Plying the twisty, historic byways of Perugia
At the time of the evening passegiatta, small-town Italy's customary round of shopping, ambling, ogling, and socializing, the traffic noise on the Corso Vanucci, Perugia's main street, is the sound of human conversation. You hear it from all the crooked side streets of this medieval Italian town, a rushing, gabbling, festive noise, as if a dinner party were going on around the corner. A brook of words, that suddenly laps around you as you turn onto the coursing Corso.Skip to next paragraph
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It seems only fitting that this place is home to the University for Foreigners, which promises to teach a student to speak Italian in three months. Students from there and from the University of Perugia make up a large part of this conversing crowd. In their baggy mohair sweaters, jeans, loafers, and scuffed pixie boots, they make this one of the livelier hill towns in Umbria. Other, smaller, towns like Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, and Orvietto have a kind of ancient quiet about them, as if they had been standing still since the Middle Ages. Perugia doesn't seem any younger; it just seems to have kept chatting since then.
Perugia is one place where, in the 20th century, the conversation has taken a turn for the better. Starting as an Etruscan stronghold around the 6th century BC, it became a Roman city-state during the Roman Empire, fought bitterly with neighboring Assisi, and then with the Pope. Intrigues flourished, and the winding stone lanes that climb among Perugia's medieval houses, turning jagged corners, were probably assassin hideouts. Now, they are just picturesque. The present Perugia is a gentle city, and if you hike these gothic walkways by night , you have to cast your mind back 400 years or so to get really scared.
It is also a cultivated city. Amici della Musica (friends of music), a local group, puts on 63 concerts a year. In October, I heard an exquisite concert of Mozart and Vivaldi by ''I Musici,'' an internationally celebrated chamber music group. In July, Perugia is the center of the ''Jazz/Umbria'' festival, and there's a ''Sacra Musica'' festival in the fall.
There are five chamber music groups in town. That's enough musicians to make a symphony orchestra, but ''each (chamber orchestra) has one little guy who wants to be the boss,'' according to Franco Buitoni, managing director of Perugina Spa. of Italy, part of Industrie Buitoni Perugina, the international family-owned pasta and chocolate business based here. The company, long viewed as one of the town's benefactors (''whenever anybody needs sponsorship, that's where they come,'' he said) has now decided to concentrate on funding the arts in Perugia.
Mr. Buitoni, who had returned from living in England for ten years, went on to say that the ferocious independence of chamber orchestra leaders is typical of the Italian character. ''My friend Johnny Apple of the New York Times says this country, not England, is the only country where you really find eccentrics. Here they're the rule.''
Italian businessmen, he says, are not unlike chamber orchestra directors. The degree of initiative and imagination in Italy is hard to find in England, he said, but cooperation is lacking in Italy. Mr. Buitoni finds his countrymen fascinating, but intractable.''We're so successful in building up small businesses, but at the bigger stage, when everyone has to sacrifice something, there's a difficulty.''
The Etruscans, a pre-Roman tribe, fought the Umbrians in prehistory, but people from Etruscan Perugia still won't buy bread from the bakery on the other side of the Tiber River, because it's in Umbrian territory. Mr. Buitoni, an international businessman, says, laughingly, that he himself never buys Umbrian bread.