Plying the twisty, historic byways of Perugia
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The bread in Perugia has no salt in it, but that doesn't have anything to do with the Etruscans. That dates from a more recent unpleasantness - a rebellion in the 14th century when Pope Paul III imposed a salt tax. To quell the Perugians, particularly the violent Baglioni family, the Pope dismissed all Perugia's magistrates and put the city's government under his delegate. He also built a fortress on top of the houses of the Baglioni, after demolishing their towers.Skip to next paragraph
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The foundations of the fortress, the Roca Paulina, are still there - and so are some of the Baglioni houses. Many of them were taken down and used as building material. Others were simply buried in the fort and used as barracks for the soldiers who were in charge of keeping Perugia under papal rule. At the time of the Unification of Italy (1870), the fortress was torn down.
The streets and houses under the fortress have been restored. From the Giardini Carducci, the park at one end of the Corso, you can go down an escalator to an underground street and see all the tall, pointy-arched windows and doorways and the stone walls of this once classy neighborhood. The houses are well lit and the color of crusty Italian bread. The place smells of stone, a smell you get used to here. You can go inside houses, or travel all the way down a long series of escalators, which local people use to get to the center of the old city from the businesses in the newer town around it. The place is sometimes used for exhibitions.
Keep walking underground to Porta Marzia, the old Etruscan arch, which leads outside the wall. It's worthwhile, if the restoration on the gate is finished, to step outside the wall and have a walk around old Perugia.
If you can't do that, there's an intact Etruscan arch at the other end of town, behind the cathedral. Stand under it and look up at the immense keystone which hangs above you, supported only by engineering. The Etruscans fit their stones precisely together, without using cement, and you can tell their foundations from later ones because the stones are immense, with only fine lines between them. Just outside the arch is the University for Foreigners, and the University of Perugia is beyond that.
Corso Vanucci, where the passegiatta goes on with attendant gabbling, runs almost the length of the old town, up the spine of Perugia's hill. The square at the end of it, in front of the cathedral, is tipped. You can look up the Corso and see all the walkers, the 13th-century fountain in the square, the cathedral, and the curving side of the huge, minutely crenelated, lancet-windowed Prior's Palace, spread out for you as if the square were a stage, raked for good sight lines.
The Corso is named after Pietro Vanucci, the painter the world calls Perugino. Perugino was Raphael's teacher. In the National Gallery, which is full of medieval paintings, you can see his madonnas. They are mellow, dreamy, and relaxed, and stand with a nice curve to their bodies as if dancing. And there are cherubim with gold leaf wings everywhere, proof that some Perugians had other things beside intrigues on their minds. Practical information:
The hotel Brufani Palace is an old, flat-faced, dark orange building with shutters. It sits over the Giardini Carducci, on the edge of the steep hill old Perugia sits on. If your room looks out on the Giardini, you'll see people strolling and chatting there far into the night; if it looks off the side of the hotel, you can see Assisi twinkling in the distance. A single room was $56.
La Lanterna, just around the corner from the cathedral (Via Ulisse Rocchi 6), is a wonderful restaurant. Downstairs, the ceilings are vaulted, but the food is better than medieval. Pasta e faggiole (beans and pasta) is a delicious thick soup with a tomato broth. You may be served porcini mushrooms, which are flabby and as big as a saucer, grilled, with the wonderful green Umbrian olive oil poured over, and the Perugian specialty, a delicious Parmesan cheese bread, which comes in a loaf in the shape of a chef's hat and almost as big.