As you approach the medieval city of Perugia, the roads narrow and start to wind their way in easy switchbacks up the hills. The ancient walls of the Umbrian capital appear on the side of the road, and you keep climbing until you reach the picturesque town, with stunning views of the landscape.
Perugia was once a capital of commerce, and medieval art and culture, but after it was eclipsed by the dual forces of Rome and Florence, the road bypassed Perugia, and the city eventually became famous for two things: chocolate and university students.
There's little question nowadays that the chocolates are viewed more favorably here than the tens of thousands of students who jam the main pedestrian street at night to socialize, drink and smoke pot openly. Many in Perugia view the students as a necessary annoyance, fueling the local economy but keeping the citizens awake with their late-night revelry.
One of those students who stepped, full of hope and anticipation, into this lovely city was a 20-year-old Seattle student named Amanda Knox. She arrived in Perugia in the late summer of 2008, ready to soak in a new culture and perfect her Italian. Her younger sister, Deanna, described her as "very book smart," adding, "She can learn things very quickly like language … but not so street smart."
For the past five months, just off Perugia's main street, in a modest-looking building adorned with the ancient symbol of Perugia, the griffon, down several sets of stairs, in a large 15th-century room with a crucifix hanging on the wall, Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 25, have been on trial for murder.
Prosecutors say the two students sexually assaulted and took part in the gruesome murder of Knox's British roommate, 21-year-old Meredith Kercher. If convicted, they face life in prison.
Each session, Knox and Sollecito are led into the courtroom, as the jurors sit beside the judges, wearing sashes in the tricolors of the Italian flag. They have been chosen randomly, not preinterviewed by the defense or the prosecution, and permitted to read or watch whatever they please.
The prosecution recently rested, after five months of presenting evidence and witnesses to the six jurors and two judges who together will decide the defendants' fate. The defense has begun its case, with a big gamble, and its star witness, Amanda Knox, on the stand. The trial is expected to continue for at least another month, because in Italy court is not in session every day.
Knox's mother, Edda Mellas finds herself in a position very few mothers ever have, having to defend her daughter who is facing life in prison for murder, and answer questions, through an interpreter, from an Italian judge and attorneys.
"It is surreal," said Mellas. "I know she's innocent. I know exactly what happened right after the time … the phone calls and how shocked and upset she was when she found out Meredith was dead. … We wanted her to come home right away, and she said no, I want to stay."
That turned out to be a fateful decision for the young student. Within a week she was arrested, and for the past 19 months has been in a prison outside Perugia, where her parents, who divorced when she was young, can visit her twice a week for an hour.
It is a bittersweet hour, and they have watched their oldest daughter turn 21 in prison. Next month, she will turn 22. Her junior year abroad has become an overseas nightmare.