30 years ago today: (May) Hillsides in Perugia, Gubbio, Assisi — and the end of Italy ’87.


Previously: 30 years ago today: (May) The unique towers of San Gimignano.

Day 25 … Sunday, May 10
Perugia. Met Noah at hostel. Boreass day

Day 26 … Monday, May 11
Perugia … Around town with John from Louisville

Day 27 … Tuesday, May 12
Perugia. With Josh Berger to Assisi, atop mountain, tortellini

Day 28 … Wednesday, May 13
Perugia. To Gubbio. More tortellini, expatriate argument (Derrick)

Day 29 … Thursday, May 14
Perugia. Hike, cemetery, new group of Americans

From the start, I’d planned to remain in a relatively confined area of central Italy during my allotted time of 10-12 days. There’d be no wandering through Milan, Rome, Venice or Sicily, at least on this trip.

The tourist destinations of Florence, Siena and San Gimignano all are in Tuscany. For the final act, Italy’s meandering hill country train network brought me to Perugia, in the neighboring region known as Umbria.

It was a fine decision, indeed, and one that I’ll always associate with the pop/rock band Crowded House, a connection to be explained shortly.

First, Perugia itself. It’s the very definition of an Italian hill town. The train station is located down in the valley, and the city climbs upward from there, with an effect not unlike a terraced vineyard with buildings instead of grapes.

A local bus elevated me to the stolid Piazza IV Novembre, the center of Perugia since Roman times, and so named to commemorate the armistice with Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I.

Just a few narrow blocks away was the Centro Internazionale Accoglienza per Giovani, an inexpensive youth hostel now known as the Ostello di Perugia Centro, and still doing business thirty years later.

At the time, the hostel was said to have been affiliated with a religious order, which didn’t overly alarm me. It was inexpensive and perfectly welcoming, if a tad humorless, with a nicely equipped kitchen and handy balconies to hang wet laundry.

There were a good many American college-aged travelers staying there, and while I was older than most at (almost) 27, for a few days we split off in ever-changing small groupings to explore the vicinity.

Having noted this, I remember nothing about Noah, John, Derrick or the new batch of Americans. My notes suggest that one evening, Derrick and I had a heated discussion about something, probably politics. He must have been a right-winger.

Josh Berger is the fellow I remember. If my memory is accurate, Josh was an Ivy Leaguer who had been in Italy for a while, perhaps on a work-study program. He was smart, worldly and in the process of mastering the art of cafe-lounging and girl-watching with requisite aperitifs.

Josh undertook to teach the nuances of Campari to me, and although I couldn’t afford many of them, it was much fun. I repaid the favor when the two of us rode the bus to Assisi and had a wonderful discussion about the origins of the Great War, the marriages of the Habsburgs and the work of historian Barbara Tuchman, all the while seated atop the Rocca Maggiore, studying a spectacular view in all directions as we rested for the hike back down the slope.

It made me happy that my IU Southeast education was sufficient to keep pace with a lad from Harvard,

Twice the group convened in the hostel’s kitchen and cooked up massive pitch-in meals of pasta, vegetables and fruit with cheap local wine. On the next-to-last evening the communal meal got a bit raucous (in part owing to the debate with Derrick), which brought the night staff down to quiet our exuberance.

At some point very late, I crawled to my bunk bed, made it to the top — I weighed “only” 200 pounds then — and donned the miniature radio earphones to make the rounds of the Perugia AM dial.

The very first song I heard was the brand new band Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and although there was something vaguely familiar about it (namely, Neil Finn’s residency in Split Enz), I couldn’t place the connection.

The song stuck in my memory for months, until finally back home in the fall of 1987 I made a positive identification. By then the 1987 European dream was in fact over, but a fresh one for 1989 had long since entered the planning stages.

The visuals begin with a few Perugia views in and near Piazza IV Novembre.

I believe this is a view of the back side of the hostel (facing the valley), with some of my clothes drying.

Again, guessing: the valley view from up the hill, probably near Basilica di San Domenico.

A random shot — might be Perugia, might be Assisi.

The town of St. Francis’ birth has become part of his identity: Assisi.

Eventually we walked up to this promontory.

Flying buttresses? Yes, please.

After a bit of belated research, I now believe it’s likely that the Josh Berger who snapped this photo of me as we gabbed atop the Rocca Magiore in Assisi in 1987 is the same Josh Berger who currently heads Warner Brothers in the United Kingdom.

If so, this considerably bolsters my “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” credentials.

After a walk like that, a cool beer was necessary. The beer is named for Anton Dreher (1810 – 1863), one of the pivotal figures in the development of modern lager brewing.

On Wednesday another bus took me to the medieval hillside town of Gubbio.

Gubbio has been called the”City of Fools” because here one can obtain a “madman’s license” and the “citizenship of Gubbio” by making 3 circles around the small fountain in Largo Bargello.

Obviously, one might spend a year in any of these locales and still only scratch the surface.

On Thursday, my last full day in Perugia, most of the Americans I’d met shipped out. I rode with them on the bus to the station, then spent the day walking. One destination was this cemetery in the valley. I’d begun to see how much could be learned about a culture by visiting its resting places — a topic explored at length in an excellent blog entry about cemeteries in Tuscany.

It’s impossible to visit a city in Italy without facing centuries of death. It seems that every town is filled with crypts, catacombs and necropolises. Some of the most compelling sites in this country are the graves of illustrious Italians. We’ve seen the tomb of Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, St Francis of Assisi and Galileo Galilei among many others. Even when the dead aren’t famous, their graves sometimes are. They are everywhere.

It must have been a lengthy hike, indeed. The tall structure in the middle is the Basilica di San Domenico …

 … and from near the same church, this photo was taken later the same afternoon.

Yes, there are snow-capped peaks in the Apennines in May — at least there were in 1987, although in today’s warmer world it might no longer be the case.

On Friday, May 15, I took at least three train trips, first from Perugia to Florence, then to Venice, and finally Trieste. Barely pausing to dine, I boarded yet another train to Ljubljana, across the frontier in Yugoslavia.

ON THE AVENUES: Welcome to wherever you are, and come to think of it, Ljubljana will do nicely.