A walk through the timeless streets of Perugia

A frequent visitor to Seattle's sister city in Italy evokes the richness of daily life there. It is steeped in history and good living, and he worries that a squalid murder might long alter the world's perception of the hill town.
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Piazza IV Novembre in Perugia, Italy. (Wikipedia)

A frequent visitor to Seattle's sister city in Italy evokes the richness of daily life there. It is steeped in history and good living, and he worries that a squalid murder might long alter the world's perception of the hill town.

When I left Perugia 11 days ago, I walked down the Corso Vannucci (named after the city's great Renaissance master Pietro Vannucci, Perugino) past the Fontana Maggiore (one of the great medieval works in all Italy, carved by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano) with the usual bundle of mixed feelings.

After weeks away from Seattle and a bit too much rain and wind blowing through the Umbrian hill towns, it was good to be going home. But as we walked up via Ulisse Rocchi for the last time this year, behind the old cathedral, past the coffee bars, amid the bustle of cars and vans delivering supplies to the shops in the center, down the Corso past the Palazzo Priori, home of city government and the great National Gallery of Umbria, I also felt the sadness of leaving.

Perugia, for us, is a second home, a sister city, where we know i vicoli, le strade almost as well as we know our neighborhood streets in Seattle. This Etruscan town is home to dear friends, to memorable meals, to the sound of the Umbrian dialect in the streets, to views over the valley below toward Assisi, Spoleto, and out of view beyond the green hills, Rome.

But now I wonder, as a friend in Perugia said on the phone last weekend, if "our city will ever be the same again."

Perhaps a handful of people, even in Seattle, know that Perugia is Seattle's sister city in Italy. Now, in ways we never dreamed that Friday morning of our departure, the world knows. The emerging picture of the medieval center, built on the footings of an Etruscan past stretching back 2,500 years, is virtually unrecognizable to us.

Yes, there are drug problems - open sales, too many overdoses, paraphernalia visible on winding steps hidden from the center. Yes, students drink too much, stay out too late at night, make too much noise, overcrowd the steps of the cathedral on warmer nights. But until now these were not the visible symbols of this great Umbrian center. They were, perhaps, typical of cities across Europe and the world. (Walk down Pike or Pine streets in Seattle after dusk.) But they were annoyances, not the dominant reality.

Until the murder of Meredith Kercher, until the arrest of University of Washington student Amanda Knox, until the anguished parents of both appeared in the old center, surrounded by cameras and shoving reporters – until then, the thousands of students attending the two universities in Perugia, the bar crowds spilling into the piazzas, the winding narrow streets, the beauty of preserved time and history, the views over the green hills, the life at a special Italian pace were in balance, making any stay here, of weeks or months, a memory to savor.

Beppe Severgnini, the colorful columnist of the Milan paper Corriere della Sera, calls Perugia one of his "P" cities (the others are Padova, Parma, Pavia, Piacenza, Pisa, Pistoia) - mid-sized towns still maintaining the richness of Italian daily life (and food) but absent the rush of traffic and tourism and technology that turns so many other Italian towns into something like movie sets, unreal boutiques for the travel industry.

If you walk with me on an ideal autumn day in the medieval center of Perugia, we'll take a coffee, perhaps at Cafe Grifo (the griffon, the mythical half-lion half-eagle, is the symbol of the city), where they make a decent decaffeinato con molta schiuma - what we call "dry." Then we'll wind down via Ulisse Rocchi to the Arco Etrusco, one of the great gates to the city built on a foundation of huge Etruscan stones. Octavian tore it down in 40 B.C. in the wars with Mark Antony, then restored it with the inscription "Augustus Perusia."

After exploring the narrow streets, plunging down from Piazza IV Novembre, we should lunch at Ristorante Altromondo to sample pappardelle cinghiale, my favorite Perugino dish - perfectly cooked pasta with a wild boar (they're hunted all over Umbria) ragu - and then a tagliata, grilled and sliced pork or beef or chicken over radicchio slighly flavored with balsamic vinegar. Perhaps we'll wash it down with a red wine from le colline di Perugia; we might choose Selciaio, a pure and rich sangiovese made by Umberto Bizzarri, who founded Torrefazione Coffee in Seattle, then sold it all and came back to Perugia a few years ago.

After lunch we'll take a gelato from one of the many gelaterie - I like the one in via Bonazzi - and walk down into the Rocca Paolina, the underground neighborhood rediscovered only a few decades ago. In 1540, the papal armies had conquered Perugia in the Great Salt War, torn down the Baglioni neighborhood, and built on its ruins a giant fortress, the Rocca Paolina, that dominated the city until the Risorgimento, the Reunification of Italy in the 1860s. In these old streets, underneath the Piazza d'Italia, we will understand the years of resistance, and why the bread of Perugia is made without salt - the enduring legacy of a centuries-long protest against the Papal tax on salt.

From the garden terrace above, past buildings from the modern age, we still see the ancient panorama, the rolling green hills covered with vines and olive trees that Perugino painted into almost every canvas. We might go next to see those paintings, on display in the National Gallery of Umbria, an exquisite collection just off Corso Vannucci. We could easily spend a couple of hours there.

After, we should take another coffee, or perhaps an aperitivo, seat ourselves in chairs outside, and watch the late afternoon passeggiata, when seemingly half the town parades by, back and forth on the Corso, in the great Italian ritual of talking, seeing, and being seen. And we can talk about what we might do the next day; take the train to Spello for the Infiorate, where all the street pavements will be decorated with biblical designs made up of flower petals, seeds, and stalks - a grand celebration of spring, of color, of life. Or, if we get up early another day, bus to Gubbio for the Festa dei Ceri, a pagan ritual with trumpets, races with giant wooden candles held by teams of men from the different quartieri of town, feasting and dancing through the afternoon, leaving us with memories of a history far deeper than our own.

This is the beauty of Perugia, and the dozens of other towns out in the hills, just a short distance away by train, bus, or car.

But now I wonder, and certainly our friends in Perugia wonder as well, if this ambiance, this pace, this life alla provincial will survive today's black headlines of murder, sex, drugs, and lurid student life.

Severgnini takes on this uncomfortable question in  

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