Saturday, October 29, 2011

From a medieval college hill-town, to... a medieval college hill-town

So, I occasionally peruse the Slow Travel message board to get info on various travel-related things (usually logistical). When I searched the Italy board for the best way to get from Siena to Perugia, I found lots of posts proclaiming, “Take the bus! Take the bus! Take the bus!” People said it was a shorter ride than the train (1.5 hours vs. 3), there are no connections to worry about, it costs the same as the train, and the scenery is prettier. What people neglected to mention was that, at least currently, the only bus that runs from Siena to Perugia leaves at 5:15 in the evening. Given that we needed to leave our Siena hotel by 10:00 AM, and given that the Perugia apartment guy wanted to meet us earlier in the afternoon, that meant the bus option was out.

Nevertheless, the train wasn’t all that bad. There was a transfer in Chiusi, followed by a connection in Terontola-Cortona, and from there a straight shot to Perugia. The trains were all small, 2-3 car intercity deals, but they were comfortable enough. That is, until a class full of screaming 10 year olds got on at Terontola. 

This is my first time visiting the region of Umbria. I’ve been dying to come here for ages, and I’ve always been curious about Perugia, because, like Siena, it’s a vibrant college town with a well-preserved and sizable medieval section, perched dramatically atop a large hill. The city is packed with narrow, winding, steep streets, and loads of old stonework, and jaw-dropping panoramic views.

Luca, the apartment guy, was really nice, and younger than I’d imagined from our email correspondence (which was all in Italian). The studio apartment is very small, which I was aware of, but it’s fine for us. On the plus side, it’s incredibly cheap, it’s super clean, and located in the center, but a bit off the beaten path, on a quiet and extremely steep street in the Porta Pesa district. We won’t be making any fancy meals with this tiny kitchenette, but it’s enough to throw together simple breakfasts and lunches. The bed is nice and firm, too (and it’s one queen-sized mattress, not two singles! Yay!).

The apartment (2nd floor)

The street that the apt is on.
Inside the apartment
First impressions of Perugia are definitely positive. Visually, it's similar to Siena in a lot of ways, although its main piazza is certainly no match for Il Campo, and its duomo is clearly not of the caliber of Siena’s. Still, there is a grittiness and an energy to Perugia that was immediately apparent, and there are extremely few tourists as well, all of which makes the city feel more “real,” if that makes sense. There’s more of an edge too – greater presence of “alternative” sub-cultures, more gay couples walking together in the open, it's more ethnically diverse, etc., which makes things more interesting. But then there are also more people with sad and cracked-out faces, more homeless people begging for change, etc., all of which makes Perugia not unlike Berkeley. In that respect it seems similar to Genova, too, except with much more of a pulse, more soul, and much more aesthetically pleasing. It’s going to be fun getting to know this town!

We got here around 3:00, and after getting settled in the apartment, we strolled through the city, making our way to the main piazza via winding, steep streets. The way the setting sun shimmered against the pink and light grey stone of the duomo was truly beautiful. We walked down Corso Vannucci all the way to Piazza over the Rocca Paolina, to check out the view, then worked our way back, checking out the apartment guy’s couple of restaurant recommendations along the way.

Sadly, we ate at one of apartment guy’s recommendations (called Ristorante Piazzeta), and what started out promising turned quickly into a culinary train wreck. The menu looked interesting and even a little innovative. The antipasti were great: a crostini trio with ham of smoked duck over wild mushrooms, and another plate with these little ricotta-filled crepe-like things with black truffle shavings and porcinis. But things fell apart rapidly with the abysmal pasta dishes. My tagliolini with funghi porcini had zero porcini flavor, and even worse, the porcini were not fresh, not dried, but apparently once-fresh porcinis that were frozen, giving them an unappetizingly slimy texture. Terezia’s pasta with potato, leeks, and black truffle shavings was curiously bland as well, with nary a trace of that black truffle flavor. Hugely disappointing. Perugia might prove to be a tough town in the food department. It was difficult to find many recommendations on-line, so it’s going to be a crap-shoot.

Grouchy from the crappy meal (and that’s two nights of crappy meals in a row, now, in case anyone’s paying attention), we walked to a gelateria we’d seen earlier in the day, called Gelateria Veneta or something like that. Aviva mentioned in her blog that there were scant gelato offerings in Perugia, and I can confirm this as we’ve only spotted two so far. The gelato we had was pretty good: definitely not bad, but not mind-blowing.

So, I’m super excited to be here, but I really hope the food improves ASAP!

More photos of Perugia can be found by clicking here!

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