On a warm autumn Sunday evening, Paola and Leonardo invited me to come with them to Perugia to walk around town at sunset, just to get out and also so that they could show me some of the interesting places that were very familiar to them. Perugia was one of the original Etruscan cities, and its university was founded in 1308, but it is probably more famous now for the University for Foreigners, and a recent American student there–Amanda Knox. I had been to Perugia once in 2006, finally finding parking and being admitted by police after three days of trying during the craziness of the EuroChocolate festival, held here each October. We were taking our walk the weekend before the opening of the nine-day festival, expecting to find the piazzas mostly unoccupied, and thinking that tourists were holding back for the coming festival and all of the free chocolate samples, chocolate artwork, and hundreds of booths selling their premium chocolate products.
We parked the car and headed for one of the escalators taking visitors up to the historic city center. We exited into the Rocca Paolina, the remains of a fortress named for Pope Paul III and built in 1540. It had been a magnificent five-story complex including the Papal palace, the basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi, two convents, and three hundred other buildings. For three centuries the fortress was a symbol of papal rule, before it was partially destroyed in 1840, and later completely demolished in 1870. All that now remains is the underground portion, recently excavated and opened to the public, and now used for museum and exhibit spaces.
We headed for the Piazza IV Novembre (the date of the armistice between Austria and Italy, ending WWI for Italy), where we could see preparations for the EuroChocolate fair in progress. We passed by a very famous pastry shop, with painted and vaulted ceilings, full of people searching through the candy and pastries for a treat. Reaching the far end of the piazza, near the cathedral and the landmark fountain (Fontana Maggiore), there were many barricades being delivered and set up, and a stage was being built for performances and demonstrations for the following week.
Leonardo pointed out the “grifone,” the griffin that is the symbol of Perugia. There was one up above the entrance of the Palazzo dei Priori, and soon I could find them all over the piazza. A bronze sculpture of one of the Popes was there, too—with a griffin by his side.
We left the main piazza to head deeper into the historic center of Perugia, passing a busy chocolate shop on the way. Perugia and the Perugina chocolate factory are world famous for chocolate and chocolate products such as the Perugina “Baci,” made of chocolate with a toasted hazelnut “bump” on the top. I’m not sure who had the name first, but “baci” are “kisses,” like the chocolates with the same name which Hershey has been making for decades in the U.S.
The old architecture was everywhere, with newer construction crammed around old, and some dramatic arches and towers. As we walked, though, there were many small hidden sculptures and glimpses inside open windows to frescoes on the ceilings.
Finally, we headed for the Accademia Belle Arti Perugia, where Paola had been a student. She showed us where she went in each day to school, and we watched students leaving the buildings as we passed by.
We turned back toward the area of the city where we had parked, and passed a mosque for a second time. On the first pass, there were about 50 men, mostly with dark beards and in loose white clothing, kneeling in prayer in lines on oriental carpets—and all bare-footed in the mosque. Through the sheer curtains, we could see the men bowing together, and experienced for just a moment the view that we would never have seen without passing the mosque just at prayer time. When we were on our return walk to the car, the men were talking in groups outside, and we passed and looked in on empty rooms where the men had been praying earlier.
Reaching the main piazza again, the outdoor tables were full of people having meals or drinks, but they represented just a fraction of the people who would be cramming into the same area in another week, for EuroChocolate. We were soon headed back down the escalator, returning to the parking garage and on our way back to Spello for dinner.