Perugia, Lake Trasimeno, Assisi and Cortona

I’ve written in some other posts that I chose Perugia as part of our 2018 itinerary because my sister wanted to see Assisi and it seemed like the best location for getting there.  I had also hoped to see some of the other towns of Umbria, known as the ‘green heart’ of Italy, but found that travel between towns would be difficult without a car. (And given my experience trying to drop off a rental car in the outskirts of Perugia, I’m glad we didn’t try to drive in Umbria.) I also wanted to go to Cortona again and thought we could get there from Perugia by train.  Our hotel said ‘no’ but as I wrote in my journal the train schedule said ‘yes.’ (I’ve decided to add a small section on Cortona based on our visit in 2016 with a gallery of pictures from that visit.  It’s a lovely city and I would still like to return.)

Despite another bad hotel choice on my part, Hotel Fortuna, we really enjoyed Perugia plus our side trips to Assisi and Lake Trasimeno.

Getting There

We had rented a car in Montecatini Terme and planned to return it in Perugia after our stay in Chianti.  I thought the tough part would be getting to Perugia.  NOPE.  That was easy.  Even though the rental car company had included a map of their location, we came very close to being permanently lost in Perugia.  Here’s what I wrote:  Well everything I worried about came true.  We didn’t have any serious problems getting into Perugia.  I got off at the first exit and followed the signs to (one of) the train stations.  Just before the station Sue spotted a gas station.  I went in and the super nice clerk checked on his phone and said it was straight ahead a few km.  So we got gas and coffee then headed out.

 Sue spotted it on the left but I was on the right and couldn’t get over.  I thought I could go around the block but every loop took us further away.  We went around and around, getting more and more freaked, stopping 2-3 times trying to get directions.

 Somehow I got us on the street into a hospital.  I asked a little guy dropping off trash and he gave decent directions.  We finally spotted the office and I basically abandoned the car which pissed off the clerk but we didn’t get charged more (or so she said). 

I’ve looked at maps since our return and still can’t figure out how we got so lost but there was a woman from Rome doing an audit at the Europcar location  and she said she was horrifically lost when she arrived and had to abandon her car too.  I think part of the issue is the way the city is laid out or not as the case may be as discussed below.

Getting around in the centro

Before the trip my research on Perugia indicated that there are three train stations plus what is called the mini metro.  The multiple train stations contributed to our being lost that first afternoon while trying to find the Europcar office.  We had initially stopped at a gas station next to a train station but it wasn’t the main one–Stazione Fontivegge.  I think that train station might have been the one near the university since the third station Ponte San Giovanni is several kilometers from the main city.

While trying to decipher the train station situation, I read about the mini metro on a TripAdvisor forum.  The description was confusing but we learned how to use it without too much trouble. It’s pretty much a necessity if you’re staying in the centro.  I’ve stayed in a lot of hilltop towns and cities in Italy but Perugia’s centro sits far above the valley where both the main station and most of the housing lie.  While circling the area just below the centro, we also drove past the university.   You can cab from the train station or newer areas into the centro but it’s both fairly expensive and terrifying as the cab driver rockets down the narrow streets.

Here’s how we figured  out how to use the mini metro: After ‘breakfast’ we asked the concierge about getting to the train station to go to Trasimeno (and in the process asked about Cortona getting ‘no way’)  plus asking which town to go to.  She started rattling off about how to use the mini metro which I’d read about on TA.  I said it sounded too complicated and she got pretty snotty with me.  ‘It’s easy.’  So we headed out just before 11:00am planning to get the 11:45am train to Passignano sul Trasimeno.   Surprisingly we found the mini metro Ok and it wasn’t super difficult to use although she failed to mention that it costs 1.50 euros each way.  It brought us out near the station parking lot which we’d circled multiple times yesterday and we easily bought roundtrip tickets to Passignano for 6.60 euros.

The trickiest part to the metro was finding the elevator or escalator to the station where you buy tickets and get on the cars.  We found the elevator our first time, just off of Piazza Matteotti and via Oberdan but didn’t find the escalator until the second time we used the metro.  It’s a fairly odd looking contraption of ‘pod like’ cars that first go from the centro station underground to the initial stop, then back outside, dangling from a cable like a ‘funiculare.’  The main train station is a short walk from the third stop on the metro after leaving the centro.

I thought my sister had taken pictures of the metro but she couldn’t find them.  The only way I could think of to illustrate the metro is to include this picture taken near Piazza Braccio Fortebraccio which shows how steep the hill is from the centro.  You have to use your imagination to envision a small pod on a cable traversing this hill. 

Where not to Stay

Fortuna Hotel

Before we left Chianti I checked reviews for Hotel Fortuna and have no idea why I didn’t see the negative comments before booking.  As I wrote in my journal: The hotel is exactly as described–dated and weird.  But the staff’s been helpful (not) and the terraces are nice. And here’s the review I wrote on TripAdvisor:  Bizarre Beyond Words  I wish I’d seen some of these reviews before booking although most of them are too kind. Other than the location I can’t think of anything good to say. It is a rabbit warren of rooms which if they’re like ours are dark, cramped, and cold with furniture and fixtures from the 1950’s. We had the extra bonus of a bathroom in the hallway. I thought the breakfast buffet was mediocre at best and the coffee was terrible. When we told the concierge on Saturday that we wanted to go to Assisi on Sunday, she failed to mention that there are no buses on Sunday. The Sunday staff said we could take the train and walk to the town. It’s at least a 2 mile walk uphill on a busy road. The coups d’grace is that the only way to get wifi is to sit in the library where you have to turn on the light every 10 minutes. We did make new friends (sitting in the library) but it was wildly inconvenient.

On the plus side we enjoyed having a glass of wine on the terrace at the end of the day and a couple of times in the late afternoon after our excursions.  Here are some pictures of the views from the terrace and some murals in the ‘library.’

Sights in Perugia

When researching things to do in Perugia, I found this site– https://www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/perugia-i-um-pe.htm– which was very helpful since my travel books didn’t have a lot of information on the city.

Our first afternnon we walked from the hotel through Piazza della Repubblica, down Corso Vannucci, through Piazza IV Novembre, and Piazza Matteotti.  We also walked past Piazza Italia to Porta Marzia in search of the escalators that go from the centro to the area near the bus station. What we initially found was a look out point with a lovely view across the valley. You can see the view in the gallery below along with some of the buildings near Piazza Italia.

We loved the architecture of the main buildings around the piazzas as well as Fontana Maggiore in Piazza IV Novembre and took quite a few pictures of the streets and piazzas. Along with the architecture, we thought the soft pink stone and brick was especially pretty.

Our next two days were spent in Passignano sul Trasimeno and Assisi (see below) but we spent all of Monday going to some of the major sights in Perugia.  Here’s what I wrote: Noon:  Back from a walk to some of the sites–the Cattedrale, Pozzo Etrusco, Arco Etrusco (we think) plus a stop for a cappuccino and the bancomat.  It was cloudy and cool when we left and started sprinkling as we came back. 

The main cathedral, San Lorenzo, makes up one side of Piazza IV Novembre, facing Fontana Maggiore.  The web site referenced above states that construction began in the 13th century  and continued through the 16th century.  According to the site: ‘Inside are beautiful 15th-century choir-stalls and a pulpit that was built in the 14th century of older stone fragments.’  The buildings around the piazza, including the cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and Fontana Maggiore, are aesthetically pleasing even though constructed in different eras.  To me the architecture looked almost baroque but according to the site at Planetware: the palazzo is ‘a massive building in Italian Gothic style from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. On the side facing the Piazza IV Novembre are a griffin (the emblem of Perugia), a 14th-century bronze lion, and chains, all commemorating Perugia’s victory over Siena in 1358. On the first floor of the palace, which is entered through the beautifully carved main doorway facing Corso Vannucci, is the splendid Sala dei Notari. The hall is covered in late 13th-century frescoes of biblical and allegorical scenes.’ Here are a few pictures of the piazza, fountain, interior and exterior of the cathedral.

Piazza Dante

Pozzo Etrusco means Etruscan Well and while we found the small piazza (Piazza Dante) where it is located we didn’t see anything that looked like a well.   We walked from there down Ulisse Rocchi, a very narrow street, although that didn’t stop cars from driving through at  90 mph. While you can easily see portions of a wall that look like they could date back to the Etruscans, we weren’t totally sure we saw the Arco Etrusco.  But here are a few pictures of that area.

 

 

 

Just on the other side of the Arco is Piazza Braccio Fortebraccio.  We walked from the piazza along a street with views out over the valley.

After lunch that same day, it started to pour so we were glad we’d left the National Gallery of Umbria in the Palazzo dei Priori for the afternoon.  Here’s what I wrote: The national gallery was really interesting.  We spent an hour and a half there and didn’t see half of it.  The museum is really modern and open which makes a nice contrast to the medieval and Renaissance religious art.  Plus they have an exhibit of restored paintings that includes a small ‘laboratorio’ with an art restorer working on a painting and an interactive screen showing how works are restored.

You can’t take pictures in the gallery but here are a few of the lower level of the Palazzo showing the griffins of Perugia plus photos of  postcards from the bookshop.

On Sunday before we went to Assisi, we started talking with a nice guy (Richard, from Naples, Florida) who was staying at our hotel  and found out that for the past 5 years he’s been taking a two week art course in Florence which led to an interesting discussion of medieval and Renaissance art.  I can only take so many Madonna con bambino paintings but I do love the rich colors, especially the reds and blues along with the gold leaf.  Richard said that it was from using egg tempura which actually holds colors longer than oil based paints.  Who knew?

Where to eat in Perugia

Before our trip, I’d done my usual research on restaurants, looking mainly for casual enotecas that had more flexible hours than traditional restaurants that typically close between 2:00pm and 7:00pm.  One such place I’d found on line, Caffe Perugina, looked fun and had really good reviews.  But it just has a small outside seating area and it was either too hot or too cold to sit there.

DAJE

Luckily we found an even better place–DAJE–our first afternoon where we had lunch of panini and vino.  It’s located in a narrow street, via Danzetti, between Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Matteotti.  Saturday night the weather had turned chilly and windy by the time we got back from Passignano and cleaned up, so we walked directly to DAJE and here’s what I wrote: We asked to sit inside and even though it was packed, they squeezed us in.  We had an absolutely enormous meat/cheese platter, wine, bread and water.  After working on it [the platter] for an hour, we gave up and asked if we could finish our wine outside.  It was so cold though that I just took 2 puffs of my smoke and went back inside to finish my wine.  When Sue came back in, she got an espresso.  We asked for the check and the owner (manager?) said it [the espresso] was on him, shaking our hands and saying buona notte.  I wrote a review on TripAdvisor applauding our good food and service. (We also bought a nice bottle of wine there our first night and usually finished our evenings with a glass of wine on the terrace.)

Caffe di Perugia

 

Sunday night after returning from  Assisi, we decided to go in search of a light dinner of pizza and here’s what I wrote: Anyway we walked through the main piazza and down a side street seeing a little restaurant (Caffe di Perugia) that had pizza.  We went in and I asked ‘due per la cena?’  We were taken upstairs to a lovely dining room.  We were looking over the pizzas on the menu when the maître d’ (?) brought us prosecco and a lovely appetizer.

  So we felt like we had to order something more and got pasta which we didn’t really want or need.  Up until then the staff had been very friendly and nice, even uncorking the vino della casa at the table.  But then they disappeared and were super cold when we asked for the check.  Plus Sue noticed everyone else was eating pizza. Sigh, the story of this trip.  Anyway the dinner morphed into a much more expensive one than planned with a lot more calories but it was still an enjoyable meal.

Pizzeria Ferrari

Monday as we were walking through Piazza della Repubblica on our way back from the national gallery, we randomly picked out this restaurant for dinner since it was close to the hotel and it turned out to be one of the best meals ever.  Here’s a heavily redacted portion of my journal, taking out the lengthy comments about the cute waiters.: What a fortuitous choice!!!  A waiter standing by the entrance from the piazza started things off by joking about seating us outside.  We were seated in a large room by ourselves which I figured was because we were the only Americans.  But it quickly filled up; first by what seemed to be an American tour group, then some couples (including some locals) and what appeared to be a group from a language school with their teacher.

 In any event we first started making sotto voce comments about our waiter then the table of language learners.  What set us off was Sue saying she thought the older guy who seemed to be the teacher was interested in me.  When the group got up to leave, he smiled at me–or so I thought– and I smiled back.  He seemed to be walking over to our table when another group called him over.

 We started laughing over it and were giggling helplessly by the time the waiters came back to clear the table.  Finally one of them asked, ‘Are you laughing at us?’  Sue said, ‘No, no I’m laughing at my sister.’  ‘You’re sisters?’  Then he kept coming back in the room saying we made him laugh, which just set us off more.

 We’d had pizza, dessert (what we later learned was called mille foglie) and most of a ½ liter of wine by then but decided to have a limoncello.  When we caught the waiter’s attention, I said ‘I know we’ve had too much to drink already but could we have a limoncello?’  When he brought the limoncello, he said, ‘These are on me.’  We thanked him profusely and continued to giggle over the limoncello by which time the room had pretty much emptied.  Then he and another waiter came back and asked if we’d like a mixed drink–‘sex on the beach?’  We tried to decline nicely but it sent us into helpless laughter.

An unnamed Osteria

We had no idea where to go our first night and I wrote: We went out around 7:00pm last night, walked around the bit then settled on a little trattoria in P. Matteotti where they were Ok with our just having insalata and antipasto.  Sue really liked it and wants to go back but I thought it was fairly average. The best part was the nice service and cozy atmosphere.

Lake Trasimeno

We saw Lake Trasimeno for the first time on our 2016 walking tour of Tuscany.  We’d been in Cortona and our group did a quick stop in Trasimeno for a photo op.  I thought it was lovely.  One of my travel books described it as having ‘tranquil, melancholy beauty’ and that description is exactly right.  Here are some pictures from the walking tour.

And here’s what I wrote in my journal:  We’re heading for Lake Trasimeno today since we can’t get to Cortona or anywhere else, then Assisi tomorrow.  (Later)  After getting our tickets I realized our train went to Cortona and was hopping mad. 

 But Passignano turned out to be a very pretty town and it was sunny and warm; a good day to be outside.  We bought ferry tickets to Isola Maggiore and really enjoyed our walk around the island and a gelato.  We got back to Passignano about 3:30 and after taking more photos, we settled on a little café that looked a bit marginal, but we both wanted insalata di tonno and it was on their menu.  It was one of the most amazing salads ever and I inhaled mine.

 Afterwards we sat in the park then walked to the stazione, caught the next train to Perugia and were back about 6:30pm.

That’s a fairly sketchy description of our day, especially the island so here’s a little more information.  The lake itself is the 4th largest in Italy and it takes about 45 minutes to get to the island from Passignano, including another stop on the other side of the lake.  The ferry docks at a  small village with 14th century homes.  We walked from the dock to the main street through the village, then took a gravel path around the edge of the island to a statue of St. Francis who stayed on the island briefly with some friars.  From the statue we did a fairly steep up hill climb arriving at the church of San Salvatore.  We then took a path down to the village where we’d started and as mentioned above, had a tasty gelato.

Passignano is a delightful resort town and the main street along the lake is about a 10 minute walk from the train station.  After getting off the train, we weren’t sure where we were going so just followed some other people.  On one side of the main street are restaurants and hotels and on the other side, are more restaurants, parks and boat docks. The trains run frequently between Perugia and Passignano so it makes an easy day trip.

Assisi

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, much of our 2018 itinerary was structured around my sister’s desire to see Assisi or more specifically the Basilica di San Francesco and the frescoes of Giotto.  While, as I wrote in my Bologna post, I’ve always enjoyed the duomos of Firenze and Siena and some monasteries such as San Antimo and Abbazia di Monte Olivetto, I have a short attention span for other churches.  Still from the information in my guide books I was looking forward to seeing the frescoes.  Plus we thought that a Sunday in late September would not be busy.  All I can say is OMG!!  And not in a good way.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many people crammed into and around a site as were trying to get into and out of San Francesco.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote in my journal about our day: 5:55pm:  Whew!!  What a crazy day!  We were heading out, getting ready to drop off our keys when I asked about the bus schedule.  ‘Oh there are no buses on Sunday.’  The front desk person suggested taking the train, printing off the schedule.  It was cheap and fast with lots of trains but I asked, “Isn’t the station below the town?”  “Yes but you can walk there.”  So we decided to do it. [Post trip comment:  On the plus side the trains are frequent and cheap and it only takes about 45 minutes.]

After we exited the station we realized the centro was at least a two mile uphill walk along a main road with no sidewalks.  I checked taxis finding that they cost 15 euros.  Then I went into the bar and asked about bus tickets; 2.60 euros round trip.  So I bought them.  Then the fun began.  They must have pushed 100 people on the bus and it seemed like forever to get to the first piazza just below the centro.  Then it was another steep uphill to S. Francesco and a fight with thousands of tourists to get into the church.  One mass was ending and another beginning so we didn’t stay long.

Still my sister took some beautiful pictures of both the interior and exterior as you can see below.

As you can also see, the upper church makes an interesting backdrop to the views from Piazza Superiore and the statue of  “Il ritorno di Francesco”,  showing a weary Francis atop his horse returning to his home

Despite having looked at online maps of Assisi, I didn’t realize that Basilica San Francesco is at the bottom of the street leading through Piazza Communale and that via San Francesco goes straight up from the Basilica.  I definitely got my steps in that day. Also as I wrote in my journal: Somehow I had it in my brain that we could also pick up the bus from another piazza.  So we hiked all the way to the top of the town without finding the piazza or a bus stop.  So back down we went to Piazza Communale  where there’s a fountain and a church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, that Sue went into. The streets and piazzas are lovely and it was an especially beautiful day.

We’d seen an archaeological museum (and Foro Romano) on our way to the top level of town, so we stopped on our way down and it was fascinating.  We learned that Santa Maria sopra Minerva was built on the site of a Roman temple to Minerva incorporating the entire façade.  There had been a necropolis beneath the temple so the museum had hundreds of urns, sarcophagi and other artifacts, even amphora.

From there we walked back down past San Francesco and started looking for a place to eat.  We went up and down different streets and everything looked too expensive or too touristy.  We were almost back to the bus stop when I noticed a restaurant up the street.  Since it wasn’t busy at that moment, we took a chance and ordered a light lunch of delicious salads and croquettes of cheese and truffles plus wine and water.

Getting back to the station was easy; the bus being only half full and we decided to catch the next train.  We were back to the hotel by 4:30pm and took our wine, to the rooftop terrace. 

Post trip information:  I think the Foro Romano was my favorite part of the day and one of the most interesting archaeological museums I’ve seen, second only to the one in Verona.  I’ve scanned in portions of a brochure and here’s a link to some more information. Foro Romano

Cortona

Even though we didn’t get to take a day trip to Cortona I’m going to insert a little information from my 2016 travel journal.  Having read Under the Tuscan Sun and its sequel multiple times, I felt I knew Cortona.  But it’s even lovelier than I imagined, despite the hordes of tourists.   We were staying at a hotel in the spa town of Chianciamo Terme and drove there on the tour bus. So here’s what I wrote plus a gallery of pictures from that trip.: We left about 8:30 and were in Cortona between 9:45 and 10:00 am.  We were dropped off @ the top of the town by St.  Margherita.  Some of the group went in the church but I just walked around the area in front where there’s a beautiful view of the valley.  Then we did another steep walk down to the main piazza and were given two hours to wander and have lunch.  Sue and I did just that, finding a lovely restaurant near a panoramic point.  We had a meat and cheese tray and I had a small birra.  We strolled around some more taking pictures until time to meet the ogre.  Someone—maybe Sue—had the idea to take some group photos on the church steps.  They came out really good and everyone wanted one –a good way to keep in touch.

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