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This morning when I explained to the young woman at the front desk at the Locanda Della Posta that I needed to either switch rooms or change hotels, someone was immediately dispatched to move me to a slightly larger and decidedly more pleasant room with windows that open on to Perugia’s historic main street, Corso Vannucci.

The view from the Locanda Della Posta in Umbria, Italy. Photo by David Lansing.

The view from the Locanda Della Posta in Umbria, Italy. Photo by David Lansing.



Fortunately, it has stopped raining—at least for the moment. But it’s overcast and inordinately cold for this late in spring. School children, bundled in coats and scarves, are being marched by their teachers up the narrow street to the pink and white marble cathedral, which I can see if I stick my head out far enough over my balcony. Below me is a café and I can smell the invigorating perfume of espresso and hear the lilting Italian of those sitting at outside tables huddled beneath dripping café umbrellas.

Across the way, an old woman pokes and prods a large planter of somnolent wisteria on her balcony, as if demanding to know why, this late in May, it refuses to bloom. Above her, a lone swallow flits about beneath the red tile roof, no doubt searching for a fat insect or two for breakfast. But the morning is too cold and damp for bugs. The swallow retreats into a mud nest beneath the eaves.

It’s all very pretty in a Merchant-Ivory sort of way, I suppose. But here in Umbria they have a saying: Una rondine non fa primavera. A single swallow does not make spring; in other words, if you see something beautiful, it doesn’t mean that everything that follows will be beautiful. 

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Meeting the two Amandas

Dining in Italy isn’t as expensive as you think. Yes, a few years ago one dollar was just about equal to one euro and now the dollar is worth about 75 cents. But here’s the thing: In Italy they don’t tip! So that saves you at least 15% on your bill, right? Plus, if you go to a place like the Bar Ferrari in Perugia, you can get a glass of Umbrian vino rosso for 3 euros and they throw in a plate of Napoletana pizza (tomato, oregano, olive oil) and another plate of olives, cornichons, prosciutto, salame, cheese, ham, capers, and other goodies for free. Back home, we call this dinner. And the total is 3 euros (or less than 5 bucks). 

The other good thing about the Bar Ferrari is it’s where I meet the Two Amandas. They are sitting at the best table in the bar, with views of the red-tile roofed town and the Umbria hills, nursing a couple of glasses of Orvietto Classico and slowly eating the free antipasto plate when Ireland Amanda gets up to take a photo of Australia Amanda seated at the window with a view. Being the ace photographer I am, I offer to take a photo of both of them. And then they invite me to join them.

Introductions all around: Ireland Amanda is a social worker from Cork; Australia Amanda is a teacher from Cairns. They tell me they came to Perugia because they thought they might get lucky. “In fact,” says Ireland Amanda, who is pale and blond and very attractive, “on the train from Rome yesterday was the cutest guy and I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm….,’ and then he takes off his raincoat and sure enough he’s wearing a priest’s collar.”

Still, I say, Catholic priests, Ireland, pretty girls….

The two Amandas. Photo by David Lansing.

The two Amandas. Photo by David Lansing.



“True enough, but never mind,” she says, waving off the idea. “We found the Perugina store today and chocolate is better than sex. In fact, it’s better than religion.”

“Well, the church, yes, fuck the church,” says Australia Amanda. “But sex is pretty good. In fact, if I remember correctly, I used to quite enjoy it.”

“It can be good,” says Irish Amanda, ever the diplomat. “But chocolate is better. Less mess all ‘round and when you’re done, you’re done. Unlike boyfriends.”

Australia Amanda considers this argument for a moment but doesn’t seem to be convinced.

Irish Amanda drains her wine and slaps the glass on the table. “Never mind all that,” she says. “The night is young yet. And we’re in a four-bed room in the hostel and the other two beds are empty and if that doesn’t work out, well, I’ve still got a box of Baci chocolates.”

She winks, we all tink empty glasses, and away the two Amandas go.

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With no direction home

My driver, Minelli, is always getting lost. This morning he got stumped trying to get us out of Perugia. And he lives here. This is how you normally get out of Perugia: You precariously make your way down the hill going back and forth on a dozen switchbacks so narrow that if a large vehicle is coming uphill you either pull off to the side of the road or you die. Because there’s not room for both of you.

The view down the hill in Perugia. Photos by David Lansing.

The view down the hill in Perugia. Photos by David Lansing.



Once you get down the hill, you glide into this dark tunnel—like dropping into the hole in “Alice in Wonderland.” You don’t know what’s going to happen or where you’re going to end up but you have no choice. So you go. Before your eyes have even had time to adjust to the darkness, there are these tiny pale blue signs with arrows pointing every which way—Roma, Firenze, Assisi, Gubbio. You’ve got exactly two seconds to make your choice and scoot your way through another hole that is so narrow that if Hannibal came back this way (he kicked some serious Roman butt in this neighborhood back in 216 B.C.), his elephants wouldn’t make it.

And, mind you, everyone is flying about in here like excited bats in a cave—except Minelli. Because our exit, the road to Gubbio, is blocked and has a sign across it: Chiuso. So Minelli just stops his beautiful black Lexus in front of the closed exit, takes off his very nice limo driver hat, and scratches his bald head.

“Clos-ed,” he says.

I don’t like being in a stopped car in a tunnel. It makes me anxious. It gives me visions of rear-end collisions, exploding gas tanks, searing heat from flames.

“Minelli, vada, si?”

We’re on the move again. To Firenze. Which I’d love to visit, really, but, at the moment, Maura is waiting for me at the funicular in Gubbio, which is in the opposite direction. But, listen, Minelli is a professional. He can handle this. He calls his mother on his cell phone and politely asks her how to get to Gubbio. Two minutes later, we’ve doubled back, taken a different exit, and are now whizzing down a country road lined with celery fields and dense forests.

Cinghiale,” Minelli says, pointing towards the wood with his hand which he pretends is a gun. His finger fires off a dozen rounds into the woods. “Hare es crazy boar.”

“You mean wild boar.”

“Yes, wild. Very nice. You like?”

“Very nice.”

Half an hour later, we’re in Gubbio. Once we get to the central plaza, Minelli stops the car in the middle of the road and utters his favorite English word: “Where?”

“Where what?”

“Where you go?”


He shrugs. Like this isn’t his problem.

Minelli has no idea how to get to the funicular. Instead, he pulls up to a newsstand where two teenage boys are standing around reading the soccer scores and asks directions. One points left, the other points right. They argue. Minelli says something quickly in Italian that I assume is something along the lines of “Come on, I haven’t got all day, where the hell is it?”

So one of the boys climbs into the back seat of the Lexus and, putting one hand on Minelli’s shoulder and the other on mine, gives us directions. Go left, go straight, down this vicolo—oops, no, there’s construction and it’s closed; carefully back up. Let’s try this street. Deadend.

The end of the road in Gubbio.

The end of the road in Gubbio.



Minelli and the kid argue. I get out of the car. I can see the funicular cable towers maybe a block away. I try to interrupt the escalating argument to point this out to the boys, but they’re in their own little world at the moment and not the least interested in the Americano. So I grab my backpack and walk up the hill. Wondering when Minelli will notice he’s lost his client.

I’m sure Maura can give me a ride back to Perugia. But I’ll feel bad about it. Because, unless he calls his mother, Minelli will never find his way home without me.  

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Seeing religion in a fresh light, sort of speak, has opened me up to a new way of looking at this little medieval town. Maybe Roberto Benigni was right, religion can be sexy; at least, someone else must have thought so as well since next door to the National Gallery, a desanctified medieval church has been converted into a lingerie store.

In the display window, directly beneath a sculpted stone cross, two headless mannequins sport La Perla bras and see-through panties.

Photo by David Lansing

Photo by David Lansing



Next door is a jewelry shop. When I go inside, two English women are examining a stunning antique diamond ring. “If my husband gave that to me,” says one of the women, “I’d know immediately that he’d been very, very bad.”

“Yes, but would you forgive him?” asks the other woman.

“Of course.” Long pause. “After making him do a little penance.”

The two women giggle at their naughtiness. 

So how is this different from the religious medieval art I looked at yesterday, most of which was commissioned hundreds of years ago by very, very bad men? Back then, bad boys paid Pintoricchio or Perugina to paint a portrait of the Madonna and Child for the church to buy a little forgiveness; today they would buy an antique diamond ring.

Sin, sex, god; in Italy it’s an age-old trinity pre-dating Christianity.

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How I ended up meeting Maura

The other morning, in a break from my usual tradition of ordering cornetto con crema and a cappuccino at Caffé di Perugia, I took my breakfast at Sandri, a revered pastry shop (here since 1860), staffed by waiters in scarlet red waistcoats and matching bow-ties.

The long narrow room, as elegant-looking as a wise-cracking Cary Grant, has carved wooden display shelves, full of chocolates and confections, and a domed, painted ceiling, like a church vestibule. The Two Amandas have relentlessly encouraged me to come here. They refer to it as Perugia’s Holy Loving Church of Sweets.

The place is jammed, the tables full. There’s only a single spot available at the bar and I have to wedge myself in, clearing my throat so that the woman beside me, standing over an espresso and a small white plate with four little chocolates on it, will move her coat—her faux-fur coat—off the bar. A coat, I realize too late, that belongs to the pretentious Italian guide who evicted me from her sex-in-religious-art tour at the National Gallery a couple of days ago.

I apologize for bothering her and she snaps, “You’re the rude man who interrupted my tour.”

“I wasn’t rude,” I tell her. “I was just curious as to what you had to say about the prostitutes.” The pasticceri, who greeted me in English, looks up from washing cappuccino cups and raises his eyebrows in alarm.

“Well, normally people pay for my services,” she says the woman icily.

“I’d be happy to pay for your services,” I tell her. The pasticceri puts down his towel and shakes his head before moving away. “As a guide, I mean.”

“Well, I’m very busy.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“I am.”

“Of course.”

She downs her espresso in a single gulp and dabs at her melon-colored lips with a linen napkin, leaving a red stain.

“When would you like to hire me?”


“You said you wanted to hire me.”

“I said no such thing.”

She shrugs and reaches for her purse. “You did.”

“Actually, I was planning on visiting Assisi tomorrow,” I tell her, hoping that will be the end of it.

“Fine,” she says as she opens a compact and applies another layer of pink lipstick. “I’ll meet you in front of the Basilica at ten. Don’t be late.”

And so before I’ve even had a chance to order breakfast, I’ve accidentally gone and hired this snooty little woman from the museum, Signorina Maura Baldoni, as my guide to Assisi tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll get lucky and she won’t show up.  

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