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A town just like a woman

It’s annoying as hell walking around Perugia with Miss Baldoni. Everyone, it seems, knows her. Waiters at the sidewalk cafes across from the duomo leave their tables to rush over and give her a kiss on the cheek; a young woman selling daffodils in the piazza offers her a free bouquet. Even a capuchin monk, on his way to Assisi, stops his journey to give her a hug and then prattles on for 10 or 15 minutes about god only knows what.

Finally the bearded monk in his pointy little hood hurries off and we are able to continue on, heading down a narrow street until Maura suddenly stops and looks all around her, as if for the first time. “I love this street,” she says. “Via Maesta delle Volte. It’s one of the most sensual streets in Perugia. Do you see what I mean?”

My guide, Maura Baldoni. Photos by David Lansing.

My guide, Maura Baldoni. Photos by David Lansing.



Frankly, no. To me, it’s dark, dank, narrow. A bit claustrophobic.

“You are blind, aren’t you?” She sighs. “Look,” she says, pointing back up the street. “Focus. Pay attention. This street is like a woman, full of arches and curves. It is vuoto and pieno—empty and full. You see?”

Slowly, I do see. The gorgeous arches above the vicolos, the inviting openings that entice you onwards. The play of shadow and light, the different textures and colors.  She’s right. It’s incredibly sensual. Why could I not see this before?

We continue down the hill as Miss Baldoni explains to me that Perugia has always had the lines of a woman. “It was founded on two hills,” she says, “with the flat space—Corso Vannucci—between them.” She stops and faces me. “You see,” she says, directing my attention to the mounds of her chest with both her hands, “this is what Perugia looks like.”

Point well taken.

We end up on the edge of town where a round church sits on a nob in a tranquil setting of rose gardens and cypress trees. She has brought me to San Michele Arcangelo, one of the oldest Christian churches in Umbria, dating to the late 5th century. It is intimate, simple, peaceful and quite beautiful. There is no one inside. I walk around its circular walls, touching the well-worn stone.

The church San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia, Italy.

The feminine curves of San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia, Italy.



“It’s something special for us, this church,” Miss Baldoni tells me as we sit on a wooden bench. “A very popular place for Perugians to get married. Do you understand why?”

I do. This time she does not need to explain the romantic nature of the architecture to me. There is something sweetly feminine about this little church. Something that invites you into its intimate space, something that makes you feel tranquil and happy. A post-coital emotion that even I can sense. 


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Whenever I ask the concierge at the Locanda Della Posta how to get somewhere, he tells me it is next to or very near someplace else. Someplace I’ve never been and have no idea how to get to. He tells me, for instance, that the Osteria il Gufo, where I planned to have dinner Saturday night, is across from the old cinema on Via della Viola (a street that’s not on any map). The truffle shop, he tells me, is on the same street as the gelaterie. But since there are about a thousand gelati shops in Perugia, I ask him which one and am told, “The best, naturalmente.”

Rather timidly, I ask him if the best gelati shop in Perugia has a name? No, he says. “But everyone knows it.” And he dismisses me as the idiot I am with a wave of his hand.

Saturday afternoon, after asking the concierge for directions to a shop nearby selling cheese, I ended up walking down a narrow, dark vicolo, completely lost, where I stumbled upon Cacioteka Formagi Salumi (although, somewhat confusingly, it says GIULIANO’S in big blue letters on the front).

Leonardo Spulcia in Cacioteka. Photos by David Lansing.

Leonardo Spulcia in Cacioteka. Photos by David Lansing.



Cacioteka is owned by Leonardo Spulcia and when I ask him why the store sign says GIULIANO’S, he shrugs and says the name has always been on the front of the shop and why ruin a perfectly good sign just because the original owner,  Giuliano, may have died of cholera in the 15th century? Well, who can argue with such logic?

I tell Leonardo I’d like some local gorgonzola and he instructs his assistant to cut me off a chunk from a lovely wedge in the display case. While I’m waiting, Leonardo gives me an assaggio from a big, fat, round sausage in a cloth bag labeled coglioni di mulo. I don’t know a lot of Italian but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mulo is mule and coglioni sounds very similar to the Spanish cojones—balls. Mule’s balls sausage.

Would you prefer the mule's balls or grandpa's testicles sausage?

Would you prefer the mule’s balls or grandpa’s testicles sausage?



Italians, who have an endless number of food items named after male and female sexual parts,  seem to find this sort of thing hilarious.

When I compliment him on his mule’s balls, he cuts up a crinkly-looking sausage, palle del nonno, made from local wild boar. The name translates into something like “grandpa’s testicles.” It’s even tastier. Not as fatty as the mule’s balls but with a better mouth-feel. I take a quarter kilo of each and happily munch on them, and my gorgonzola, out on the balcony of my hotel room while watching the swallows dive bomb for insects above a very busy Corso Vannucci.

Here in Umbria, it’s starting to feel a little bit like spring. 

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A tale of two lovers

Usually I don’t mind eating alone. In fact, I kind of like it. Nobody pays any attention to you (including the waiters, which, okay, can be the downside) and I can just sit there unobtrusively drinking my wine while trying to figure out everybody’s story instead of listening with faux-rapt attention to whoever I might be dining with (this is, after all, what a flâneur does).

For instance, last night I ate alone at La Taverna Ristorante in Perugia. While I was waiting for my ravioli di radicchio e speck al gorgonzola e pere, which was very good by the way, two different couples walked in. Both dressed head-to-toe in black (it’s an Italian/NY thing). The women looked so similar they could have been sisters: early 30s, black shoulder-length hair (great cuts), pale skin, dark eyes, Roman noses, hoop earrings (are they back?). One of the guys was better looking than the other: better haircut, better suit. The other guy wore a stretched-out turtleneck and had a Beatles haircut (which, I’ll admit, looked very hip in 1963). Otherwise, demographically identical couples.

One couple—let’s call them the “Cute Couple”—do all the date things: run fingers along the rims of their wine glasses while they’re oh-so-intently listening to the other’s story;  she plays with her hair, he puts an index finger on his cheek; they laugh and tilt their heads at the same time; touch hands, faces, thighs; ignore their food when it comes.

The other couple—“It’s So Over,” shall we call them?—keep their coats on; sit with their hands on their laps; and talk to the chef, Claudio, when he wheels his cart over to slice up some lamb for them, but otherwise ignore each other.

Question: Which couple is going to get laid tonight?

It’s obvious, huh. So what do you think–was it the guy’s haircut? 

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We’re not off to a great start, Perugia and I. It’s been a bit of a slog just getting here; two long days of planes, trams, buses, trains. Having arrived close to midnight and finding no taxis around, I consider just trudging up the dark hill to my hotel (it doesn’t look that far on my map), but outside the mostly deserted train station the impervious Umbrian night shows her indifference to my arrival by going cold on me; small rain begins to fall. So I walk a block to a mostly-deserted café and ask them to call me a cab. Just as well. What looked like a short jaunt on the map turns out to be a very long drive up a ridiculously steep hill with perilous drop-offs on both sides of numerous switchbacks. I would have perished walking. 

The taxi driver, unable to proceed past the piazza, drops me off blocks from my hotel, pointing in the darkness up a slick cobblestone street leading to the heart of this medieval town in the middle of Italy. I am soaked and exhausted by the time I climb three flights of stairs (the elevator is out of order) and put the key in the door, revealing something resembling a monk’s cell: a ridiculously tiny room and a bed smaller than the one I slept in as a child. The blanket is thin and my feet hang off the end.

The view from my room. Can this possibly be the sexiest small city in the world?

The view from my room. Can this possibly be the sexiest small city in the world?



All night long, the rain beats against an ancient window that does not seal; the cold hilltop wind whistles obscenely at me through the cracks. Beyond tired but still unable to sleep, I lie in bed thinking of a poem from the Middle Ages I memorized years ago to impress a girlfriend in college:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow/The small rain down can rain?/Christ, that my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again!  

In the morning I send Hardy a text message: Arrivd Perugia lst nite. Bst pay off bet

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We were sipping our cocktails, watching the sun exhaust itself behind the silhouetted islands of the Jardines de la Reina in Cuba after a long day of saltwater fly-fishing when Hardy roused our worn-out little group, spread out like drying beach towels on the bow of the Halcon, by positing this gum-drop of a question: “What’s your favorite place in the world?”


Photos by Peter McBride.

Photos by Peter McBride.




I noodled Hardy’s question as two egrets did a mating dance in a nearby lagoon. Someone said Vietnam. Someone else San Miguel de Allende. Did Bruges get a vote as well as Porto Seguro, Brazil? I believe they did. Still, there was no consensus. As the seductive sky slipped on a purple robe and followed the sun into the night, Hardy, offering me a touch more of the Douglas Laing single-malt he’d brought over from London, tapped the ash off his Cohiba and said, “What about you, Lansing? You travel more than the rest of us put together. What’s the best place in the world?”

You know that Johnny Cash song, the one they use for some hotel chain ad? “I’ve been everywhere, man/Crossed the deserts bare, man/I’ve breathed the mountain air, man/Of travel I’ve had my share, man/I’ve been everywhere”? Well, that pretty much sums me up. So I get asked this question a lot. And I always give the same answer: There is no best place.

I mean, really, is Paris better than New York? Barcelona better than Buenos Aires? It depends on when you’re there, what you’re doing, and, most importantly, who you’re with. 

Everyone nodded at my sage pronouncement, ending the discussion. Or so I thought. “What about this, then,” said Fletch, the best fisherman in our group, tossing a new lure into the darkness in hopes of a nibble. “What’s the sexiest city in the world—better yet, the sexiest small city in the world?”

All right. Good. Now, I felt, we had something to talk about. Beginning with the parameters of the question, like what constitutes a small city (consensus: it has to feel intimate and walkable, even if it has a relatively large population). That settled, we began to brood over the larger question: What, exactly, makes a city sexy?

A full moon was starting to rise; we were all feeling pretty good after a glass or two of whisky. Veiled in darkness, we talked about the components necessary to fall in love with a place, and though there were some disagreements, in the end we agreed on three main criteria.

First off, it should be seductive. Which means you should fall in love with the place slowly. There’s got to be a sense of beguilement, a feeling that it’s going to reveal its secrets gradually, that there is going to be a fair amount of discovery involved, and you need to be involved in the discovering. Can’t just hop off the plane and go, Hey, ain’t this the cutest little town you’ve ever seen? Because we all know those feelings last about as long as a Britney Spears’ marriage.

Next, everything about the place has got to stimulate your senses—all of them—giving you pleasure in the way it smells, tastes, sounds, feels, as well as awakening things in you you weren’t even aware of. Like feeling breathless when you hear opera live for the first time or sampling a Oaxaca mole sauce and wondering why you’ve never tasted that before.

Finally, it should arouse you even when it’s not at its best. Any city can look beautiful on a perfect summer day when the light is just right, but what about on a cold, wet winter morning or a feverishly-hot afternoon when it’s humid and sticky out? A truly sexy city should stir your emotions even when it has a bit of bed-head; it should be a place you love—perhaps even more so—when the landscape has gone bald in winter or when it is a little past its prime. As James Salter wrote of Paris following the First World War: “The face was still ravishing but the tone of the skin had lost its freshness and there were faint lines in the brow and around the mouth.” Which only made him love her even more.

“Think Sean Connery as a city,” I mused. “Or some place that conjures up Sophia Loren. That’s what we’re all looking for, lads.”

“I can’t imagine anyplace that good,” Fletch said.

Hardy issues his challenge to find the sexiest small city in the world.

Hardy issues his challenge to find the sexiest small city in the world.



“I might know a place,” Hardy said in a whisper. He took a sip of whisky and looked up at the full moon rising over the mangroves as we waited for him to continue. The evening was calm except for the night cry of an unseen bird somewhere in the thicket. “It’s been a few years since I was there but I still think about it. It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head.” He took a pull on his cigar. “I’d be willing to bet that if Lansing went there he’d agree with me.”

So in the darkness, 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, glasses were clinked and several friendly wagers were placed. Since I was the judge and jury, I was not allowed to bet. Which is just as well. Because although our friends would probably label me even more of a romantic than Hardy, like Fletch, I doubted there really was any place in the world that could live up to the high expectations we had set. At least nowhere I’d been. And like I said, I’ve been everywhere, man.

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