The hilltop city of Perugia, the capital of the region of Umbria in central Italy, may boast the greatest medieval palace in Italy, the finest art gallery in the region, and ancient fortified walls and gates, but its many dark and twisting cobbled alleyways, back streets, arches and winding staircases offer many other surprises for the inquisitive tourist.
Perugia was amongst the most important of the twelve city states of Etruria, the dominant culture of Italy until the Roman Republic was established in 509BC. Though the Etruscans were assimilated into Roman culture, the city has many Etruscan landmarks including the innermost massive walls of the city with its seven gates that were constructed in the second half of the 3rd century BC. In the heart of the city is the masterpiece of Perugia, the C13 richly sculptured Fontana Maggiore in one of Italy’s finest piazzas, the Piazza IV Novembre (the day the First World War ended in Italy). Facing the square is the medieval Palazzo dei Priori, one of Italy’s greatest public palaces, which also houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and the region’s finest collection of Umbrian art. Further out from the Etruscan walls, another series of walls and four gates was built in the C13 and C14.
Curiously evidence of Roman rule is scare. There are Roman remains beneath the cathedral, and also beneath the Tempio di Sant’Angelo at the end of Corso Garibaldi to the north of the city. This unusual circular building, which is a paleo-Christian temple from the C5-C6, is one of the most ancient churches in Italy. It has some Romanesque features and is built on the remains of a Roman temple. The aqueduct on the west side of the city is Medieval not Roman as is sometimes stated.
Today, Perugia is also famous for its international chocolate and jazz festivals, its football team, its cosmopolitan L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia (the University for Foreigners) established by the fascist dictator Mussolini in 1921, and home to the country’s largest language school.
If you’ve only 48 hours in Perugia, here’s an assortment of other places to see and things to do.
The Rocca Paolina
At the southern end of the main street of the city, the broad Curso Vannucci, past the Piazza Italia, under the western porticoes of the Prefecture Palace of Perugia, is an escalator. This unexpectedly takes you down into an underground complex of passages and vaults. This is all that remains of a great papal stone fortress, the Rocca Paolina (the Pauline Fortress), commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1540 following the brutal putting down of a revolt by the city. Perugia had enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the Papal States that had ruled central Italy from the 8th century. The revolt was triggered by the Pope’s decision to enforce a tax on salt which violated treaties between Perugia and previous popes. The conflict became known as the Salt War.
To build the fortress, hundreds of houses, including the palaces of the Baglioni family, the brutal rulers of Perugia since 1488 and enemies of Pope Paul, were demolished. The huge fortress became a symbol of church supremacy and oppression that lasted for three centuries. With the unification of Italy in 1860 the top-level of the fortress was demolished using dynamite and bare hands and the Prefecture Palace and the Carducci Gardens were built on top. This left the bastion and ground floor of the fortress as underground galleries. Anthony Trollope, watching the demolition, wrote that ‘few buildings have been laden with a heavier amount of long-accumulated hatred’.
Three successive escalators continue down through the underground city, into the open in the shadow of the ancient walls, and arrive at a bus station and car parks in the newer city.