Surrounded by hills in the heart of Umbria, a region known as Italy's 'green lung' for its unspoilt landscape, the beauty of Perugia has long attracted both tourists and students from overseas. The narrow, cobbled streets of the hilltop city, which lies roughly halfway between Rome and Florence, trace crooked paths through charming squares with ornate fountains, past austere palaces and frescoed churches. Far above the intricate maze of streets, and mostly invisible to the visitors strolling through them, terraces are draped with jasmine and wisteria.
Perugians are fiercely proud of their city - which since its foundation by Etruscans in the sixth century BC has been besieged, conquered and looted by ancient Romans, barbarians, Byzantines and most recently Austrians - but they are also notorious for being rather parochial. An Italian actor performing there for the first time was upset by the lukewarm applause of his audience and joked that it was because the locals saw nothing but hills day in, day out. 'If only they could see the sea, or a flat horizon, they'd be more receptive to the world around them and have more open minds,' he said.
At the city's University for Foreigners, founded under the dictator Benito Mussolini to spread Italy's language and culture abroad, no fewer than 350 different ethnic groups coexist peacefully, making Perugia the most cosmopolitan city of its size - it has a population of 160,000 - in Italy. But in recent years the city's growing prosperity and its student population have attracted drug dealers who skulk in its dark alleys as they wait for customers. In2007, twenty-five people died of a drug overdose in the province of Perugia, the highest number of such deaths in any Italian province.
A student in languages and politics, Meredith Kercher was at first torn between Milan and Perugia for her year's study abroad. She worried that Perugia might be too small; so few of her friends had heard of the place. But in the end she chose Perugia, attracted by the city's beauty, and she put her name down for the university's Italian language course. She had first fallen in love with Italy as a child, when her parents John, a London-born freelance journalist, and Arline, who was from Lahore in India, took her there on family holidays. Meredith grew so fond of Italy she also went on school exchange trips as a teenager. She loved everything from the Italian way of life to the country's art treasures and its food, especially pasta and pizza.
Almost a Christmas baby - she was born on 28 December 1985 in Southwark, London - Meredith was a pretty, cheerful and studious girl. Brought up in Coulsdon, Surrey, she had two brothers, Lyle and John, but she was closest of all to her sister Stephanie, three years her senior.
'Mez [Meredith's nickname] and I were friends as well as sisters,' Stephanie recalled. They had the same sense of humour and used to charge around the house singing, dancing and laughing for all they were worth. When they were little, the girls went to ballet and gym classes together. Later on, Meredith played football and when she was seventeen she took a year's karate lessons, reaching her third belt.
Meredith's parents divorced when she was eleven. The two girls stayed with their mother but Meredith talked to her father on the phone almost every day, going to see him at his home in London once or twice a week. She won a scholarship to the Old Palace School, an independent private school for girls in Croydon. Gifted in languages, she took Latin and French for her A-levels and went on to study European politics and Italian at Leeds University, which often sent students for a year abroad as part oftheir course through Erasmus, the European student exchange programme. Her heart was set on Italy. Meredith loved reading, and wrote poems and stories. She had no definite career plans - she thought of becoming a teacher, or a journalist like her father, or using her languages at the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.
In the summer of 2007, Meredith won a university grant worth some £2,600 towards her year abroad and worked for three months as a guide on tourist buses in London to raise more money for it. She was excited about the course, which started with a month of intensive Italian, after which she would study both Italian and European politics. However, Meredith's plans were almost ruined when she was mistakenly enrolled on a course which had no year abroad. Meredith didn't give up and helped to resolve the problem. 'She fought so hard to come to Perugia,' Stephanie said later.
Meredith hated leaving her sixty-one-year-old mother Arline. But she left England in high spirits, promising Stephanie that after her year in Italy they would travel around the country together.
'We laughed about making sure she would have lots of Italian friends for us to stay with,' Stephanie remembered.
Late that August, a twenty-one-year-old Meredith arrived in Perugia and went first to a hotel near the majestic Cathedral of St Lawrence, where the most highly worshipped relic is an agate ring which according to legend was slipped on to the Virgin Mary's finger at her wedding. One evening, a couple of days later, Meredith went out for a pizza in a restaurant behind the cathedral with two new friends, Sophie Purton and Amy Frost, who had also just arrived in Perugia as exchange students. Like Meredith, Amy was studying languages at Leeds University, and the two had emailed each other a few weeks earlier and arranged to meet in Perugia.
Sophie, who was studying chemistry and Italian at Bristol University, met Meredith for the first time that evening. Sophie usually found meeting new people difficult and was a year and a half younger than Meredith, but she immediately felt comfortablewith her. She found Meredith fun, bubbly and quick witted; it was as if she'd known her for years.
Over their pizzas, the three students talked about their families. Meredith's parents, like Sophie's, were divorced, but Sophie's had separated when she was only six years old. Meredith talked about her sick mother, and how close she was to her sister Stephanie. When Sophie fondly praised her teenage brother Joe and pulled out a picture of him, Meredith and Amy burst out laughing. 'You're just like a proud mum!' Meredith joked.
Soon after her arrival, Meredith saw a note on a university student noticeboard about a room for rent in a nearby cottage. She called the mobile phone number and went to see the cottage as quickly as she could.
Filomena Romanelli, a lively, fast-talking blonde, and Laura Mezzetti, a keen guitar player, both in their late twenties, were old friends and worked as trainee lawyers. They made Meredith feel very welcome in their home. Although it was only a two-minute walk from the university and the old Etruscan Arch, along a steep street leading to the city centre, the cottage felt as if it was in the middle of the countryside. An old farmhouse, it used to belong to a man known simply as 'the market gardener' in the neighbourhood because he grew fruit and vegetables on its sloping land. The current owner, an elderly banker who lived in Rome, had fully renovated it a decade earlier and divided it into two flats.
Olive, fig, pear, cherry, chestnut and magnolia trees grew in the sloping, unfenced garden, which fell steeply away from the cottage down the hillside, stretching a fair distance down into the valley. Filomena had once walked around it trying to find out how big it was but had given up because the slope was too steep.
Filomena and Laura showed Meredith round, careful to explain that the front door didn't close properly unless it was locked shut. Both their rooms were off the sitting room, which had a small kitchen in one corner. Four male students lived in the semi-basement flat. The two bedrooms they wanted to let were just down the corridor, and Meredith was enchanted when she sawthe view from the square window in the end room. She loved art history, and the gentle, serene landscape framed by the window was straight out of a Renaissance painting. It plunged down the wooded hillside below her, stretching over hills of varying shades of brown and green, with rows of cypress trees on their crests, as far as the Apennine Mountains on the horizon to the east.
Meredith followed the two friends out through a glass door on the other side of the corridor. She found herself on a big terrace from where she had a 360-degree view of the old churches, houses and walls that marked the edge of Perugia's historic centre, only a stone's throw away to the south, and of the countryside.
The rent was £270 a month, with a deposit of two months' rent. Meredith worried about having to pay so much upfront before even moving in, and mentioned it to her friend Sophie.
But Meredith was in a hurry to leave the hotel which was eating into her funds. She decided to take the end room partly because the cottage was so close to the university but above all because the view enchanted her. She told Filomena and Laura that she would like to stay there until the university year ended in June. The two women were both delighted with Meredith; she was good-looking, clearly well-brought-up and reliable. Besides, they looked forward to practising their English with her just as Meredith wanted to practise her Italian.
A week after first arriving in Perugia, Meredith checked out of her hotel and moved into the cottage. On some mornings she would wake to see the bottom of the valley shrouded in banks of mist that the sun soon dispelled.
A couple of weeks after she moved in, Meredith's new flatmates told her, another student would be coming to live in the room next door to hers - an American girl called Amanda.
A DEATH IN ITALY. Copyright © 2011 by John Follain. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.