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Perugia - City of Chocolates and Churches

City of chocolates, churches and music, Perugia is a splendid mix of the old and the new, the spiritual and the carnal, of tradition and modernity.

Lying almost at the exact centre of Italy, Perugia is the capital of the province of Umbria and its history predates the Etruscans. It is situated on a hill, and is a charming walled city. The walls enclose history as well as some of the best art works of Italy. Narrow streets radiate from squares lined with exciting shops and eating places, and the view of the hillside falling away from the city walls is spectacular to say the least.

Historically, Perugia has seen many controlling powers. It is first heard of as a settlement of Umbrians, and then, under the Etruscans, rose to a position of eminence among the cities of the High Tiber Valley. Fought over by Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, it was finally won by the latter and named Augusta. In the year 547, it fell to Totila, and then to the Byzantine Empire, before becoming a city state allied to the Papacy. It bowed to Papal supremacy in 1370 after the peace of Bologna. The following centuries saw turmoil and trouble in the walled stronghold, with the nobility waging internecine wars, and power passing from one hand to another. Finally, in 1540, it was placed under direct Papal rule. The Popes continued to hold authority in the town, apart from brief snatches when it was occupied by the French and the Roman Republic, till it merged with the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

The Big Churches

The city had a love-hate relationship with the Popes. At times it was thought so safe for the Papacy that it was chosen as the venue of conclaves in preference to Rome, and several Popes were elected from here. But it was also the place where several Popes departed from this world. In any event, it had a long association with the Papacy, and possibly because of this Perugia has an abundant wealth in churches and Christian art. There are several renowned cathedrals and basilicas here.

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo is one of them most famous of Perugia’s churches. It took over a century to complete. Architecturally, its portals, Gothic windows, the arches of its Loggia di Braccio and the choir stalls are all worthy of note. It also encloses the Cappella del Santo Anello which, legend has it, houses the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary. It was completed in the late 15th century, and it also has a copy of the Petra della Giuztizia, or the Stone of Justice, belonging to the 12th century.

The Basilica of San Domencio is another major church and was originally completed in 1304. Subsequently, a portion of it collapsed and it was re-built and re-consecrated in 1632. The Gothic and Renaissance elements are important here, as well as the tomb of Pope Benedietto XI.

After visiting the Basilica, step next door into the Archaeological Museum of Umbria and the State Archives.

At the Church of San Pietro, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 10th century, look for the triple-arched portal designed by Valentino Martelli, and the minor cloister designed by Galeazzo Alessi in 1571. You will see a polygonal clock tower, which, according to tradition, stands on the site of an Etruscan tomb. Inside, take a look at the Gothic wooden choir which is considered one of the finest in Italy. Admire the paintings and frescoes by such luminaries as Antonio Vassillacchi, Raphael, Parmigianino, Vasari, Guerricino, Perugino and Reni.

If you can, step out on to the tiny balcony from the wooden choir, and drink in the stunning view of the Valle Umbra. On a clear day, you can see as far as Assisi, Monte Subasio and the Apennines.

Tourists often overlook the lesser-known places of worship, which are actually well worth a visit Take the time to go to the Church of Saint Michael Archangel, and you will be standing on a place which has been sacred for aeons. The Etruscans worshipped at this spot, and then the Romans built a temple here. This particular church was built on the remains of that Roman temple.

The Church of Jesus and of San Severo are also noteworthy.

The square, the streets and the fountain:

Perugia isn’t famous for churches alone. At the centre, both literally and figuratively, of life in this town is the Piazza IV Novembre. It was named to commemorate the end of the World War in Italy, and is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. At the heart of this square is the Fontana Maggiore, a medieval work which is one of the finest standing examples of Gothic art. Its location marked the end-point of the aqueduct which brought water to the town. The fountain, made of pink and white marble, is in the form of two polygonal basins, heavily decorated with scenes both Biblical and mythological.

From the square, step into the Palazzo dei Priori, dating back to the 14th century. It now houses the National Gallery of Umbria which is home to an astounding collection of art from the Medieval to the Modern Age, including the famous series of frescoes representing heroes and deities, executed by Perugino.

Walk along the Corso Vannucci and drop in at the shops, bars, and eating places that line the street.

Visit the Rocca Paolina, a fortress built by Pope Paul III, and potter among the underground remains of the streets and houses which were demolished in the Pope’s attempt to whip a rebellious Perugia into submission.

Those who are interested in history will find it as they enter the city, for one of the City gates is an Etruscan Arch. Also visit the 3rd century BC Etruscan well and take a look at the remains of the massive Etruscan wall around the city.

University town:

Perugia doesn’t live entirely in the past or in the spiritual world. It is as well known today as a University town, particularly due to the Universita per Stranieri, or University of Foreigners, which attracts students of the Italian language and culture from all over the world. The Universita degli Studi here is the other major academic institution. For those interestesed in the arts, there is the Perugia Fine Arts Acadey and the Perugia Music Conservatory, students of Mass Media will be interested in the RAI Public Broadcasting School of Radio Television Journalism while for the Epicurean, the The Università dei Sapori (University of Tastes), a National centre for Vocational Education and Training in Food, will be the biggest attraction.

The List of Fame:

Pietro Vannucci, who is famous not only for his own works of art but also because he had the distinction of teaching Raphael, was a son of Perugia and was known as Perugino. Raphael himself executed five of his paintings in the town, though sadly, none of them are still here. Pintruricchio was another well known Italian painter who made Perugia his home, and among renowned architects, the city lays clame to Galeeasso Alessi.

Look for the griffin – this is Perugia’s symbol, and you’ll find them all over the city. You’ll even find a representation of this mythical creature in the act of killing a calf. It was appropriately donated by the Butchers’ Guild of the town, and stands over the portal of the Palazzo dei Priori. You’ll also find examples of the Guelph Lion, the symbol of the Guelph party which was loyal to the Popes.

When in Perugia, don’t miss the Etruscan Chocohotel, the world’s first ‘dedicated’ hotel. It has a delightful Restaurant with a menu made all in chocolate. At the Chocostore you will find products from the best chocolate makers as well as curiosities and gadgets from all over the world.

Festivals:

Perugia is famous for chocolate and hosts an event devoted to this Food of the Gods. Christened Eurochocolate, it takes place in mid-October, and attracts participants from across Europe.

It also hosts the Umbria Jazz Festival in July, another International event.

How to get there:

    By road from the North:
  • Motorway "del Sole" (A1), Firenze-Roma, exit Valdichiana - connecting road Bettolle-Perugia.
  • Highway E45 Cesena-Orte exit Perugia
    From the South:
  • Motorway "del Sole" (A1), Roma-Firenze, exit Orte - Highway E45 Orte-Cesena exit Perugia
    By train:
  • Rome-Florence Line - change trains at Terontola. From the Perugia station, take almost any bus up the hill into town. There's also a private Umbria train line out of Stazione Sant Anna, halfway up the hill near Piazza Partigiani.
    By plane:
  • District Airport of Umbria St. Egidio (Perugia)
  • International Airport Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Roma (km180)

Within Perugia

Take the unusual series of escalators up the hill from the Piazza Partigiani. You an also try the overground metro line, called minimetrò, that runs from the outskirts to the top of the city.

Round and About:

From Perugia, you can visit a number of charming hill towns, like Corciano, which is just 5 miles away. You can take one of the convenient buses which ply the region, hire a car, with or without a chauffeur, or hire a bicycle or motor cycle.