Panicale Italy - Wild times in a Medieval Village

Panicale, a gem of a medieval hilltown

panicale italy
••• Panicale - a view of the medieval hilltown. James Martin

Panicale Highlights:

  • A great tourist environment in Umbria featuring a medieval hilltown with streets arranged in an interesting oval pattern.
  • Many apartments available to rent in the heart of town, just off the main piazza--there's great food and wine as well.
  • Painter Masolino da Panicale lived here.
  • Preserved are the city wall, towers, the church of Saint Michele Arcangelo, the Palazzo Pretorio and the Palazzo del Podesti.

    A story of Panicale

    Some things you do with friends and lovers. Travel may be one of them. I leave the rest up to you.

    In 2001, six of us took apartments in a little Umbrian hilltown called Panicale. It's 6 km south of Lake Trasimeno, where in 217 BC Hannibal was making a name for himself by ambushing Roman legions along the banks. Over 15,000 legionnaires died. The Romans were not pleased.

    But today the natives are pretty much over their loss, and welcome most any visitor with open arms.

    While Panicale was probably inhabited since Etruscan times, it was a medieval castle built on the peak of the hill that formed the city into what you see today. The town's narrow roads form concentric ovals around the Piazza Podesta at the hill's peak, a defensive measure when they were built.

    But the main event happens in the Piazza Umberto 1, the big piazza on the south edge of town. That's where Gallo's bar is located.

    Aldo Gallo makes a mean cappuccino in the morning, and every Thursday night during the summer there's an evening jazz concert there sponsored by the Gallos. And if you rent the apartment the Gallos own across the pizza from the bar, they'll even make you a special pitcher of "long drinks" to go with the free music.

    (Do Italians like jazz? They're rabid fans in these parts, where Umbria Jazz has made its mark. In fact, they'll go nuts over any American who sings or plays in their Thursday night jam sessions.)

    So it's Thursday night and Gallo has the whole piazza full of tables. Each one of them has a candle on it, flickering in the evening breeze. We take our own table outside the Gallo apartment rented by our friends Mike and Alice so we can eat dinner together before the show.

    Funny thing about commerce in Italian hill towns. There are almost no signs indicating that something is a business. You just have to look for the obvious indicators--a restaurant has outside tables, a grocery has bins of vegetables stacked outside, a family casa has a little old grandmother dressed in black weaving baskets or gossiping to neighbors hanging out of upper story windows. So when we make our table and set the pasta down in the center--stealing a couple of candles from the nearby bar tables to make it all romantic and all--people start streaming into the apartment, thinking it's some kinda new tourist restaurant. Mike says, "let 'em go. Let's see how far they get."

    So we wait. And a little while later a couple file out as if they've just taken the most delightful stroll.

    It's not like they're embarrassed or anything--they just saunter into the night as if to say, "gee, the atmosphere was nice, but the waitress never came and the kitchen was full of unwashed pots so I guess we'll just sneak some matches and stroll along, looking for the Burger King..."

    (What the town needs, of course, is some cheap, plastic signs about the size of one of Hannibal's elephants saying "Eat Here!" or "Buy your Tourist Crap Now Before the Town Votes to Outlaw These Intrusive and Informative Signs!" Yep, signs would take care of the problem, especially if they're ringed by flashing lights that stay on all night for stragglers who might wanna plunk down some hard cash for a plastic gondola or something.)

    Continued on the next page.

    (Continued from previous page)

    In any case, folks start filing into the piazza and the Gallos are running around making sure they're well oiled with Limoncello, coffee, Sambuca and some drinks we can't identify on account of they're the color of the late evening sky and have little umbrellas sticking out of them. Finally, Signore Gallo approaches us with a pitcher of bluish liquid. "Long drink!" he says as he plops the pitcher down on the table, "una specialità della casa." You gotta realize that long drink is pretty much all the English he knows, but he's pretty used to English speaking people by now and he can deal with just about any request.

    We thank him and start drinking the sweet concoction. I can't really describe it except to say that it definitely tastes better once the alcohol starts coursing though your veins.

    On his way back to the bar, Aldo sends the night's diva to our table. She's a gravely-voiced American and, despite living in Italy for over a year, she doesn't know enough Italian to really talk to anyone in the piazza but us. Actually, we didn't find that out until after the concert had begun, when she was trying to light a little fire under the crowd by intending to shout out in Italian "Don't you just love the blues?" What she got, in fact was some pretty confused silence, having actually said, "I like the blues" and being miffed when people just sat there as if to say, "Yeah, so...?"

    Ok, so it wasn't Carnegie Hall. Still, there's something entrancing about actually living in a place and participating in the everyday events that make a little town of 500 (which swells to 800 in the summer) different than one in the U.

    S. It's small enough that maybe you wouldn't want to make a special long drive to see Panicale, cute as it is (although Art lovers may want to check out the famous fresco by Il Perugino depicting the Martirio del Santo in the Chiesa of S. Sebastiano). The fact is that just about every Umbrian or Tuscan hilltown is charming.

    Many Italian rental places and agritourismos are located on dirt roads way out of town, but Panicale has rental places in historic houses right in the historic center, where the visitor can feel, for a short time at least, that he's a part of a little community. The Gallos go out of their way to make this a reality. And they do it without speaking English. That's something you won't experience every day.

    Besides, Panicale is central to some pretty impressive tourist destinations, including Perugia to the Northeast and Tuscany's Chiusi just 16 km to the west. And lake Trasimeno is right to the north. Access to Rome or Florence is easy by car, or you can drive to nearby Chiusi and take the train just about anywhere in Tuscany or Umbria if you fear driving much in Italy.

    More on Panicale

    Food and Restaurants in Panicale

    Apartments and Lodging in Panicale