When you think of Italy, you imagine Tuscan-style mansions, rolling vineyards, fresh pastas, cured meats and olive oils. Rome, Florence and Venice are wonderful and have many of those elements, but they’re also big cities. If you’re searching for a quieter, more rural experience, search no more. Perugia is as quintessential Italy as it gets.
Located in the middle of Italy’s boot, north of Rome and south of Florence, Perugia rises above breathtaking green valleys dotted with vineyards, century-old farms and neighboring hillside villages. Like the cherry on top of a swirled ice cream cone, Perugia’s historic center is a labyrinth of cobbled alleyways, stone stairways and archways circling around to the valley floor. As you wander, absorbing Perugia’s charm, you pass chefs rolling out pizza dough in anticipation of upcoming dinner crowds, businessmen and women popping into small cafes for ten minute catch-up’s with the barista and afternoon espresso shots. You pass modern-day shops that look out of place in their 13th Century cracker-box-sized stores and museums that rival the best in the world. It’s a town that makes you question your life in the big city.
Since 1993, educational and cultural opportunities have been exchanged between Seattle and Perugia. The Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association is one of the most active and innovative in Seattle with future plans including additional educational exchanges, artisan apprenticeships and cooperative visitor-housing program between the two cities. A two-ton, cast-iron orca whale monument located in Perugia celebrates this special relationship.
With my calves throbbing from walking to the center of town in lieu of hailing a cab, I arrived in this historical gem. The Piazza IV Novembre welcomed me as it bustled with activity. To my left was the stunning Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, housing the most complete collection of Umbrian arts dating between the 13th and 19th Centuries. To my right, a confectionary where I bee-line it to enjoy my first Perugina Baci chocolate, Perugia’s most famous chocolate “kisses” filled with hazelnut and wrapped in a multilingual love note.
From the town’s hilltop perch, any direction I walked offered 180-degree views of the surrounding landscapes. At sunset, there I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful site.
The next day, a local historian and tour guide walked me through the town’s Etruscan and Roman historical sights – and boy, there are plenty. Up and down staircases, around tight alleyways and into the depths we went.
I walked under the well-preserved Augustan Arch, built in 3rd century B.C. and admired the red paint still visible in the Romanesque letters. Just past the Italian University for Foreigners, a quirky and alternative neighborhood is being brought back to life. Shop owners provide free leases to artisans, craftsman and restaurateurs in an effort to showcase the uniqueness of the area and it’s off-the-beaten path feel. Rainbow-colored chalk squares direct visitors through the neighborhood, like following the yellow brick road, and then popping back out in the town center.
We dipped down into the hidden escalators of the Rocca Paolina, a massive 14th Century fort that was built on top of an entire housing district in Perugia in an effort to show the power of the people. The fortress was later destroyed and a maze of original houses, shops and alleyways are once again free to explore. Escalators are staggered through the district to provide access to Perugia’s main square, keeping Perugia virtually car-free. It was an amazing experience to walk through original stone entryways and traverse old streets and then hop on to a modern escalator for a quick ride.
As in any small town, my guide knew just about everyone we passed, including the owner of a porchetta granieri stand, which I immediately indulged in. Porchetta granieri is a typical Umbrian sandwich with roasted pork and I ate every last bite.
To cap off an amazing day, I ended my night with a plate of pig cheek pasta and a bottle of Umbrian red wine at Bottega del Vino listening to two jazz musicians entertaining a packed house. It was a tease for what Perugia’s International Jazz Festival, the largest in Europe, would be like.
I left Perugia feeling rested by its slow pace, full from its unworldly fresh Italian fare, in awe of its historical sights and energized by its authenticity, all at the same time.
By the way, last month our Visit Seattle President & CEO, Tom Norwalk, visited Italy on vacation with his family and took time to meet and exchange gifts with city officials. The Seattle-Perugia sister city connection is strong!