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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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Professore Corrado Fratini and I are sitting outside a café in Castiglione de Lago waiting for Maura. As usual, she is late.

Maura has invited the professore to join us in looking at the frescoes in the Palazzo della Corgna because he teaches medieval art and Maura has coyly suggested I might learn something interesting from him. 

While we are waiting, two nuns walk by; the professore smiles and nods at them in greeting. “In the Middle Ages,” he says, following the nuns with his eyes as they walk up the cobblestone street, “prostitutes started very young—maybe before 13. So they aged quickly. Most of them died. But if they managed to survive into middle age, they would often become nuns. But a special order of nuns. Kept behind walls.”

Waiting for Maura.

Waiting for Maura.



No! I say. Is this true?

“Yes, of course. There were two orders of prostitute nuns, one called Incarcerate and the other Murate. The Incarcerate were more or less imprisoned while the Murate were walled off from the rest of the community. Neither could have any contact with the outside world. Which is amusing, don’t you think, considering their past.”

Religion and sex—“They have always been intertwined,” the professore says, explaining how as far back as 400 B.C. Umbrians used to travel to a pagan temple in Spello where they’d employ sacred prostitutes.

“What’s a sacred prostitute?” I ask him.

It means, he says, that if a man had a sexual relationship with a priestess, the money you gave her was given to god. “It was put in a special chest and used for building temples, feeding pilgrims, building roads. It was a stimulus plan,” he says, laughing. “Sleeping with a priestess paved the way to Rome.”

We have finished our coffee. Maura has yet to arrive.

“Later,” the professore says, “during Christianity, prostitutes were officially condemned but well tolerated. In fact, during the Middle Ages, there were prostitutes of the court who were part of high society, women who were paid richly by noble men for their services and were quite well respected.”

The professore stands, stretches, looks up the street to see if there is any sign of Maura. “Inside the palazzo,” he says, nodding towards the castle-like home a block away, “we’ll see a wonderful medieval painting of the Virgin Mary in an oval-shaped frame. This was a direct reference to the shape of the vagina.”

Just then, Maura comes rushing up the street, apologizing for being late. She gives me a kiss on one cheek and then the other. Before she can greet the professore, he finishes his thought: “You see,” he says with great earnestness, “in the Middle Ages, the vagina wasn’t considered lewd. From the vagina, comes life!”

Maura gasps. “I was going to ask what you two have been talking about but I don’t think I want to know,” she says.

“The Professore has been educating me,” I tell her.

She raises an eyebrow. “Well, perhaps we should go into the palazzo before you receive any more education.”

And that’s just what we do. 

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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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If, when I was a child, Maura had been one of the nuns who taught at my parochial school, I’m quite certain I would have ended up a priest. She makes religion so damn sexy.

Yesterday, after lunch at the Enoteca L’Alchimista (The Alchemist) in Montefalco, where we had the local specialty, strozzapreti—a type of pasta shaped like a leather cord called “priest-stranglers”—with bright green nubs of wild asparagus, we visited a little church just so Maura could show me a medieval fresco of the “Coronation of the Virgin.”

Priest-strangler pasta.

So I look at it and what I see is sort of the usual religious things—some angels, some saints, and a bored looking Virgin headed for heaven. But Maura sees something else.

“You see the woman reclining below the image of the Virgin? That is Eve,” she says. “Look at her.”

So I do. And the first thing I notice is that she’s got clothes on. Not a lot, but some.

“Look,” says Maura. “You can see her sexual organs through the clothes.”

And it’s true.

“Medieval artists were very conflicted about Eve,” she tells me. “She’s beautiful in this painting, no? More beautiful than the Virgin. She’s earthy, sensual, appealing—things we’re supposed to reject. In short, Eve was no saint. That’s why she’s depicted with an octagonal halo and not a round one. And look at her long, sensual hair—she’s had sex. She’s delivered. Yet if you look at the Madonna, her hair is hidden. She is pure, but unappealing.

“But the question is, who would you rather sleep with?”

  Wow. Who knew religious art could be so fascinating?

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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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