Twenty-Seven Hours to Perugia
All roads may lead to Rome, but they don’t all lead to Perugia, and therein lies the difficulty. I walked through the door of Room 47 at Hotel Sant’Ercolano, 9 via del Bovaro, Perugia, almost exactly twenty-seven hours after my trip had begun in pre-dawn darkness on Lisbon Street in San Francisco. I hadn’t slept much in the intervening hours, and I was becoming increasingly concerned with how I smelled. It had taken no more than the journey from the domestic to the international terminal at the airport in Detroit to make me face the cold, hard truth that I’d brought an insane and probably unhealthy amount of luggage with me, and on the train from Fiumicino to Roma Termini, I was already imagining what I could put in a box and mail back to California. I’m aiming to divest myself of thirty pounds of clothing and other items that might be nice to have, but not nice enough to wrestle them up and down cobbled streets that date back to the Etruscans. And weight, of course, whether it’s on your body or at the end of a shoulder strap, is metaphorical.
It is hot here. A no-kidding, no-shade, and nobody-has-any-air-conditioning kind of hot that makes stasis so attractive. But the evening is lively, and people began to pour into the piazza up the hill, the one with the fountain that fronts the Museo Nazionale dell’Umbria (tomorrow I’ll get my bearings and figure out what the piazza is called), as if lured outdoors by the steadily falling numbers on the digital temperature display above the massive entrance to the Banca dell’Umbria — 30, then 28, and then it was fully dark and the place took on that quality of shadowy light and isolated pockets of color and happy noise that characterize the nightlife in these towns where medieval brickwork houses the Benetton store, where you sip aperitivos on squares on which (according to the gory history in the Rough Guide) the heads of the condemned were once so regularly on display that steel pikes were handily built into the walls themselves.
It seems the height of touristy dilettantism to describe what one ate, but I can’t resist. It was a good food day, and food and drink, after all, are Italy’s true welcome wagon. So here it is: A negroni at an outdoor cafe called Turrone where I watched the sun disappear completely behind the high, gray-brick walls that surround the piazza and drank yet another bottle of aqua minerale, my life line throughout the day. I couldn’t decide if a negroni was a grownup drink or a tourist drink, but it’s something I only drink in Italy. Ordering a negroni in the states would seem somehow blasphemous, out of joint, like eating a shaved ice that doesn’t come from a van parked alongside the beach at Makapu’u.
Then a little walk to survey the food options–sadly, the place that had the best menu was entirely enclosed and, looking in, I could tell by its small size and by the toiling of large fans set high into the walls, that there would be no defeating the heat of the ovens. Besides, I wanted to eat outside. Sometimes one place would be very crowded, while the place next door wasn’t, even though both of them had identical tables and gave the identical view. I couldn’t tell what that meant, but I ultimately landed on the restaurant closest to my hotel, as much out of inability to choose as anything else. There, bread with olive oil and salt, and a glass of dry white wine that was perfect, though I never drink whites. I asked for whatever was very cold and very dry, and they didn’t disappoint.
Due to a language mix-up, I wound up with both an Antipasto Lucano (sausages, olives, cheese, pickled onions, and so on, all from Basilicata) and the orecchiette alle rape. I was actually trying to decide on one or the other and thought I’d landed on the antipasto alone, but apparently I ordered both. I wasn’t sorry. Rape is such an amazing vegetable, very slightly bitter and broccoli-like, but somehow “greener” in taste. The restaurant made their orecchiette with a hint of hot red pepper, which I didn’t like on the first bite, and was then instantly sold on with the second. And, of course, a limoncello to finish off, but only because the waiter, who kindly also gave me directions to the TIM store near the train station in Perugia Bassa, promised me it was “fatto a casa.” I had no reason to think he was wrong.
Behind me, la signora del ristorante chatted amiably in English with an elderly Scots couple who, I overheard, are also staying at my hotel. The Scots woman spoke normally, but the man had that annoying habit of speaking a kind of pidgin English as if that were easier for a non-native speaker to understand (in fact, it’s harder). The signora lives in Rome (“Ah, Roma! Much money!” says the Scots man) , but her family is in Perugia. Apparently she lives more or less between both cities, about two hours apart by train. They all compared notes on raising daughters, and the signora said that she’d been a very strict mother, perhaps too strict, something she realized now that her older daughter was getting married. “Yes, sometimes I’ve really been a … a strega,” she said. “Wait, don’t remind me….” But when it was clear the word wasn’t coming, I turned around and winked. “Witch,” I said.
“Yes, yes, right! A witch!”
But then the witch didn’t charge me for my limoncello.