A SHORT BREAK IN Perugia

Direct flights from Britain have made this stunning city far more accessible, writes Catherine Pepinster

It's only just over the hill from ever-so-holy Assisi, but Perugia is a buzzing, civilised town with a violent past, full of intrigue and Papal murders, birthplace of the Flagellants, who made whipping a religious pastime.

The moment that you enter the town is unforgettable: you climb up into the centro historico by a scali mobili (escalator), through the rocks of the original fortress, and emerge at the top of the town. Ahead lies the vast sweep of the Corso Vannucci and one of Italy's greatest public buildings: the Palazzo dei Priori. Pink, gothic and topped with crenellations, it looks as stunning as it must have done when it was first built in 1297.

Perugia's slick, cosmopolitan ambience is due in part to its two universities and its shops. It is also one of the most romantic of Italian hill towns, thanks to its medieval winding streets and alleyways. Until now, it has been little known to British visitors, but the launch last week of the first direct flight from Luton will surely change that.

When to go

Perugia is at its liveliest during term-time and during the Umbria Jazz Festival, held this year from 9-19 July. Past big-name attractions have included Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. The surrounding Umbrian countryside looks at its best now, when wild flowers, particularly poppies, adorn every roadside.

Getting there

It used to be difficult to get to Perugia, but now that Debonair (tel: 0541 500 300) does thrice-weekly direct flights to the local airport, 16km from the town centre, those days are over. Prices vary according to availability at time of booking; in July, you will probably pay more than pounds 200 for a return ticket. The alternative is to fly to Rome or Pisa and drive - about two and a half hours either way - but that involves tackling the complex road system around the town. Cars are not allowed into the centro historico, but there are car parks adjacent to the various escalators which take you up to the top of Perugia. Or you could arrive by rail. There are regular trains from Terontola on the main Florence- Rome line. A bus connects the station to the main escalator and the centre.

What to see and do

The town hinges around Corso Vannucci, its vast sweep offering one of the great opportunities to people-watch in Italy. On its corner with the Piazza Italia stands the Palazzo dei Priori, containing a succession of stunning buildings. First, the Sala dei Notari, the lawyers' meeting place, replete with rich heraldic devices. Then the old seats of the two major medieval guilds in the town: the Sala del Collegio della Mercanzia, with intricate inlaid woodwork; next, the Collegio del Cambio, home of the town's money-changers. Its 15th-century frescoes by Perugino (Pietro Vannucci) are among the best of the Renaissance.

The other artistic treat is the Galleria Nazionale dell' Umbria, on the fourth floor of the Palazzo, with its masterpieces of the Umbrian school. The highlight is Piero della Francesca's Polyptych di Sant'Antonio. Outside, on Piazza IV Novembre is the newly restored Fontana Maggiore, a magnificent circular image of the medieval world, with its depictions of the months and their occupations, the zodiac, the lives of the saints, Roman legends, and personifications of the arts and sciences, all in stone relief.

Find the time to explore well beyond the centre. Walking in Perugia is a delight: the town is full of passageways, arches and alleys. Look about and you will see plenty of carved coats of arms and griffons, symbol of Perugia, and Porte del Mortuccio - Death's Doors - used only to carry out the dead. Among the most interesting of streets is the Via dell'Acquedotto, a road built on the old aqueduct which used to carry water to the Fontana Maggiore.

The beauty of Perugia is that, however urban the landscape, you are never far from green shade, for parks and open spaces cling to the hillsides. Its botanical gem is on the edge of town. Walk down Corso Cavour to the old Benedictine church of San Pietro, the buildings of which now form the university's department of agriculture. There you will find the Orto Medievale, a garden of symbolic plants, with plenty of benches to rest weary limbs. It offers a view across the plain to Assisi, as does the church. If you ask politely, a man with a key will open the shutters. Then you will be able to imagine how the monks would sing divine office, their voices carrying across the fields to the resting place of St Francis.

Where to stay

Brufani, Piazza Italia 12 (tel: 0039 075 5732541). The best hotel in town, with superb views and very traditional, 19th-century decor. Benefits include air-conditioning and its own underground car park. Double room: L450,000 (pounds 156).

Locanda della Posta, Corso Vannucci 97 (tel: 0039 075 5728925). Follow in the footsteps of Goethe and stop over in this four-star hotel, bang in the centre of town. Double room: L295,000.

La Rosetta, Piazza Italia/Via del Sette (tel: 0039 075 5720841). An old hotel but with some modern rooms, and a garden where dinner is served in the summer. Double room: L199,000.

Priori, Via Vermiglioli 3 (tel: 0039 075 5723378). A more moderate hotel, recently refurbished, within the historic centre. It has a terrace overlooking the rooftops. Double room: L130,000.

Signa, via del Grillo 9 (tel: 0039 075 5724180). A large modest hotel in the south-east of the town. Double room: L98,000.

Food and drink

Thanks to the strength of the pound and the insistence of Umbrian chefs on fresh, local produce, you can eat well and cheaply in Perugia. Meat- eaters are particularly well catered for: roast suckling pig is the traditional Umbrian dish and you may also want to try the local sausages, snipe and hare. Then there are truffles from the Valnerina region.

The key to good cooking is the oil you use, and Umbrian olive oil is among the best. The local wines are also excellent, including the most famous, Orvieto. Try Torgiano Rosso with game.

For cheap eats, visit Giancarlo at via dei Priori 36, serving simple trattoria fare. Il Cantinone, at via Ritorta 6, also offers the basics. If you want to splash out a little more, opt for the restaurants along the via Bartolo close to the cathedral. Falchetto at number 20 is a good place to try traditional Umbrian specialities, such as lamb with olives, or drop by Osteria del Bartolo at number 30, where they specialise in serving otherwise forgotten ancient Umbrian recipes.

You could also pay a visit to the wine store in the same street for some excellent (but pricey) local wines and olive oils to bring home. If you want an ice-cream, the best gelateria include Cafe del Cambio at Corso Vannucci 29, and its near neighbour Pasticceria Sandri at number 32 - a stylish fin de siecle cafe.

Or, if you fancy some fast food, look out for one of Perugia's oddest stall, next to the town's main post office, which sells nothing but bananas.

Nightlife

During the jazz festival, Perugia comes to life with concerts all day and night. As befits a university town, however, there are concerts, plays, films and even football matches all year round. But the best night-time event is free - watching the passeggiata, the traditional Italian evening stroll. No street could be better designed for watching people parade in their finery, eyeing up the competition, than the Corso Vannucci.

Out of town

Perugia is well placed for visiting many of Umbria's other hill towns. The obvious first stop is Assisi, but many of its most outstanding buildings are closed because of restoration work after the 1997 earthquake. However, the lower Basilica of St Francis, containing frescoes by Martini, Cimabue and Giotto, remains open, as does the crypt which houses the tomb of St Francis.

A little further south is Assisi's little sister, Spello, worth visiting if only to see Pinturrichio's glorious frescoes.

If you want a break from art, take a trip to Lake Trasimeno. Hop on a ferry to the islands, enjoy supper in one of the many fish restaurants, or wander along the lakeside. For a magnificent view of the lake, and an enjoyable waterfront walk, take the windy road to Monte del Lago - hidden away and utterly tranquil.

Deals and packages

Abercrombie & Kent (tel: 0171-730 9600) offers a four-night break in a four-star hotel just outside Perugia for pounds 614 per person, including return flights to Rome and car hire. Cresta (tel: 0161-927 7000) offers a three-night break in a five-star hotel in the centre of Perugia for pounds 594 per person, including return flights.

Further information

The tourist office is at Piazza IV Novembre 3 (tel: 075 573 6458). Here you can obtain maps, walking guides, accommodation information and buy tickets to concerts including Umbria Jazz.

In Britain, the Italian State Tourist Board is at 37 Sackville Street, London W1 (tel: 0171-408 1254).

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