Perugia or Bust
It was easier to fly to Rome from Nice than it was from Paris, mostly because of the simplicity of taking a 30-minute city bus to the airport for 6€ instead of a longer and more expensive haul to Charles de Gaulle Airport. So I trained to Nice on Wednesday (cheaper than a taxi to CDG) and flew to Rome on Saturday. The final goal: Perugia — to celebrate my birthday with my cousin who moved to the Italian city about a year ago. I hadn’t been to the city in so many years they couldn’t be counted, so it was high time I got back. Her being there was the perfect excuse.
When I landed at Fiumicino Airport and waited outside Door #6 for the bus to Perugia, another bus was parked in front of bus terminal slot #8, and painted on it way bigger than life was an image of Donald Trump, shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. I couldn’t believe my eyes and had immediate thoughts of “Lord, I can’t get away from the man!” Even in Rome, he haunts me. As I understand it, the bus company was using the image of the two of them shaking hands to make a point about making connections — how the bus connects the city with the airport and Trump makes the connection with North Korea…but I suppose they weren’t thinking about the political ramifications when they chose to do that and how it might offend certain American tourists…like myself.
The bus arrived late (in typical Italian style), but three hours later landed in the center of Perugia at the Piazza Partigiani after a lovely ride through the Italian countryside. My cousin was waiting at the station. She hustled me up the escalators that transport pedestrians to the many levels of the city up to her 16th-century three-bedroom, three-level apartment in the Borgo Bello neighborhood. The moment I entered I was hit with drop-dead stunning views of the tile rooftops and church steeples from all the windows. During our tour up two flights of stairs was a small square “terrazzo” overlooking it all. Oh my! Now I understood some of the reasons for her enthusiasm for living in Perugia.
We had time only to drop my stuff, take a photo or two of the landscape then head out to the Museo-Laboratorio di Vetrate Artistiche Moretti Caselli, literally next door to her apartment, where we met up with a group of Seattleites taking a tour of the stained glass workshop and museum. Suddenly, like being projected into time travel, I found myself in a 15th-century building that had one time been the residence of Guido Baglioni, a member of one of Perugia’s most powerful families, now filled with some of the most beautiful stained glass works of art I’ve ever seen. One in particular was a jaw-dropper — a portrait of Queen Margherita in stained glass that one might never know was glass, not an oil painting.
The story goes that Pope Paul III punished old Guido for rebelling against an imposed tax by demolishing first his home then building a fortress on top it, this morsel being the only surviving remnant. In the 16th-century through to the 19th-century, the building housed the “Collegio Bartolino,” a university for poor students, then it passed to the Free University of Perugia and then on to the Military Police before Francesco Moretti bought it for his stained glass studio.
That was just the beginning of the adventure into time travel as cousin Leslie then led the group up the stone stairs to the Rocca Paolina, a Renaissance fortress built in the 16th-century by the “adorable” Pope Paul III after he destroyed a slew of Etruscan, Roman and medieval buildings, including the Baglioni family homes. The underground passageways of the Rocca Paolina is the result of his reconstruction. When we stepped inside the cavernous brick compartments and pathways, we were greeted by a community of people fully dressed in medieval costume from the 15th-century performing the tasks of every day life of those who lived during the year 1416. Again, I felt as if I had stepped into a time warp — another era completely, both by the physical surroundings as well as the people with whom we were surrounded and greeted. The theatrical event, “Villaggio Medievale,” was a special performance curated by local resident Bruno Pilla and sponsored by the “Perugia 1416 Association,” a non-profit organization founded in 2016 by the municipality, a number of universities, academies and conservatories, as well as other cultural and private institutions. I didn’t know any of that while strolling through the various rooms and watching the performances, so real as to be completely believed that we were no longer in the 21st-century, but in the 15th, in the Perugia that once existed.
See a complete explanation of the event here.
The nightlife in Perugia is overwhelming, thanks to the three important universities and the 40,000-plus students, who love to meet on the steps of the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo at the Piazza IV Novembre next to the monumental medieval 13th-century Fontana Maggiore…which just happens to be lit in pink this month in honor of the LILT, the Italian League for the Fight Against Cancer. The asymmetrical Piazza is the center of social life in the city and has been so for all these centuries.
The expats who live here, of which I met several who are close friends of my cousin, love the youthfulness and vibrancy of the city. One who moved from Lucca after living there only a couple of months explained that the walled city of Lucca was only fun if living inside the wall and even then, the fun was limited since the town was so small, while in Perugia, one could live in many parts of the city and enjoy a wide variety of activities and major events never for wont of things to do. The city is also incredibly beautiful and bursting with history oozing out of its brick pores.
Sunday, on my birthday, our plan was to take a train to Santa Maria degli Angeli. Santa Maria degli Angeli is a “frazione” (“fraction” — administratively speaking) of the comune of Assisi located just four kilometers south where a “mercato antiquario” (kind of like a “brocante” in France) was taking place on the piazza across the street from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. We discovered, before heading out, that we missed the train we needed, but rather than change all our plans, we conjured up a taxi for what would have been the cost of a ride to Charles de Gaulle airport from Paris. So what? It was my birthday and we were not to be thwarted. The driver managed to get us there in one piece in spite of his speeding on the “autostrada” while tailgating whatever car was in front of him. All I could think along the way was that we were going to die and my cousin would never forgive me for suggesting we take the taxi (although we’d all be dead and wouldn’t matter)!
At the mercato, meeting up with three of Leslie’s friends, and wandering through the stalls, I found a beautiful black snake-skin bag/briefcase perfect to carry a small laptop and an even more perfect addition to my wardrobe for the filming of our next House Hunters International in Nice at the end of October. With “souk” training from my years living in Israel, I was able to bargain well using the method that has served well in such situations: I took out the exact cash I wanted to pay and handed it to the vendor.
“Señora, either you accept the cash or I leave it,” I said. “And today is my birthday, so maybe you would be so kind?”
That did the trick and she happily handed over the luxurious bag, placed it in a big, beautiful carrying bag, said “Buon Compleanno” (Happy Birthday), and we all left for lunch at a near-by “ristorante.” Six of us dined copiously and well on regional fare, then Leslie handed out special paper birthday party spectacles for each of us to wear. She was clever enough to respect my diet that does not allow grain or sugar (meaning any kind of cake), and arranged for the waiter to deposit bowls of fruit dessert in front of each us, with mine having a lone candle in it.
After lunch we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which houses the “Porziuncola,” a small Catholic church located within the Papal Basilica, and the most sacred place of the various Franciscan Orders. “Porziuncola” means a “small portion of land,” first mentioned in a document from 1045, now housed in the archives of the Assisi Cathedral. The Basilica, built between 1569 and 1679 enclosing the Porziuncola, is where St. Francis of Assisi first understood his true calling and renounced the world for the sake of living in poverty among the poor — the beginnings of the Franciscan movement.
These are all things I’ve learned since being here, since learning about the Catholic religion was not part of my Jewish upbringing. But, I’ll tell you this: Perugia is a hidden gem undiscovered by tourists as they pass it by for Assisi and other towns in Umbria. It’s not a place for the physically challenged because of the steep inclines and multitudes of steps that lead to the various levels (although thank goodness for the escalators), but with good shoes and a strong heart, it’s worth a detour and some quality time to fully explore it. And yes, Perugia is where the famous chocolate, Perugina, was founded and is made (now a division of the Nestle Corporation).
This afternoon we’re off to the center of the city for a shopping escapade where I hope to take advantage of Italian leathers (shoes) and quality Italian merchants, such as the United Colors of Benetton and Intimissimi (my favorite lingerie stores). Tomorrow I’m back in Nice, so stay tuned for more life in France adventures (where I hope NOT to see Donald Trump on the side of a bus!).
A la prochaine…