Panicale, Italy: Wild Times in a Medieval Village

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

Panicale, Italy is a comune located in the Province of Perugia in the Italian region of Umbria. This great tourist environment is comprised of a medieval hilltown with streets arranged in an oval pattern. In the heart of town, just off the main piazza, there's great food, wine, and apartments available. Notable landmarks preserved include the city wall, towers, the church of Saint Michele Arcangelo, the Palazzo Pretorio, and the Palazzo del Podesti.

Masolino da Panicale, an Italian painter, was born in Panicale in 1383 and is known for his notable fresco work in the Branacci Chapel (1424-1428) as well as the Massacio: Madonna with Child and St. Anne (1424).

A Story of Panicale, Italy

Some things you do with friends and lovers— and travel may be one of them.

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, and the Romans were not pleased. Today, the natives are over their loss and welcome visitors with open arms.

While Panicale was likely 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, as a defensive measure when they were built.

Piazza Umberto 1: Gallo's Bar

The main event happened in the Piazza Umberto 1, the big piazza on the south edge of town. This is 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 sponsored by the Gallos.

If you rent the apartment the Gallos own across from the bar, they'll make you a special pitcher of "long drinks" to go with the free music, too.

Jazz is common in these parts of town, where Umbria Jazz has made its mark. In fact, the Italians will go nuts over any American who sings or plays in their Thursday night jam sessions.

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

Italian Hill Towns: A Resturant Adventure

The funny thing about commerce in Italian hill towns is that 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 store has bins of vegetables stacked outside, and a family casa has a little old grandmother dressed in black, weaving baskets or gossiping to neighbors that are hanging out of upper story windows.

When we made our table and set the pasta down in the center, stealing a few candles from the nearby bar tables to make it romantic, people started streaming into the apartment, thinking it's a new tourist restaurant.

Mike said, "Let 'em go. Let's see how far they get."

So, we waited. A little while later, a couple files out, as if they've just taken the most delightful stroll. They weren't embarrassed, but they seemed to 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. I guess we'll just sneak some matches and stroll along."

What the town needed, of course, was some cheap, plastic signs about the size of one of Hannibal's elephants saying, "Eat Here!" In any case, folks started to file into the piazza, and the Gallos ran around making sure they're well oiled with Limoncello, coffee, Sambuca, and other drinks. 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." The long drink is all the English he knows, but he's used to English speaking people by now and can deal with just about any request.

We thank him and start drinking the sweet, alcoholic concoction.

Panicale Culture and Destinations

On his way back to the bar, Aldo sends the night's diva to our table. She's a gravely-voiced American who doesn't know enough Italian talk to anyone in the piazza but us, despite living in Italy for over a year. 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?"

Although it wasn't Carnegie Hall, there's still something entrancing about 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 you might not want to make a special long drive to see Panicale, as 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, 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 that they are a part of a little community. Thankfully, 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, Tuscany's Chiusi just 16 km to the west, and Lake Trasimeno right to the north. Access to Rome or Florence is easy by car, and you can drive to nearby Chiusi and take the train just about anywhere in Tuscany or Umbria if you fear driving in Italy.