Saturday, 30 April 2016

Re-imagining Perugia as a handmade chocolate.

Friday 22nd April, 2016.

Perugia's most famous product is Baci chocolate. Each chocolate fondant Baci (kiss) comes with a message of love printed inside its foil wrapping. Ah, latin romance...but it's a little down-heartening to learn that Perugino, the manufacturer, is a division of Nestlé, which has to count as one of the most obnoxious multi-national corporations on the planet ever since its CEO announced that water is a product not a resource, and people had no right to water if they were unable to pay for it. Evil.

So I feel under some compunction to reinvent an imaginary Baci that better represents Perugia as we experienced it. The outer layers would be dark, spicy and spiked with dentally challenging bits of walnut and nougat; the inner core unctuous, rich caramel laced with unsweetened cherry brandy. 

Perugia's outer bits were challenging. The Sosta is positioned on a scrap of land squeezed between two busy roads. Exiting it on foot involves taking your life in hands and negotiating typically haphazard Italian pavements that disappear without warning at intersections leaving pedestrians at the mercy of the ferocious traffic. It should be simple. Perugia has invested in an elevated driverless railway, like a DLR made out of Duplo. It connects the station to the city's ancient, hill-top heart which stretches the length of a craggy escarpment. However it is less than straightforward to reach the metro station, there were no signs. We got lost, wandering around for a while on le Corbusier inspired concrete walkways admiring the colourful graffiti and raw concrete walls inscribed with anti-globalisation slogans. We happened upon the station eventually by stalking a local. The mini-metro station is a stylish modernist inspired building; its urban vibe was considerably enhanced by groups of bling bejewelled 'bros' hanging about out on the concourse - Philly meets Perugia.

Perugia sosta - a typical urban camperstop
Perugia may be an ancient city, but its outskirts seem determinedly modernist.

concrete walk-ways

funky graffiti
Cool metro station

Bathetic trams

dog leashes - such a hazard
 Step into Perugia's 'soft centre' and it feels as if you have mysteriously materialised in a completely different city. Perugia is ancient, built on Etruscan foundations with wonderful thirteenth century buildings lining the main streets and squares. We joined everyone else sitting on the steps of the Doumo in the warm sunshine and admired the famous Maggiore fountain. 

Fontans Maggiore...respect!

Perugia Duomo - Italy's most underwhelming?
 It may be ancient looking, but looks belie. In fact the place is youthful and lively. Over a fifth of its 160,000 inhabitants are university students. Today was a graduation day. No mortar boards in Italy, graduants here are crowned with laurel (very Roman) and then after receiving their degree they are supposed to sprint around the city, at least according to one new 'double doctor' that Gill chatted to. In fact we observed much soulful mooching, but little sprinting.

Ancient and contemporary collide - brilliant!

We wandered to the far end of Via dei Priori where there is a spectacular view across the Tiber valley. Lunch called. We had a couple of panini with local cured ham and two macchiata. As we were settling the bill an enterprising beggar dressed as a Commedia dell'Arte character sidled up and attempted to relieve us of a bit of small change. In the the ensuing melee he plonked a kiss on Gill's cheek. We gave him 50 cents just to get rid. Very irritating.

The Tiber valley
Gill and her panini

Our waiter...
Having explored the main streets, we then wandered around the tangle of small alleys at the back of Piazza IV Novembre. It's an old area, but quite undeveloped. It was easy to imagine that it had not changed much in centuries. As well as ite city's external walls, differing districts of the old city seemed to have local defensive features, such as dog-leg entrance gates and towers with arrow slits. There is a history of internecine violence in the city as well as external threats  from the neighbouring Tuscans and the Papal States to the south. I suppose it is not surprising that the city manifests both external and interior fortifications. We did wander down a few empty narrow alleys where it felt at any moment you might be stabbed to death by a couple of shadowy characters wearing confraternity regalia. Parts of Perugia centro storico have a distinctly 'Dan Brown' ambiance.

Shadowy alleys..

Di Vinci Code doorways
Somehow we managed to find our way back to the 21st century retail opportunities in the main square. Chocolate shops predominate. We bought a bar of what we took to be local produce, in fact on later examination it turned out to be from Modica in Sicily. This style of chocolate is unique as it does not use vegetable oil in the manufacturing process, only cane sugar and cocoa solids. It is less sweet and more grainy than modern chocolate and it is thought to resemble the taste and texture of chocolate from the 16th century, when it was first introduced from the Americas. We were delighted with our accidental purchase as we had planned to visit the Modica chocolate shops while we were in Sicily before Christmas, but our plans were curtailed by Gill's accident.

Serious confectionery
So, Perugia, an interesting place - a little grittier perhaps than some other of Italy's ancient cities perhaps, but energetic, atmospheric and characterful. In comparison Pisa seems corporate, and Florence 'A Room With View' parody of itself.


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