About a month ago we were invited to come along on a trip to Perugia during the Eurochocolate Festival. More chocolate? Yes, not on purpose though. We didn’t realize until later that we had planned a weekend in Belgium, leader in all things chocolate, followed by a day in Perugia, the Italian leader in chocolate, during Europe’s largest chocolate festival. So yeah, just consider this chocolate week on the blog. There is far more to Perugia than chocolate. First of all, it’s gorgeous and one of the famous hill towns of Italy. Perched on a steep hill in Umbria, with sweeping views overlooking green valleys and purple mountains, the panorama is utterly breathtaking. Second, the art, architecture, and history are probably the reasons you have heard of Perugia. This city is ancient in the truest of terms, its roots coming not from Romans but from the Etruscans. You can still find arches, massive wells, and city walls that were all built and engineered by the Etruscans and still function today. The Fontana Maggiore, a massive pre-Renaissance marble fountain, has been impressing crowds for over seven centuries. Perugino (Pietro Vannucci) painted and frescoed half the town, and taught the likes of Raphael how it’s done. The city itself is an interesting mix of ancient, medieval, and renaissance architecture. This is the result of Emperor Octavian razing it for supporting the Senate, then the Ostrogoths razed it in the 500s for resisting, then Pope Paul III razed half the medieval center in the 1500s and erected a citadel to keep the Perugians in line and stop waging war. Later the French conquered it, then the Austrians, and eventually they laid down their weapons and joined the Kingdom of Italy, when they enthusiastically took down the Pope’s Citadel, a symbol of oppression, brick by brick.
Third, it’s less than a few hours away by road, also accessible by train, and right smack in the middle of Italy. So really, whether you’re in Florence or Rome, there is no excuse not to visit. It’s not far and the journey through the valleys, hills and mountains, with castle tipped towns, and sheep dotted fields, is a destination of its own. So there’s that, but we were also there for the Eurochocolate Festival, as I mentioned earlier, the largest chocolate festival in Europe, with roughly one million visitors a year during the week it’s held. As Texas State Fair veterans, we considered ourselves trained and ready to handle any carnival crowd. We failed to take into account that this isn’t Texas, or any other US state, this is Italy, and they do things their own way. Our group stepped off the automated mini-metro to meet our somewhat frazzled guide, who was supposed to show us the best of the festival and give us an overview of the city itself. She was a very nice lady, but I think she was expecting a group at least half our size, and her voice couldn’t carry over the crowd. Did I mention it was crowded? Most of our group broke apart from the tour, partly because it was impossible to stay together in the crowds, and partly because our guide seemed at a loss with us after two destinations. Not that I entirely blame her, she had to repeat everything she said multiple times, and we had a lot of questions. But she did give us the basics. When visiting Eurochocolate, you need to go to one of the red booths and get a EuroChocolate Card for five euro. You take this card and the map it comes with to five locations around the festival where you get a chocolate bar, a thimble of Baileys, bizarrely some Ricola drops, and other items. This also takes you around the festival along the wider streets of the city center. This sounds easy enough, but you must take into account that we are in a different culture, and there are some norms that we are not used to. When it comes to getting in line, for example, it seems the primary school system has failed the entire country. No one is going to wait patiently behind you for their turn. If you leave any room between you and counter, someone will wedge their way in front of you without any acknowledgment. After many frustrating attempts at doing it our way, we finally decided to copy their strategy, which is to find a space, no matter how small, along the counter, press your body firmly to the front, lean forward, and make aggressive eye contact and/or shout. I am not an insistent person. Pushing my way in front and demanding to be served is stepping very far outside my comfort zone, so after we got a few samples, we took a break from the booths and went in search of actual food. We didn’t hunt long before we found a Porchetta stand. It seems that in assembly situations, like booths where you pay first and then receive your food, the rule of waiting your turn in line is followed. Only one couple got in front of us in the eighteen inches of space between us and the next person. Porchetta is sliced roasted pork seasoned with rosemary in this case, and either served by the pound or on a fresh roll. Desperate for something savory, we grabbed a few rolls, some water and sat on some church steps to enjoy our find. Afterwards we dove back in, the sounds of the peppy over-mixed festival theme song vibrating in our ears… “Chaa-co-la-tay! Chaa-co-la-tay! You say choco, I say late. Choco! Late! Choco! Late! Chaa-co-la-tay! Chaa-co-la-tay! Don’t you want to buy some chocolate? Choco-choco-choco-chocolate. Chaa-co-la-tay! Chaa-co-la-tay!…” and it went on and on at full blast. If somehow a director for the festival comes across this, hear my appeal: Get rid of that song, we are there to buy chocolate, your song makes me hate chocolate. The festival was at a disadvantage though. We had been in Brussels just four days earlier visiting chocolate at its best in posh roomy salons. We were just too fresh off that experience to find this to be anything other than thinly veiled chaos. But I did discover one Italian confection that will forever be in my heart.
I’m not sure exactly what Cremino is, I got some because it reminded me of peanut butter cups. It doesn’t taste like peanut butter at all though. It’s kind of like a creamy fudge/nutella/ganache hybrid, and it’s absolutely dreamy. Every booth had at least one pyramid of these, so it must be popular. Though kitschy, there was also more to the festival than just a series of booths. We came across steel drum performances, chocolate themed street performers, and even a gigantic chocolate sculpture of Italy and its main tourist attractions. I had to snap of few pictures, the nudes in the south made me laugh inappropriately. By mid-afternoon the crowds began to swell further so we surrendered and withdrew to the side streets, specifically Via Priori, off of the main Via Vannucci. Most people walked right past this tiny shaded street without a second glance. But after the struggle of the last several hours, we were relieved, this we could do. Lined with small cafes and stands selling local honey, pottery, cured meats, and cheeses, the street was like an adorable little mini-market with no shoving.
We strolled this for a while, checked out some pottery and some honey, grabbed a square of pizza, and gawked at the other picture perfect little lanes that sprang from Via Priori. Mentally done with the festival we made our way to less crowded squares, and eventually we came across an Etruscan Well. Interesting on its own, but what is unique about this well is not necessarily its size, which is huge, but the fact that for just a few euros you can climb inside it, and see some two thousand plus year old handiwork yourself. Always hardcore nerds about this kind of thing, we paid the toll and made our descent. If you ever come across this well and want to go inside, wear close toed shoes, actually wear something waterproof. There are deep puddles all down the several flights of stairs. After you reach the bottom of the stairs, you are presented with a metal and wood bridge suspended over a very long drop. The light is dim from a small light overhead, the air is soggy, and all around you is the dripping and tinkling of tiny streams dropping over a hundred feet into the pool below. For us it was neat.
After our little adventure, we made our way back to the surface, skirted the crowds, and made our way back to where we started. The view was still the best part for us, so we did as the students did and sat on the lawn to soak it up before we had to go. We really liked Perugia and want to go again when we don’t have to fight our way towards the sights. There is so much to do there that we didn’t get to see. The EuroChocolate Festival I would personally pass on, at least on a weekend. Maybe a Tuesday. If you do go to Perugia, go for the view, go for the history, go for the art, and go for the chocolate (that actually is a thing there), grab a porchetta, find a cremino, and send me a postcard.