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.

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.

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.

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.

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