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Today is my last day in Perugia. I’m at a loss as to why the thought of leaving makes me feel so melancholy. I tried to talk Maura into spending the day with me but she’d already booked her services to some group from Spain. So I have just slowly tried to enjoy the day, beginning with my breakfast at the hotel, brought to me by Luisa who, since the first morning, has brought out a large cappuccino from the kitchen and placed it in front of me without me ever having to ask. I hadn’t realized I’d grown so fond of Luisa. I will miss her.

Luisa brings me a cappuccino at the Locanda della Posta. Photo by David Lansing.

Luisa brings me a cappuccino at the Locanda della Posta. Photo by David Lansing.



And I will miss Valentina at Caffé di Perugia. No matter how busy she was, she’d always bring me little plates of sausages and potato chips with my proseco in the evening, delivering them with a smile and an enthusiastic “Buona sera!”

Then there is Mario Ragni, the owner of a little sandwich shop on Piazza Italia called La Bottega del Gusto. Mario, once a well-known chef in the region, is not a well man, yet whenever I stopped in he’d rise up from his chair, as difficult as it was for him, and embrace me like we were brothers. Mario’s bottega is always filled with Perugian power brokers. As a judge whispered to me the other day while we both waited for our sandwiches, “Mario is a maestro of food.”

And he is. I wish him well.

But most of all, of course, I will miss Maura. She’s been much more than a guide to me. She has been my Virgil. There is so much about Perugia and the rest of Umbria that I would have missed without her. As she liked to say, “We can see only what we know.” I now see the great beauty of Perugia—a vision that eluded me when I first arrived—because Maura taught me so much.

The author with his Virgil, Maura Baldoni.

The author with his Virgil, Maura Baldoni.



Before saying goodbye, we had a coffee at our favorite pasticceria, Sandri. I brought her a little box of Perugina chocolates as a thank you gift. She opened a foil-wrapped Baci and read out loud the saying on the slip of paper inside:

“The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.”—Pascal

And then we said goodbye.

Now I am back in my hotel room, writing this on my balcony. It is early evening. College-aged students are strolling arm-in-arm down the Corso Vannucci. A young mom is buying gelato for her children in the shop across the way. From somewhere down the cobblestone street floats the sound of a saxophone playing jazz. The old woman I’d noticed my first morning here is back on her balcony with a watering can; her wisteria is in full bloom. Dozens of swallows rise and dive in the twilight, happily chasing their dinner. The seasons are changing; summer is coming.

I text Hardy a message: U win. Perugia truly is the sexiest small city in the world.

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Chocolate and a beautiful woman

“It’s difficult to explain about chocolate,” says a beautiful woman standing next to me at the Sandri Pasticceria bar in Perugia. She is drinking an espresso and nibbling on little chocolate treats from a white plate. I have asked her why women are so crazy about chocolate. “It’s so…personal,” she says, putting a hand to her chest.

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.



The pasticceri, Piero, nods in agreement and then leans forward as if to reveal a secret. “You see this woman?” he says, nodding clandestinely towards a 20-something girl in a short denim skirt and fluffy chartreuse sweater down at the far end of the bar. “She asked me to make a large chocolate egg with a pair of boxers inside made out of a special material that melts when it warms up. It was for her boyfriend. She was crazy with love.”

“And?” says the woman standing next to me, wanting the rest of the story.

Piero shrugs. “He did not feel the same.”

The tall, beautiful woman clicks her tongue. She takes a bite of chocolate and makes a sensuous little noise deep in her throat. Then she slides the white plate towards me and tells me to try the dark chocolate with chili. “But eat it slowly,” she instructs. “Like you are giving a woman a kiss. That way it opens up to you. You do not want to rush these things.”

I take the smallest of bites and allow it to sit on my tongue, warming.

The pasticceri, Piero, comes back down to our end of the bar. “There was another time when I made chocolate in the shape of a Fiat,” he tells us while rinsing glasses. “A young man wanted to give it to his girlfriend to celebrate the first anniversary of when they had sex in his car.”

Molto romantico,” says the beautiful woman, sighing. She takes the last piece of dark chocolate from the plate and looks at it. “My doctor says I shouldn’t eat it, but I don’t care,” she says. “I crave it. All the time.” The chocolate goes in her mouth. She stares at her empty espresso cup. We have come to that point in our conversation where it is expected that one of us will say something like, “Well, I guess I should be going.” But neither of us speaks. Finally, I make a motion towards the pasticceri.

“Piero,” I say, “Give us another little plate of dark chocolate. And two more espressos.”

The tall, beautiful woman smiles.

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Last night I asked the concierge at the Locanda Della Posta for a restaurant recommendation within walking distance of the hotel and he went on and on about a little osteria called Il Gufo—The Owl.

Small, not fancy, but molto, molto buon, he said. Then he shrugged. “But you no can find,” he said.

Show me on a map, I told him. He took out a map and circled an area the size of Manhattan. “Here,” he said.

What street is it on? I asked.

“A little vicolo,” he said. “Not on map.”

So I went off in search of Il Gufo, having only a rough idea of where to search. But how hard could it be? I’d just go down one vicolo after another until I found it.

The vicolo leading to Il Gufo. Photo by David Lansing.

The vicolo leading to Il Gufo. Photo by David Lansing.



Which is what all those Gauls and Goths and Lombards who invaded this city over the years must have thought when they pulled out their swords and started running down some narrow cobblestone street after a fleeing local only to eventually find themselves very lost and with no idea how to find their way back. That’s why they made these streets narrow and winding to begin with. So people would get lost.

After searching for Il Gufo for well over an hour, I finally gave up. But, of course, now I had no idea how to get back to Corso Vannucci. So I just wandered around. Getting more lost. Trying not to worry about it. Eventually I stopped into a little restaurant and asked a young woman setting up tables for directions to the center of town. I told her I’d spent the last hour looking for a restaurant called Osteria Il Gufo.

“Ah,” she said. “Here you are.” 

By getting lost, I’d found it.

The hostess, who happened to be the wife of the chef, Luca, took me to a table in the back. It was quiet in the restaurant—just a few young couples on dates and a neighborhood family or two. The chairs were mismatched, the restaurant was garishly lit, and the worn tables were covered with paper placemats. A young girl came by and gave me a menu which had been handwritten in almost-unreadable script and then Xeroxed to make it even more difficult to read.

I went with the specials, starting off with housemade tubes of pasta, maccheroncini, dressed in a light ragu of Norcina pork with a shaving of pecorino on top, along with a good glass of Montefalco sangratino. So simple, so extraordinary.

The chef, Luca, brought out my main course: a slow-cooked stew of braised wild boar with fennel. Without a doubt the best meal I’d had in Perugia. When I told this to my waitress, she smiled. “Simple but good, eh?”

Simple but good.

As I ate my meal, the restaurant slowly began to fill with customers. Everyone who came in the door made a point of stopping by the open kitchen to exchange greetings with Luca and his wife. This was obviously a family place, a neighborhood joint.

I ordered an espresso for dessert but when my waitress came back, she also brought me a chocolate mousse. “Luca says to try,” she said. The mousse, made with dark Perugina chocolate, was plump and moist and shaped like a mango seed. It was so sensual that I ended up just taking small little spoonfuls and letting it melt on my tongue. Like snowflakes.

This might become my favorite restaurant in Perugia. If I could ever find it again. 

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It doesn’t take long to fall into the seductive way of life in Perugia. Like the rituals that go along with having a meal. You don’t just go out to eat here. Dining is more like courting, something to be done slowly and thoughtfully. It begins late in the afternoon with the fare la passeggiata when everyone in town—or so it seems—dresses up and goes for a stroll down the Corso Vannucci.

Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.



What do you do on your passeggiata? Well, there is a lot of window-shopping, though if you are a couple of young girls, that can just be an excuse to bump into some cute boys who might suggest you all sit down at a nearby outdoor cafe for an espresso or a spritz. But you don’t have to be young to take part in the passeggiata. You’ll find elderly women all dressed up walking arm in arm, chatting all the while, and kids licking gelato while holding on to their parents hands, and babies in strollers being admired by old friends and strangers both.

   The passeggiata is the foreplay before cena, the evening meal, for in Italy food is more than just something to chow down because you’re hungry. Food and its enjoyment are part of life. Like sex. And Italians are just as passionate about it (and that, perhaps, is why they have pastries called sospiri—sighs—and bugie—lies—and, of course, the chocolate baci or kisses).

So I’ve gotten into the habit of putting on a fresh shirt and polishing my shoes and joining the passeggiata along Corso Vannucci, eventually stopping at someplace like the Bar Centrale in the plaza, where there are always tables full of beautiful men and women, where I’ll order an aperitivo made with Aperol, a bitter orange and rhubarb liqueur, and proseco.

I’ll slowly sip my drink as the shadows grow deeper, watching the gorgeous middle-aged women in their furs (yes, it’s still chilly enough for furs here in the early evening) as they windowshop next door at Le Cose di Anna. Slowly, the street begins to empty, the café umbrellas are folded and chairs stacked, the outdoor lights shining on the Palazzo begin to take effect. The first part of the evening seduction is over; we all move inside to continue the dance, myself included.

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Damn. I can’t believe I missed it. A couple of weekends ago Gubbio held the Corsa dei Ceri—the Race of the Candles—and I wasn’t there. This is like the Kentucky Derby of phallic symbol races.

“The Gubbini are thought to be slightly mad, so I think it’s okay you missed it,” Maura told me. So what, exactly, happens in this race? I asked her.

She said it was very complex and a little difficult to explain, but she’d try. First of all, this crazy race has been going on for at least 800 years and probably is a mixture of pagan and Christian traditions. But what happens is that the town selects three teams, each wearing white pants and red scarfs with different colored shirts—yellow, blue, or black—and then they build these 20-foot-tall wooden candles.

Corsa dei Ceri--the Race of the Candles--in Gubbio.

Corsa dei Ceri–the Race of the Candles–in Gubbio.



“These candles, they’re like giant penises. And they put vases of water on top of the candles and they crash down and explode and the pazzo Gubbini fight each other to get a little piece of the wet pots because it’s considered good luck or something. Capisca?”

 So first these teams parade the giant candles around town, ending at the Piazza della Signoria, and then at exactly 6pm, the big bell of Palazzo dei Consoli rings and the candles are raised on the shoulders of the men and are carried up the slope of Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio.

Now, since this is a race, you’d think that whoever arrived at the top of the mountain first would win, but you’d be wrong. The thing is each of the candles is dedicated to a saint: St. Giorgio, protector of merchants; St. Anthony, protector of farmers; and, of course, St. Ubaldo, the town’s patron saint. So no matter who gets to the church atop Mt. Ingino first, St. Ubaldo always wins.

“So why,” I asked Maura, “do they even have a race if it doesn’t matter who wins?”

“I already told you,” Maura said, obviously exasperated by my denseness. “The Gubbini are crazy!”

Still, I wish I’d been here. How often do you get to see a bunch of grown men race around a medieval town carrying giant phallic symbols on their shoulders?


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