Perfect Picnic Places: San Francesco al Prato (Perugia)
Here’s watcha wanna do, watcha wanna do is this:
This week, after a series of picnic spots out in the country, I’m going to mix things up a bit and point you to a sanctuary in the middle of the bustling Umbrian city of Perugia. This cosmopolitan provincial capital is stuffed with wonderful restaurants and pizzerias, but in a day of touring its fabulous museums and churches you may find your soul yearns for a bit of green after all that stone. But first, provisions!
All three of the places I’m going to point you to are within a couple of blocks of the main Corso Vannucci, so with a pretty basic tourist map of the historic center of town you’ll be good to go. You’re going to pick up your food in reverse order of how you will be consuming it, because cold pizza is only good for breakfast. So first, head to one of my favorite spots in Perugia, if not the universe: Pasticceria Sandri (Corso Vannucci, 32). This historic pastry shop opened in 1860 and has been serving up cakes, pastries, and confections to Perugians since. Before you head inside, stop for a moment to look in their shop window—the ever-changing display, stuffed with their dramatic edible works of art, is themed around local events and holidays. Once inside, make sure you take the time to admire the lovely antique frescoes and wooden display cases before your attention is absorbed in choosing some sweets for your meal. If you need to think it over, try a glass of their cool almond milk in the summer or sumptuous hot chocolate in the cooler seasons while you ponder.
Once you have dessert taken care of, get some fruit. Bananas, that is. Head around the corner and down a block to Piazza Matteotti, where on the west side of the piazza next to the post office you will see an old Perugian institution: a brightly painted stand from which the eccentric owner hawks nothing but bananas. If you are in Perugia and have a banana craving, he’s the go-to man for you.
Now that you’re set for the end of your meal, rewind for the main course: pizza. In nearby Piazza Piccinino, 11/12 you can order a take-away pie from the Pizzeria Mediterranea. This Neapolitan-style pizza is so good we will actually drive all the way from Assisi (where pizzerias are second only to churches in density) to eat one. If you want the quintissential Italian pizza, go for the margherita. Otherwise, any of their toppings are highly recommended. Order it to go, and ask if they will slice it for you before you leave, so you can eat it more manageably al fresco.
Time for your picnic! Start walking down Corso Vannucci and turn into Via dei Priori, which you will follow until it ends in the inviting green Piazza San Francesco. If you are there at lunchtime on a sunny day you will join the numerous students and office workers who spread out on the grass to enjoy the relatively tranquil lawn to sunbathe and relax. While you eat, enjoy the view of the facade of the fifteenth century Oratorio di San Bernardino which–adorned with pink and green marble reliefs by Agostino–is one of the finest examples of Renaissance art in Umbria and the majestic San Francesco al Prato which—despite ongoing restoration work—has one of the most graphically elegant pink and white stone facades in the city.
In a city which can be hectic in its rhythm and austere in its architecture, this spot is a haven of both peace and exquisite art.