La Serenissima

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beyond Perugia – exploring the nearby hill towns of Gubbio, Deruta and Spoleto


After the first week of classes I decided to start exploring nearby towns. As already mentioned, Perugia has a fantastic bus and train network, being more or less in the middle of Italy, so the choices are many.

I decided to go to Gubbio, taking the local bus which I found to be excellent. I walked across Piazza Italia, got on the escalators descending 2 steep levels down, followed by a flight of stairs, through what were medieval streets and Etruscan towers, to the bus station at Piazza di Partigiani.

The ride down is actually breath taking, but as you become a bit more of a “local” you just jump on the escalators absent mindedly, like the real locals do. It’s just a means to an end after all … but what a means!! Cobble stoned alleys and vaulted ceiling and archways. Just beautiful.

The bus ride to Gubbio heads northeast of Perugia. It was a pleasant hour or less, the scenery not spectacular but nice. The best bits were going through a couple of small towns where the road narrowed considerably and you could almost reach out and touch the sides of the buildings. Typically in such towns, the older men folk were sitting outside their houses, which opened directly onto the street, chatting, smoking and looking thoughtfully into the middle distance.

When we got to Gubbio, I was not disappointed.  Gubbio is described in some guidebooks as the Siena of Umbria; it’s a beautiful and well preserved medieval town. A maze of narrow, steep streets took me to the town centre and my first stop – Museo Civico and the Palazzo dei Consoli. This Palazzo houses the museum and art gallery; it’s exterior dominates the countryside with a crenulated outline, a panoramic loggia and campanile. It’s definitely worth devoting a couple of hours to this –fabulous art treasures and sculptures await!
I just wandered around the town, stopping to look at ceramic shops, fresh and preserved produce stores etc. The wonderful local olive oils featured in quite a few, and I took home to Perugia a lovely bottle of olive oil, which I consumed in my cuchina over the next couple of weeks.

At the end of my explorations, I sat at a café, gazing at the Palazzo dei Consoli while devouring a very acceptable gelato. It was a tough life, but somebody had to do it …


A good friend of ours, who happens to be a travel consultant, told me not to miss visiting Deruta. It’s just a twenty minute bus ride to the south of Perugia. It is best known for the quality of its ceramics and thought to be among Italy’s best.

I meandered uphill from the bus stop on Via Borgo Garibaldi and immediately saw several ceramic shops. I entered one, to be entertained by a youngish American family, buying, I swear, THE most extensive range of ceramics I have encountered. They chose a zillion pieces to go with the 12 place settings they wanted. This place was not cheap – I hate to think what the whole order cost. But it was truly beautiful.

I browsed in many shops as a climbed higher towards the town centre and decided what Julian and I always decide when we travel, – it’s time for lunch!!  I found a nice trattoria, Taverna del Gusto, where some tourists and also some Italians, were eating. Had some pasta and a good glass of red to fortify myself for the serious business of choosing the ceramic shops I liked best and making some purchases.

I narrowed it down to two or three places on or near Via Umberto 1 and bought a nice and unusual square dish from Miriam Cermamiche in Piazza dei Consoli for my friend Patricia, who I would be visiting later in France. Now, in the swing of it, I bought a lovely round bowl for home, in a Moorish influenced design, from Majoliche Roberto Patacca in Via Umberto 1.

Having survived the stresses of choosing ceramics from the thousands of choices, I felt that I needed an emergency toilet stop, so went to the visitor information centre. There was a very friendly and helpful man there, who spoke both Italian and English, so we had a kind of hybrid conversation. When I explained my need for a comfort stop, and that I was going back downhill to catch the bus, he said that the public loos were in the opposite direction to where I needed to go, so offered me the use of the staff loo at the visitor information centre. Fabulous!! I left armed with several brochures, kind words and smiles. That’s what I love about Italy!


Before I left for Perugia, visiting Spoleto was firmly on my list of must-sees. Why? Because the cathedral there houses several frescoes by Fra LippoLippi, who Julian believes was an ancestor of his. (There is some evidence to support this; Fra Lippi is from the western part of Tuscany where Julian’s father’s father was from. On the other hand … our house is not adorned with any more recent frescoes done by himself, so the link may be tenuous! But, I digress …

I caught the train from Perugia, heading south through farming country framed by the Apennines in the background. I then caught the local bus, taking me from the flatter plains, up the hill to Centro Storico and I started my explorations at Piazza della Liberta.

Shelley described Spoleto as “the most romantic city I ever saw”. The Rough GUIDE says it is one of the most graceful of all the Italian hill towns. Dating back to the Bronze Age, more recently Medieval with Romanesque architecture, I found it to be a delight also. My main objective was to see the Cathedral, and those important family pictures of Fra Lippi, so I really just meandered and soaked up the feel of the place.

After strolling through many beautiful streets and alleys, I finally arrived at the Cathedral, or should I say Duomo, the Cattedrale de S Maria Assunta. I walked purposefully towards the main entrance on the Piazza del Duomo – a vast expanse which gave a wonderful perspective to the Duomo. As I got closer, I thought that the doors appeared to be shut, not a totally unusual thing, but a bit strange. Then I saw in small writing, a hand drawn sign saying that the Duomo was closed for the lunch break (it had just gone 12 noon) and would reopen at 4pm. Yikes, my train left from the lower town at 4!!!

So, I thought to myself, well if I can’t see the inside, I’ll just sit in the Piazza and take in the outside. Of course, it was time for pranzo (lunch) so I looked ore closely at what was around me … eco la!! A very charming restaurant with outdoor tables and a superb, commanding view of the Duomo. Well, what was there to decide? I made a b-line for it, got myself a great table, ate very nice pasta with porcini mushrooms and a more than acceptable glass of the good red. Bliss!

While I was in a reverie gazing at the Duomo, a young Italian couple arrived and sat at the table next to me. They had clearly just stepped out of a Prada/Giorgio Armani photo shoot. Beautiful clothes and accessories and bodies to match h. I felt pretty shabby and not making “una bella figura” at all as I slunk away!!

I strolled back to Piazza della Liberta via Piazza del Mercato (of course not open today – Friday is market day) and Corso G Mazzini.  What I love about Italy (ok, yes, another thing!) is the way antiquity and modern are mixed together. I couldn't resist capturing the 14th century loggia complete with gleaming new muscle motor bike! 

I wandered around various side streets and had a look at the Teatro Romano (amphitheatre) before taking the bus back to the lower town to get my train back to Perugia … but not before buying some postcards of Fra Lippo Lippi’s frescoes!! The consolation prize!!