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Plying the twisty, historic byways of Perugia

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At the time of the evening passegiatta, small-town Italy's customary round of shopping, ambling, ogling, and socializing, the traffic noise on the Corso Vanucci, Perugia's main street, is the sound of human conversation. You hear it from all the crooked side streets of this medieval Italian town, a rushing, gabbling, festive noise, as if a dinner party were going on around the corner. A brook of words, that suddenly laps around you as you turn onto the coursing Corso.

It seems only fitting that this place is home to the University for Foreigners, which promises to teach a student to speak Italian in three months. Students from there and from the University of Perugia make up a large part of this conversing crowd. In their baggy mohair sweaters, jeans, loafers, and scuffed pixie boots, they make this one of the livelier hill towns in Umbria. Other, smaller, towns like Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, and Orvietto have a kind of ancient quiet about them, as if they had been standing still since the Middle Ages. Perugia doesn't seem any younger; it just seems to have kept chatting since then.

Perugia is one place where, in the 20th century, the conversation has taken a turn for the better. Starting as an Etruscan stronghold around the 6th century BC, it became a Roman city-state during the Roman Empire, fought bitterly with neighboring Assisi, and then with the Pope. Intrigues flourished, and the winding stone lanes that climb among Perugia's medieval houses, turning jagged corners, were probably assassin hideouts. Now, they are just picturesque. The present Perugia is a gentle city, and if you hike these gothic walkways by night , you have to cast your mind back 400 years or so to get really scared.

It is also a cultivated city. Amici della Musica (friends of music), a local group, puts on 63 concerts a year. In October, I heard an exquisite concert of Mozart and Vivaldi by ''I Musici,'' an internationally celebrated chamber music group. In July, Perugia is the center of the ''Jazz/Umbria'' festival, and there's a ''Sacra Musica'' festival in the fall.


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