Perugia, the hilltop capital city of Umbria, was built to repel invaders. Today, this would mean motorists, or anybody trying to navigate its precariously narrow roads to reach the splendid 14th-century Palazzo dei Priori that sits at its highest point and the nearby people-watching hot spot of Corso Vannucci.
Like hill towns across Europe, this Etruscan stronghold, surrounded by a massive travertine wall, was simply not designed to accommodate visitors en masse - on foot or in coaches. As for hosting jazz festivals or chocolate festivals, for which Perugia is famous, the strain on the city's foundation shows. Parking spots are precious and the unsightly queue of idling coaches crammed beneath a 2,300-year-old Etruscan arch or beside a medieval aqueduct is hardly a welcoming sight.
But starting this summer, the city may have found a solution with a €95 million light rail project, Perugia's most ambitious and controversial public works initiative since the early 1980s when the city burrowed through the Rocca Paolina, a medieval citadel, to create a new entrance into the historic centre.
Dubbed the "Mini Metro", the rail line, which starts from the valley floor, climbs for 3km, wiggles around ancient constructions and monuments, and drops visitors off in the historic centre where an unobstructed view of Assisi and the rolling countryside gleams in the distance. Total travel time? 11 minutes.
At first look, the sight of pilot-less metallic pods shuttling people up and down the hillside on an elevated track seems, to put it mildly, anachronistic. Call it Tron-meets-Dante in the Umbrian hills.
Debuting earlier this year, the Mini Metro has already created a fuss. Transport specialists from Vienna and Spain's Santiago de Compostela have visited Perugia to inquire about bringing a similar model to their cities. Many locals though have given it a cold welcome, complaining about the continuous hum of the cable pulleys.
Built by Leitner Technologies, an Italian engineering firm better known for its ski gondolas and high-speed lifts, the mini metro is being hailed as an engineering first. It promises to greatly improve access to this ancient fortified city without trampling on the city's past, and in an environmentally friendly fashion. The Mini Metro has the capacity to bring 3,000 visitors into the city per hour and 72,000 in and out every day, going a long way towards eliminating exhaust-belching coaches.
If successful, the idea would be to go further, shutting off the ancient centre to all car traffic and relying primarily on the Mini Metro and other forms of alternative transport. To be sure, going car free is a controversial proposition for locals. Perugini like the green benefits but fear once the cars go, shop owners will lose customers to the shopping malls in the valley. Perugia has been down this road before.
"We had the idea to eliminate automobiles from the centre in 1971 when I was deputy mayor of Perugia. It would have been the first completely car-free city centre in Italy [discounting Venice]," said Fabio Maria Ciuffini, the Mini Metro's director of works. "I've been working on the idea of alternative transport since then."
The concept of pedestrianising major city centres first gained traction in Europe around that time, but the idea has always been controversial among car-mad Italians. It had few backers in Perugia in the early 1970s, so Ciuffuni took his ideas to Brussels a decade later. Again, it didn't travel well. The fact that it now has as good a shot as ever being enacted is down to the global green movement and the growing realisation that cars just don't belong cramming up Medieval streets.
Ciuffini has a powerful backer in Perugia mayor Renato Locchi who believes the Mini Metro can succeed where other Italian cities such as Rome and Venice have struggled: to bring more tourists into a less-cramped city centre. Locchi told The Guardian the city has little choice. "There simply isn't enough space under the current system," Mr. Locchi says. "One of our goals is to make Perugia one of the most advanced cities in terms of transport. Perugia is not London. But we can afford to invest in high-tech transport."
Not everyone shares Mr Locchi's enthusiasm. The Perugini's complaints about noise have resulted in the hours of operation being curtailed temporarily until 9.30pm. And in the first few months of trialling the line, the uptake is below expectations (local newspapers say ridership is just above 10,000 per day, down from a 15,000 estimate), putting the project already under budget.
For a city still reeling from November's grisly murder of Meredith Kercher, an ERASMUS student from London, there was real hope that a futuristic transport project would once again restore its reputation abroad as an accessible city. It's been a rough start, indeed.
But the real test of the Mini Metro's success will come next month when the 35th annual Umbria Jazz Fest rolls into town from July 11-20. At that point, music fans will converge on the city to hear the likes of REM, Etta James, Alicia Keys and Sonny Rollins. It is thought the Mini Metro will shuttle in 20,000 music fans per day, putting enough feet on the street to silence critics.
There's a lot riding it.