On Sunday, while Perugia was wrapped up in soccer fever, we got out of town and headed into the hills to visit the medieval town of Gubbio. Gubbio is an old mountain town, an hour from Perugia, whose Umbrian culture dates back well into the first millennium BC. In fact, the longest and most detailed liturgical documents from the classical world were found in the 15th century near the theater at Gubbio: seven bronze tablets of the 3rd-1st c. BC (the Iguvine Tablets) inscribed in Umbrian using the Etruscan and Latin alphabets, and now displayed in the Museo Civico.
The tablets are concerned with religious rituals: purifying the town, purifying the mountain above the town, purifying the town’s army, procedures for sacrifices, and the operation of religious funds. As it was an auspicious day (Rebecca’s birthday), we took the opportunity for a visit.
We arrived just after an important medieval-modern religious ceremony had begun to occur — the beginning of the Festa dei Ceri (Festival of the Candles). Essentially, the Festival centers on a ‘race’, held on May 15, from the town up Mt. Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo. Groups of men, affiliated patrilineally to one of three saints: Sant’Ubaldo (patron saint of masons; his color is yellow); San Giorgio (patron saint of merchants; his color is blue); and Sant’Antonio Abate (patron saint of farmers and muleteers; his color is black), carry heavy wooden ‘candles’ topped by statues of their saints.
Heavy and awkward candles: 263 to 287 kilos (580-633 lbs.) each and 4.9 to 5 meters (ca. 16 ft.) tall. Ubaldo is the shortest and lightest, giving his team a significant advantage as they traverse 4.3 kilometers (ca. 2.5 miles) and about 320 meters (>1000 ft.) of elevation. Every 70 meters (230 ft.) or so, the bearers switch out — at full speed — so that they don’t kill themselves with the effort (though sometimes this happens). At the top of the course, Ubaldo always has to enter the Basilica first, and his bearers then shut the doors on the other two saints. We were not there for the actual race (the town would have been packed with visitors), but for the slow transfer of the candles and statues from the Basilica down to the town. Still, the bearers were dressed in their outfits and colors, accompanied by bands, and celebrating the start of the festival period. The exit, and return, of divine images is one of the most ancient of religious traditions. Jill and Matt wonderfully described and photographed the May 15 race on their blog last year. Here’s a video to get a sense of the mass intensity and insanity of the race day:
Our day was much quieter. We arrived at lunchtime, and found a restaurant, the Ristorante Picchio Verde (Green Woodpecker), which had fantastic food and friendly service. Their avian logo even appears against a background of text from the Iguvine Tablets, so we had to try it. Their house-made pasta was delightful (especially the strozzapreti with artichokes), and we also enjoyed roast lamb with rosemary (lamb is oddly hard to find in Perugia).
After lunch, and a couple of complimentary local (and suitably robust) digestivi, one of which, bright yellow, included saffron, we walked over to the Funivia Colle Eletto, a kind of chairlift that transports one up the side of Mt. Ingino (where St. Ubaldo’s Basilica is located). For a 6-euro round-trip, they have you step into steel cages, where you stand upright and get pulled up the slope. The cages never stop moving, so they space out people getting in the same cage and each climbs aboard in sequence.
The ride was smooth and largely silent, and we were treated to a fantastic view that expanded as we ascended, allowing us to glimpse the medieval circuit-walls, the Roman theater, and the fields and hills beyond. On the return, we took video:
At the top we were treated to the full expanse of this green kingdom:
We then proceeded to the Basilica of S. Ubaldo, and the door that marks the end of the Corsa dei Ceri:
Inside is S. Ubaldo himself, mummified (the woman at the museum to the left explains that it was ‘completely natural’ — meaning miraculous — including statements that his last meal is still inside his stomach, and he still contains liquified blood).
Behind his body, which sits on top of the altar at the front of the church, are stained-glass windows, one of which (on the left) shows events from Ubaldo’s life (from lower left, counter-clockwise): a fire which destroyed the cathedral, Ubaldo’s supervision of the rebuilding of the cathedral, Ubaldo intervening in a local civil war, and his investiture as bishop of Gubbio.
The mountain on which Gubbio sits has clearly been, since ancient Umbrian times and likely long before, sacred. It is interesting that it is also the location where a geological stratum (the ‘Gubbio Layer’) was first found which had iridium levels 600 times higher than surrounding layers. This metal is one of the rarest on the planet, and the most corrosion-resistant substance known. Such concentrations of iridium in one layer could only be the result of an extraterrestrial object — in this case, the meteorite that slammed into the Gulf of Mexico and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs that marked the end of the Cretaceous Period.
We took the funivia back down, and walked through the medieval streets, streets that in the late 11th century saw a parade of around 1000 knights marching off to join the First Crusade, and reportedly the first to enter the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It is a city that still feels very, very old.
We passed a salumeria, whose sign drew us in:
We got some wild boar sausage and several types of cheese. A gelateria offered raspberry-rosemary ice cream (an utterly fantastic combination we’d never seen before). Returning to our car, we passed by shops that sold arms and armor.
As the clouds scudded and shifted overhead, and shafts of light struck sculpted stone and hard red brick, Gubbio shimmered between present and past.
The right place to celebrate a birthday.