“Down there… is the house where it happened” explained our tour guide Daniella, as we stood overlooking the beautiful valleys of Perugia from one of its cobbled hilltops.
It wasn’t the additional insight I was expecting to be told on our tour in Perugia but I sensed the Amanda Knox scandal had certainly turned the world of this small and picturesque Capital of the Umbrian region upside down. I must note that this wasn’t a casual add-on to the walking tour, like how some people find the gruesome fascinating, but a verbal note of the sheer anger, disgust and upset that the local people are still (and rightfully so) obviously expressing.
I had asked if such a terrible crime had affected the numbers of people visiting and the local way of life. “We are very, very tired” was her answer. “Many journalists, many people took over this city. We just couldn’t handle it. It ruined Perugia.” And I can see why.
In short, Perugia is a small, ‘everyone knows you and your business’ kind of place. So small you can see it all in one day or over a weekend if you want to sit back and soak up local life or go shopping. It’s famous for its chocolate and the Eurochocolate Festival which takes place every October and, which I never knew, the Umbria Jazz Festival which was a few days away from kicking off in April.
The recent worldwide documented scandal may have tainted a traditional small town Italian canvas, but it’s not one to be missed if you are in the region.
Perugia is built on hilly terrain so be prepared to walk if you want to take in the scenery in full. To sum up where to start I shall pass on the to-the-point wisdom of an Italian man sitting next to me on my flight over: “Nothing at bottom. Everything old, historical and beautiful at top.”
Our walk started at the bottom of the hill – the parking lot area so to speak – and at first sight the area looked dirty and graffiti ridden, much the same as my first impressions of Pisa before you hit the area around the leaning tower. But after riding a handful of escalators we came to the huge stone bricked wall – the remains of the Paolina Fortress (Rocca Paolina).
The history of this 16th-century fortress (of which very little remains) is a bit intense but in 1540 the Pope at the time called for a fortress and self-enclosed town to be built on the hill as a show of dominance and became untouchable until the unification of Italy in 1860 when the locals pulled it down. I found it all rather exciting, like when my parents used to take me to caves when I was a kid. What remains within the walls are a few of the dark medieval streets covered by brick ceilings, and spaces that were once houses and living spaces.
You have probably sensed my fascination for the dark and mysterious from my Vatican post but it was great to wander within the foundations of an old self-enclosed town before emerging once again into the sunlight of the city.
From there we ascended to the centre of Perugia. You can use its one main street, Corso Vannucci, as a navigation point and at the end you come to the large medieval Fontana Maggiore and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.
Close by is the impressive third century BC Porta Marzia gate which was incorporated into the city walls and leads to more medieval streets to explore.
The main things I loved about Perugia?
1. Walking. I love a good ramble so it’s not surprising that I enjoyed the cobbled streets, sloping hills and tiny steps that were pretty much everywhere.
2. It’s great for photography. From coloured houses to the vast green Umbrian landscape, the streets are stunning and so is the backdrop.
3. Visiting a traditional Italian coffee shop that hasn’t lost its character to modernisation or the mundane feel of a Starbucks. Check out Pasticceria Sandri on the main street. It was like a step back in time, including one of those old ‘ding’ tills operated by an old lady who had probably worked there most of her life.
And to end it with a rollercoaster train ride just topped it off a great day. Be sure to ride the Minimetro if you visit. It was built four years ago and the locals apparently are not big fans mainly as it’s expensive to them at 1 Euro 70 cents a ticket.
With seven stations it’s a great way to navigate the city if you are tired of the hike. If you take a ride from the top all the way to bottom like we did, you will see what I mean about the rollercoaster style (minus being upside down or anything dramatic like that). The tiny carriage began with a steep climb, accompanied by a huge gasp of the big drop about to unfold before us, only to be met by flat track. But when it sped up a little as it went downhill, childish giggles filled the air.
So from ancient torn down fortresses, a beautiful city centre, walks to the hilltops and a mini metro to get you right back down to your start point, Perugia a great little addition to your Italian itinerary.
Its main train station links to the other cities like Rome and Florence so is definitely worth squeezing in if you are on that main city to city route and with an airport approximately half an hour away, it would also make for a great weekend break.