Sunday, August 19, 2007

July 2007 - Perugia, Italy - A Cultured University Town

We went to Perugia in the region of Umbria (just southeast of Tuscany) primarily to attend the world famous Umbria Jazz Festival, the largest jazz festival in Europe.

Upon arrival we discovered this amazing hilltop city which looks out on a vast expanse of green hills and plains. This is definitely Italy's heartland covered in a variety of crops with large farmhouses dotting the landscape.But that's not all, this city is pure medieval magic. We loved Perugia's architecture more than that of any other Italian city. The Middle Ages is still alive here in countless churches, towers, tunnels, underground passageways and fortress walls.Perhaps all this talk of the Middle Ages connotes the idea of a barbaric, uncultured city. But Perugia is anything but uncultured. This student-dominated town is full of cafes, live-music venues, interesting and diverse restaurants and some pretty upscale shopping.The center square at Piazza IV Novembre is flanked by the large 14th century Duomo and the National Gallery housing both a sophisticated art collection and the town hall.Here I am on Corso Vannucci, the center of the world from 6 p.m. to midnight when everyone in town is out enjoying "la passeggiatta" or evening stroll. "La passeggiatta" is to Italians what "la siesta" is to Spaniards . . . seeded deep in centuries-old cultural beliefs as necessary for a long, healthy life. This stroll is the time to catch up with fellow Perugians and to argue politics with the young students handing out the Communist newspaper - boldly titled COMMUNISTA. I know my fellow Cuban-Americans are cringing. Vannucci is not solely a hotbed for Communist activities, this beautiful street is lined with high-end boutiques, some of the most expensive espresso in Italy and decadent pastry shops. I assure you capitalism prevails here.Here we are on Corso Vannucci sampling the 6 euro "caffe freddo" or iced coffee. It might have been good if Italians had discovered the use of ice. But clearly, icemakers have not made it to these deep, dark parts of the world. Or as an old Italian lady on a bus in Verona would later explain to us, when you are so hot outside, it is not good to shock your body with cold things (i.e., ice and air conditioning) because such shock surely leads to catching "un rafreddore" (or as anyone with a Hispanic grandmother knows all too well, "un refriado"), a type of common cold only afflicting Latin people which may be fatal. After a coffee break and a little window shopping on Corso Vannucci we followed the pedestrianized promenade to the central square, Piazza IV Novembre.Students and others pack the steps of the town hall facing the piazza where they socialize, sleep, eat and smooch (hey, they're Italian and have all the right priorities).The centerpiece of the piazza is the Fontana Maggiore, one of Italy's prettiest public fountains. It was designed by local monk Fra' Bevignate in 1278, and the two stacked basins are set with panels and figures carved by Gothic master sculptors Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni. These panels were designed to highlight the glories of Perugia's past and character and are filled with references to everyday life -- a man roasting a chicken, a woman picking figs, and a love-stricken knight galloping after his lady fair and clutching a bunch of roses. The fountain was recently cleaned as were the buildings around it leaving all of the light-colored marble gleaming.All kidding aside, Perugia is a progressive city which places a high value on all arts and sciences. In fact, here is Kenny in front of Perugia's National Gallery built in the 1290s, a beautiful art museum with a large collection housed in this completely renovated and well-kept medieval palazzo dedicated to displaying Umbrian art from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. This building is also Perugia's town hall and one of the largest town halls in Italy.
The entrance to the museum still contains the dark, vaulted courtyard built in 1293.
The building also contains the preserved Sala dei Notari and large citizens' assembly hall built in 1297 and used from the 14th - 19th centuries as such. Now it is used for concerts and guest lectures.
The highlights of the museum are the paintings by Giotto (builder of the famous bell tower at Florence's Duomo) and his school from the late Middle Ages, which gave rise to the Renaissance by introducing the three-dimensional perspective that we associate with realism today.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Perugia is that the city is built on a series of hills and valleys with haphazard, zigzagging streets covered with arches and dark, narrow tunnels at every turn.

The medieval arches are undoubtedly Perugia's signature architectural element.I mean, we have never seen so many arched passageways in any other town. We continously sought out these walkways just to see how many we could find and where do they lead.
We walked down quite a few long narrow streets completely shielded from the daylight only to turn a corner and find a series or arches letting in a little sunlight and a glimpse at Perugia's usually cloudless, bright blue sky.

We learned that these high-flying arches were used to support a series of buildings which all seem to be leaning on each other (a technique developed by the Romans which allowed them to build taller buildings). This was useful during the Middle Ages when Italy's hilltowns were constantly at war with each other and it was important that as many people as possible live within the city's fortified walls. They have been standing since at least the 12th century so we assume they will continue to do so . . . but it is a little fun to walk under these arches and look at all the crooked buildings relying on each other for continued support.
The arches also provide a preview of the endless sea of palazzos that tumble down the hillsides all around the city center.
Through these archways are staircases that connect all of the parts of Perugia whether at the top of the hill or in the valleys below. The Perugians seem very fit and we are convinced it is from constantly climbing stairs and walking up and down hill through the city. One night we headed out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant with wonderful papaya juice margaritas. Perugians are made up of well-educated Italians and foreigners (as Perugia houses the largest university dedicated to foreign exchange students in Italy). This mix of people brings an ambitious work ethic and a diversity of foods and products (uncommon in most of Italy) to this small town.
On our way home from dinner at about 10 p.m. we were struck by how late the sun sets here in the summer and what a bright pink and gold colors glow in the sky over this lovely town.

Yet another example of Perugian ingenuity is that the city's walls are as much in use today as they were during the Middle Ages.
Today the interior of the walls (known as La Roccia - the rock) houses a system of escalators to take people up and down from the city center into the lower parts of Perugia pakced with bars, restaurants, museums and even a concert hall with amazing acoustics where we saw great jazz performances.Here I am within the city walls, at the top end of the long but ever-so-useful escalator system.So Perugians scurry in and out of the walls all day long as they use the interior to move about the city, meet for a drink or attend a contemporary art exhibit.
Finally, Perugia has a lower area which is in the valley below the hilly, fortified city center. Here are many homes, the arena and some leftover medieval churches; it is truly a juxtaposition of old and new.

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