Perugia has been in the news a lot lately but for all the wrong reasons. The picturesque capital of the region of Umbria has been the location of the media circus that has been the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito trial. And with the two having been convicted for the murder of Meredith Kercher, Perugia will certainly be in the spotlight as the appeals process begins.
It pains me that many people are getting their first look at Perugia through the lens of a sensational murder case because Perugia is a destination I like to recommend to travelers looking for a new place to explore in Central Italy. Perugia is an austere, university town – indeed, its one of Umbria’s hill towns – with several unique characteristics that make it ideal for discovery. Here’s my brief list of its charms:
A History of Rebellion While Perugia’s early history as a member of the Etruscan League is noteworthy, it is the city’s rankling of Rome that give it a reputation of rebellion. You could even say that Perugia has a “salty” past, as a large part of the town’s character was formed due to a battle with Rome in the so-called Salt War. From the early days of the Papal States, the people of Perugia were often at odds with the church. In 1540, things really came to a head when Rome doubled the tax of salt in 1540. The Perugians rebelled by drastically reducing their consumption of salt, resulting in pane sciapo, a bread made with little or no salt that is still consumed in Perugia today. Pope Paul III was the pontiff responsible for levying the high taxes during this time and made sure to punish Perugia when papal troops (led by his son) captured the city. The Rocca Paolina, a massive fortress built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, bears the inscription “ad coercendam Perusinorum audaciam” (to curb the audacity of the Perugian people). This is the only fortress I know of that was built to keep its citizenry in rather than thwart outside invaders.
An Artistic Pedigree A few of the aesthetic pleasures of Perugia include the stark caverns of Rocca Paolina, which has been retrofitted with escalators that run from between the upper and lower parts of town; the Etruscan walls; the Fontana Maggiore, a curious, round fountain built by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano; and the Piazza Italia, the lovely, tree-lined square overlooking the Umbrian valley where many Perugians take their evening passegiata. But Perugia is known in particular for the artist Pietro Vannucci (Perugino). You may also know of Perugino from his frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and for being a mentor to Raphael. Perugino’s works decorate the Collegio di Cambio in the Palazzo dei Priori and are also featured in the National Gallery of Umbria. Both of these places lie, aptly, on the Corso Vannucci – Perugia’s main street.
City of Chocolate Finally, one of the best reasons to visit Perugia is because it is a mecca for chocolate lovers. Perugina Chocolate, creator of the Bacio, the hazelnut and chocolate confection that comes wrapped in a love poem, is headquartered in Perugia. Long since purchased by Nestle, Perugina still maintains the Bacio brand, as well as a few others, and has a chocolate boutique on – you guessed it – Corso Vannucci. In addition to Perugina, the city is also site to a chocolate festival each October called Eurochocolate. The festival is a chance for artisanal chocolatiers to show off their products and for guests to learn about chocolate based on a particular theme. If you’re so inclined, you can even stay in the Etruscan Chocohotel (how’s that for combining brands?). This hotel is in the lower town of Perugia, so not among the old, medieval treasures of the upper town. But, they do give you a bar of chocolate upon check-in and have a restaurant that features several dishes made with chocolate.