Keys to the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am

The focal point of the evening, and indeed the reason for my having left my rural Umbrian retreat, is a 9pm appointment with Alicia. However, I have arrived early in Perugia, my interest piqued by guidebook descriptions that characterise the central Italian city as a 'hilltop Etruscan treasure trove' and a 'widely disregarded medieval gem'. Most agree that a blend of historical riches and effervescent nightlife creates an alluring ambience.

Towering high above the surrounding plains, its city walls basking in the early-evening summer sunshine, Perugia appears to appraise its territory from a position of omnipotence. Approaching from the north, the visitor is greeted by the imposing travertine blocks that constitute the Etruscan fortifications. The main gate into the city, the Arco Etrusco, was renamed the Arco di Augusto and inscribed with the words 'Augusta Perusia' following the city's near destruction by Augustus Caesar during his defeat of Mark Antony. The arch epitomises Perugia's eclectic architectural heritage: while the Roman arch is set into Etruscan walls, the overlooking loggia was added during the Renaissance - and is contrastingly lighter in style.

Nearby, an imposing aqueduct draws the eye long before you spot the people walking across the top of it. Strolling into town along this aqueduct-cum-street, you feel rather Roman as you look down on terracotta rooftops and flagstone patios. Called Via Acquedotto, it was constructed to supply the city with water in medieval times - now it is an enchanting gateway into Piazza IV Novembre.

Perugia's social hub and architectural epicentre is dominated by the magnificent edifice of one of Italy's greatest public buildings, the Palazzo dei Priori. More than a town hall, the palazzo encompasses a number of absorbing fresco-laden complexes, including the Collegio di Cambio, complete with masterpieces by ubiquitous local Renaissance hero Pietro Vannucci - better known as Perugino. As one might expect, Perugino is also the leading man in the palazzo's Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, which presents a history of the region's art.

Outside, the palazzo's ancient steps are a focal point for young Perugians and foreign visitors seeking a shady corner of the piazza.

Tonight, locals and visitors alike will be treated to high-calibre entertainment, courtesy of the Umbria Jazz Festival, which provides Perugia with a multitude of musical acts for about 10 days each July (this year's festival takes place from July 9 to 18). While the likes of Miles Davis, James Brown and Gilberto Gil have packed out the city's ticketed arenas over the festival's 37 years, myriad lesser-known yet talented musicians play on the streets for free.

'Jazz' is clearly interpreted in broad terms here; across the piazza a gospel band bursts clamorously into life. Tourists turn their attention away from the cooling waters of the Fontana Maggiore, the Pisanos' (father and son, Nicola and Giovanni) glorious 13th-century fountain - once the destination for the aqueduct's load - and towards the stage, backed by Perugia's medieval cathedral.

A crowd forms as people migrate from the neighbouring streets, drawn to the music reverberating from Piazza IV Novembre. However, I mustn't dally; Alicia may not be impressed if I arrive late for our appointment.

The nearby Etruscan well, which once supplied the town with water, and the San Severo chapel will have to wait for another day. The main interest in San Severo lies in the Holy Trinity and Saints fresco, specifically in the differences between the parts painted by the young and brilliant Raphael and the section undertaken by his ailing former teacher, Vannucci, which was completed after Raphael's death.

Progressing down the main north-south pedestrian thoroughfare, unsurprisingly named Corso Vannucci, the evening's passeggiata has a festive feel as passers-by amble to or from one of the city's many vibrant alfresco restaurants. Leisurely dining on scrumptious Umbrian cuisine is often accompanied by the sounds of accomplished buskers or wandering musicians. Throughout the town centre, street stalls selling plastic cups full of Peroni beer are commonplace and yet, in keeping with Italian culture, drunkenness is not.

At the southern end of Corso Vannucci, blues music emanates from a stage tucked away in the Carducci gardens. Here, people are enjoying the music with a delicious slice of pizza or a fresh caprese salad (buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil) from a marquee specialising in fast food, Italian-style.

With daylight stretching into the summer's evening, a wonderful view is still to be seen, falling away from the promontory on the southern side of Perugia and sweeping across the gently undulating landscape beyond. However, as the long shadows indicate, it is fast-approaching 9pm; time to drop down to the lower, modern part of town.

This final part of the journey proves to be the most curious. The route down from the Giardini Carducci entails a series of escalators interrupted by subterranean medieval streets: think Mid-Levels meets Pompeii - underground. This buried town is all the more extraordinary for the juxtaposition of modern-day city workers and party-goers going about their business in medieval homes, workshops and courtyards.

During the 1540s, people of the San Giuliana district were driven from their homes, the sturdy gothic walls of which were then used as foundations for a papal fortress. This was destroyed three centuries later by the Perugians and a modern neighbourhood arose where the fortress once stood, leaving the medieval quarter intact beneath.

While descending the final section of the escalator, I endeavour to practise my pidgin-Italian. The overly helpful locals answer my 'Dov'e Alicia?' in fluent English.

Competing with heavy-hitters Rome, Florence and nearby Assisi for tourists is no easy task. Yet Perugia is so delightfully laid-back one wonders whether it is, in fact, trying very hard. Before today, I was as unaware of Perugia's charms as I was of those belonging to tonight's star attraction at the open-air Santa Giuliana Arena. Alicia Keys' jubilant introduction sums up my thoughts precisely.

'Well, hello Per-r-ru-gia! It's good to be here.'