Saturday, 7 June 2014

Days 439 to 441: Perugia

In recent years, Perugia has become notorious in Britain for being the city in which Meredith Kercher was murdered under circumstances never fully explained. The press love a pretty girl, and in this case they got two - one of her convicted killers was a girl, also quite pretty. You can be sure she got a lot more press attention that the two men associated with the killing. Pretty foreign girls, possible sexual motives, unexplained killing, legal incompetence, a nice catchy nickname - "Foxy Knoxy" - for one of her killers, oh yes, it was perfect material for selling newspapers. Sadly, what has been overshadowed is the city of Perugia itself. It's not some subterranean haunt of shadowy murders, it is a truly delightful place of stunning beauty and surroundings, with a lively student population. Yet again, Italy delivers.

Perversely, the Kercher case may have been a defining factor in why we chose to go to Perugia. My travel choices are based upon Wonders, Danielle's are about... murders? Danielle's a criminal lawyer and a few weeks ago downloaded a book about the Kercher case on the Kindle. For a number of days she spent her time getting angrier and angrier both about the Italian legal system's handling of the case and about the journalist author's imperfect understanding of the legal system itself, not to mention his clunky writing style. The upside was Perugia - a city that would barely have crossed our minds suddenly found itself sneaking onto our itinerary. It sounded nice, Danielle said, let's go.

Arriving by bus from Siena, "nice" was not our first impression. Dropping us off by the main train station, like many towns and cities, Perugia's main train station was not its highlight. The shadowy underbelly of the city seemed to congregate, with an aggressive air of drunks and sly-looking caricatures. But this is the more modern part of town, sprawling by the base of the hill that contains the delights of historic Perugia. A local bus later, we were there, in a different world, a world of castles and cathedrals and cobbled hilly streets that twist around and fire off alleys left and right like brain synapses in a dream state.

In a sense, Perugia reminded me a little of the ruined Roman settlement of Bergama, in Turkey. Both are perched on a hilltop, overlooking sensational views of the countryside. But Perugia is still living and thriving. It is a dramatic town. Arriving at our guesthouse, we were a minute's walk from the wall at the edge of the world. The wall is a sheer drop - below spills the rest of Perugia and beyond is the rest of the world. Rarely have I felt so high up, Perugia's position is commanding. It evokes a mountaintop retreat. Deeper into the centre only reinforces the fantasy picture, with the vast white stone Palazzo dei Priori - the old town hall - next to the equally vast marble-fronted cathedral, with a piazza in between. Naturally, it's all pedestrianised: Perugia is a city built for people, not for their vehicles.

Like the best of the medieval world, it's packed full of lanes and ups and downs. Danielle and I walked for the sake of walking, Perugia was a pleasure to behold wherever we went. We particularly liked how modern Perugia has got over the problem with it being placed atop a rather steep hill - escalators. All around are outdoor escalators, making the journey a little easier, and certainly much lazier. I don't know why more cities don't do this.

As far as set pieces go, the main piazza is Perugia's highlight, and that's where we spent a bit of time. In the evening, the youth of the city gather on the cathedral steps to drink beer from plastic cups, facing the Palazzo dei Prioro.

And looking at the 14th Century building is the best way to enjoy it - unless you are particularly fond of paintings of the Virgin Mary, I wouldn't advise going inside. We did so, thinking it was about time we experienced some art culture. It houses the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, a collection of priceless 13th to 19th Century paintings. I'm sure everything we saw was a masterpiece, but after our 80th Virgin Mary, we felt the repertoire was becoming limited. Being an artist in medieval times must have been a frustrating experience sometimes - "So, let's do another Virgin Mary in the Byzantine style..."

Perugia was one of the unexpected highlights of these travels, and we were sorry that time only allowed us a couple of nights there: it was the kind of place you could enjoy a leisurely week in. Which pretty much, so far, counts for every place in Italy we've so far visited (just possibly, Danielle may disagree on Genoa).

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