along Via Cialdini. It's a long walk (good for working off all the gelati and pastry calories) past the Church of S. Maria di Monteluce. You could take a taxi or the bus, of course! Here you will find the Italian way of death and the reverence and dedication with which the Italians care for their deceased. There are miniature (and not so miniature!) chapels, pyramids, rotundas, sarcophagi and ornate family mausoleums. There are underground galleries of stacked tombs all ablaze with flickering votive candles and and fresh flowers. You can ramble through the old section and maybe see a funeral procession with the huge wreaths on easels being carried behind the hearse.
Chrysanthemums are exclusively used for death in Italy. Do not take them to your dinner hostess as a gift.
There are several very important festivals in and around Perugia during the year. They cater for all tastes and are not put on just for the tourists. They are very deeply felt and supported by the locals but you are welcome to join their party if you are in the vicinity. Here are a few of the festivals in Perugia:
You'll find all sorts of other nooks and crannies, not mentioned here, which will interest you and delight you. You'll make a list of your own favorite things, just as I have. And don't worry foodies, along every street and in every corner you'll find something to tempt the taste buds.
In Perugia you'll have the opportunity to experience the life of a vibrant Italian provincial city, lived in by real Italians going about their real lives, little influenced by mass tourism. What more could a Slow Traveler want?
www.perugiaonline.com: Perugia Online, tourist guide to the city of Perugia
www.bellaumbria.net/Perugia/home_eng.htm: Bella Umbria, tourism in Perugia
Other Travel Notes
Slow Travel Italy - Umbria: Italy's Oasis: Things to do in and around Perugia and central Umbria. Megan from Italy, April 2002
Slow Travel Italy - The Sweetest Tour in Italy: Touring the Perugina chocolate factory near Perugia. Paul from Boston, June 2004
Perugia and Todi: Photos by girasoli
H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Italy, DaCapo Press, 2002 (originally written in the 1950s) Order from Amazon
Jonathan Keates, Umbria (Philip's Travel Guide), Tuttle Pub, 1991 (out of print)
James Bentley, Umbria, Aurum Press, 1995 (out of print)
Margaret Symonds and Lina Duff Gordon, The Story of Perugia (Mediaeval Towns Series, Volume 23), (out of print)
See the Slow Travel Trip Planning - Guidebooks page for more books on Umbria.
Valda Casucci, an Australian of Italian origin, went to Italy to discover her heritage and to learn Italian in Perugia. Whilst she was there she met her now-husband. They have lived in both Australia and Italy, returning to Italy regularly to nourish their souls!
Her daughter, Claire, has made several trips to Perugia and is completely under its spell. Next year she will be following in her mother and sister's footsteps, living and studying in Perugia.
© Valda & Claire Casucci, 2005
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