Last semester, I participated in a common practice amongst American study abroad students known as “country hopping.” Basically, I left Italy frequently to explore places like Paris, London, Copenhagen, Madrid, Brussels, etc. Now I don’t regret any of my excursions- they all greatly shaped my perspective on solo travel throughout Europe- but at the end of the semester, I felt like I missed out on an opportunity to truly get to know Italy. Outside of Florence, I’d visited Rome, Verona, and the Amalfi Coast- all amazing places I highly recommend visiting- but all hopping tourist destinations. Coming into this semester, I knew I wanted to dive into the gritty areas of the country, the places you wouldn’t find on a Rick Steves “Best of Italy” special.
So I asked my Italian professors, tour guides, and advisors about lesser-known destinations. Unfortunately, many of the places they offered are only possible to reach by car, and part of the paperwork I signed with TCU stated I would refrain from “renting cars, mopeds, or other motorized vehicles” while abroad.
After narrowing down my list to places accessible by train, I decided my first foray into authentic Italy would be Perugia. The capital of Umbria, Perugia is a town situated on the top of a hill founded sometime before 300 BC. Halfway between Florence and Rome, a large percentage of its population is comprised of Italian college students attending the University of Perugia, giving the town a youthful atmosphere in the midst of its ancient architecture.
From Florence, the train ride took a little over two hours. Once inside Perugia’s train station, I plugged the address of Piazza IV Novembre, the first stop on my list, into Google Maps. In an unexpected turn, the map showed that it would take over thirty minutes to walk to the city center. Walking was out of the question. In all my research about the city, I hadn’t considered any difficulties actually getting there. I considered taking a taxi, but a flat rate to the city was 10 euro each way, while a bus ticket was only 1.50 euro.
I bought a bus ticket from a machine and went outside to wait on a bench. An Italian man around his mid 40s sat next to me, and after a few minutes of awkward silence he asked, “What bus are you waiting for?” (He said this in English. I guess my blonde hair and blue eyes don’t exactly scream Italian.)
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Are you taking the A bus or the TS Bus?”
“There’s more than one kind of bus?”
The man laughed and explained that if I wanted to go to the city center, I needed to take the A bus. We chatted for a bit and he said that he was born and raised here in Perugia. However, he spent a year in college studying in the U.S. where he picked up English.
“We do not get many Americans here,” he pointed out with a thick accent.
Once inside the city center, I wandered the streets soaking in the town. The winding passages climbed and descended, sometimes at angles steeper than 90 degrees. The dark grey, white, and brown brick buildings hugged the narrow streets that felt tighter than those even in Florence (which I didn’t think was possible.) The more I explored the more I realized Perugia reminded of the medieval Tuscan village San Gimignano. It was if I had been transported back in time to the Dark Ages.
Perhaps Perugia’s greatest surprise was the fact that absolutely no one spoke English. Every country I’ve visited in Europe has been dispersed with American tourists, and most workers in restaurants and stores have known basic phrases. In fact in Florence I feel at times like I’m surrounded by more Americans than foreigners. But in Perugia, a buzzing wave of Italian constantly spread through the crowds. Young children and students ran by yelling words I couldn’t understand, and I felt for the first time in five months that I was in a completely different culture. I had never before felt like such an outsider, an intruder.
After grabbing a quick slice of pizza for lunch (“Margarita per favore.” “Ecco. Due euro.” “Grazie.”) I headed over to the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria- the largest collection of artwork in the region.
The museum was completely empty aside from myself and two attendants (a couple of elderly Italian women whose high pitched chatter echoed off the vaulted ceilings). The majority of the pieces were Madonnas con Bambini, images I’d become accustomed to over my time Italy. Still, the vibrant colors and impeccable preservation of the pieces from the early 12th and 13th Centuries were mesmerizing, and I stayed in the tiny “museo” for over an hour.
Following the museum visit, I continued to wander aimlessly through the streets. With no exact destination in mind, I ended up at a viewing platform overlooking the Umbrian countryside. Rolling green hills spotted with the occasional brown or golden villa spread across for miles. Snow-tipped mountains extended across as far as I could see, with the distinct lines of grape plants striping the expansive fields.
After trying my best to photograph the charming views, I realized it was about time to head back to the train station. There was only one problem- I had no idea how to get there. I went to a drug store to buy a bus ticket, and asked the woman behind the counter how to get to the Perugia Railway Station.
“Come faccio ad arrivare alla stazione ferroviaria?” I clumsily read off Google Translate.
The woman shot back in rapid Italian, and I stood dumb.
I went to another drug store a little ways down the street and had more or less the same conversation. However, the small, balding man in the shop said “Mini Metro.” I vaguely recalled reading something about the tram that connects the train station to the city center from my research about Perugia the night before my trip. Hoping to fall upon some good luck, I plugged the phrase “Mini Metro” into Google Maps. It located a spot twenty minutes away, and sighing in relief I picked up my pace and followed the map’s blue path.
After ten minutes, I was out of the center and utterly alone. The charming, medieval brick buildings had given way to abandoned modern concrete complexes covered in graffiti with smashed in windows. My heart rate quickened and my mind panicked, imagining horrific scenarios. What if someone jumps out and attacks me? What if I come across a gang and they kidnap me? What if I have to fend off an attacker and then a policeman arrests me for violence and I end up the next Amanda Knox, trapped in an Italian prison cell for years on end?
Things didn’t get better from there.
Once I arrived at the map’s indicated location, my panic skyrocketed when I realized Google had taken me to an abandoned bus station in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, my train was going to leave in twenty minutes- with or without me on it.
To quote Jennifer Lawrence the night she fell on her way up to receive an Oscar: “What went through my mind...? A bad word that I can't say that starts with F."
Suddenly, I spotted a girl about my age rolling a suitcase down the street. “If she has a suitcase, she’s got to be going somewhere, right?” I thought.
So I followed her.
My blind faith proved worthwhile as the girl ended up leading me to a bus station. There, I went inside a small kiosk and asked an attendant about means to get to the train station. Again, he rambled on in Italian and pointed across the street, in the opposite direction of the buses. Boiling with frustration I left the building, checking my phone for the time. Ten minutes until the train left. At that moment I decided to just run to the station. It would involve skirting along the edges of a highway with manic Italian drivers and no sidewalk, but what other choice did I have?
As I headed off in that direction, a white taxi sped around the corner like a knight in shining armor. I frantically waved my arms, and the cab pulled over. “Train station!” I almost yelled in the driver’s ear. Exactly four minutes later, we pulled up at the station and I sprinted to the platform, barely making it onto the train before the doors closed shut behind me.
So I guess the moral of the story is: just take a taxi. It’s more expensive, but if you’re going to a small town with a confusing public transportation system, it’s better to fork over a little extra cash than to miss a train.
Although my day trip didn’t go exactly as planned, I loved my time in Perugia. The town is exactly what you think of when you imagine an authentic Italian village on a hilltop. And if you ever have time for a spontaneous day trip, I highly recommend adding Perugia to your list. But if you do, maybe try a bit more research beforehand. And just to reiterate: always take a taxi.