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Window on Italy - A Visit to Gubbio

Sunshine, Thunder, Lightning, Hail and Then a Rainbow!

Colleen Simpson

The first week of July in Umbria, on a sunny and typically warm day, we set off in a caravan of cars to visit the beautiful, perfectly preserved medieval town of Gubbio. On this particular adventure, there are five of us, split into two cars. I lead the caravan around the maze of streets that skirt Perugia, onto the E45 motorway. Thankfully, my guest decides to metamorphose into an Italian driver and easily keeps up with me. Typically, we talk all the way to our destination. I give a running commentary of the history and cultural nuggets of each little village, monastery, tower and castle perched on the Umbrian hills that we pass along the way.

The Drama Begins!

After we leave the motorway and start our climb up a mountain, we wind our way through a dense forest on a narrow two lane road. We are more than surprised when the sky shifts dramatically going from brilliant sunshine into sudden darkness. Then the clap of thunder and a lightning bolt hits the side of the road next to our car!

If that is not enough to get our attention, hail the size of golf balls now rains down on the car drowning out any talk. All the Italian drivers ahead of us pull off to the side of the road. I stop and check with our little caravan to see whether they are all game to forge ahead as it seems to be a localized hail storm. We determine to carry on as the hail pounds down and every few minutes another clap of thunder joins the melee and lightning strikes much too close.

We Reach Gubbio

Gubbio From a Field of Sunflowers

Gubbio From a Field of Sunflowers

Thankfully, as we wind our way down the mountain we see rays of sunshine beaming down on the flat plain ahead. As we emerge from the darkness back into the sun, a brilliant rainbow dances just ahead. Finally we see the beautiful town of Gubbio perched on the lowest slope of Mt. Ingino of the Apennine mountain range. It is our treasure at the end of the rainbow! We marvel that the streets in Gubbio are completely dry. If all of us had not experienced the same drama, one would think it a dream. Summer rainstorms that appear suddenly are completely normal in Umbria and Tuscany, but I never expected a summer hailstorm!

Antiquities in Gubbio

Gubbio is one of my favorite places, one of the most ancient towns in Umbria and most well preserved. Roaming the ancient streets is one of my favorite pleasures because around every corner is a new view and a new discovery. As we wind our way up the steep streets we see a view here and there. Gubbio is a vertical city with steep stairs and streets. The Middle Ages come alive as we wander the cobblestone streets of Gubbio with its perfectly preserved Gothic and Renaissance buildings.

Gubbio A Vertical City

Gubbio A Vertical City

We Enjoy the View at the Belvedere of the Palazzo dei Consoli

Undoubtedly, Gubbio's heyday was the Middle Ages, a time when the city enjoyed a wealthy status as an independent commune. Gubbio's magnificent palazzo and churches were all built during these golden years. From the stunning Piazza Grande, with its belvedere we view the sprawling town below. The piazza is filled with a volley ball tournament just winding down and the crowds quickly disperse. In the relative quiet of the piazza, we take a break, sitting on the steps of the Palazzo dei Consoli.

Overlooking the Piazza Grande, this 14th Century Gothic building is supported by great arches rising above Via Baldassini. It is famous for its two-ton bronze bell, housed in the bell tower almost 60 meters high. Known as the Campanone, it is played by hand 21 times throughout the year by the campanari who fearlessly climb to the top of the bell tower.

Palazzo dei Consoli

Palazzo dei Consoli

In the Footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi

The 13th century St. Francesco church was built on the site of the residence of the Spadalonga family. Italy's most famous saint, Francis of Assisi, fled to Gubbio just after his conversion to a life of poverty. It is said that after Francis sold some of his father's textiles to fund the rebuilding of San Damiano in Assisi, his father disowned him in front of the Bishop of Assisi in the main piazza. This was dramatic. Francis shed all his clothes and stood naked in front of everyone, then set forth across the wilderness to Gubbio. (You can make this walk yourself in two days, spending the night in a hostel along the way.) The Spadalonga family took Francis in and clothed him in sackcloth with a rope belt (forever after the Tau habit of the Franciscans). Francis prayed a long time in what is now a chapel of this church.

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

Wolf of Gubbio

Wolf of Gubbio

Legend has it that in Francis's time, after a harsh winter with little to eat, a she-wolf came into the town preying upon the townsfolk and ferociously foraging for any food she could find. The Gubbians were so afraid of this wild beast that they stayed locked within their homes. When Francis came to town the townsfolk begged him to save them from the wolf. So Francis went to find this wolf and gently speaking with her as a brother, made peace with the beast. He brought her back into Gubbio and made an agreement that in exchange for regular meals from the townsfolk she would act as the town's protector. The beast kept her promise for years to come.

Is this story a myth? My adopted Italian family is insulted when the word myth is used in the telling of this story. Another take on this tale is that it is a symbolic illustration of an impoverished folk who held an internalized fear of evil lurking just outside in the darkness. Also in the Middle Ages, there was a widely-held fear that people could be infected with lycanthropy, a disease that causes persons to believe they can become transformed into werewolves. There is also a story that just 50 years ago, while excavating near the little church in via Mastro Giorgio with the bas-relief of a wolf over the door, workmen found the remains of a giant wolf which had been buried centuries earlier. Unfortunately for us modern folk who need concrete evidence, archeologists were not presented the remains to identify. Whatever one believes, this story provides some interesting food for thought if one delves a little deeper.

Ceramics and More Ceramics

Gubbio Ceramics

Gubbio Ceramics

We skip the famed Ceramics Museum in favor of the shops, for Gubbio has some of the best ceramics in Italy, characterized by the use of distinctive dark red and blue pigments. We split up and browse through many ceramic shops. Striking up a conversation with a very refined gentleman shopkeeper who also has a shop in San Francisco, California! We receive a nice "sconto" (discount) without asking, the price he willingly pays in order to spend time reminiscing about that beautiful Californian city by the bay.

Ceramicist at Work

Ceramicist at Work

We watch a ceramicist at work painting the famous tiles that depict all professions.

We Ride the Funivia to the Top of Mt. Ingino

Our big goal of the afternoon, highly touted by me, is the "Funivia!" It is an aerial gondola tram with open-air metal cages big enough for two people. It is a real art to hop in and out of them. One person stands on a painted pair of feet as the other waits ahead on their own painted pair of feet. As the cage swings around, you hop in quickly and your partner has about two seconds to join you. The gate locks and up you go soaring to the top of Mt. Ingino.

Exiting the Funivia

Exiting the Funivia

On the ascent, we now have unobstructed views across the plain and valley and the town below. It is always such a thrilling ascent no matter how often I take the ride! Once afraid of heights, I now find it is the highlight of every visit I make with guests!

Inside the Basilica of St. Ubaldo: Up Close and Personal with St. Ubaldo!

St. Eubaldo in his glass coffin

St. Eubaldo in his glass coffin

After exiting the tram, we walk up a short path to reach the Basilica of St. Ubaldo. The Basilica altar holds the glass coffin with the remains of St. Ubaldo whose claim to fame is that he saved Gubbio from the wrath of Barbarossa who had aligned 13 city states against the Gubbians in 1155. For that heroic deed, Ubaldo became the patron saint of Gubbio. In his glass coffin Ubaldo, clothed from head to toe in bishop's white regalia with towering headpiece, hands covered with gold embroidered gloves and his mummified face fully displayed, cannot be ignored. One time I attended a small musical mass and enjoyed joining in song with the townspeople, but I just couldn't help staring at his coffin the whole time. A very compelling experience for me, but the mummy at the altar was obviously quite unremarkable to my fellow Gubbian worshipers.

Festivals in May: Corsa dei Ceri and Palio della Balestra

In May, there are two major festivals that are not to be missed: the Festival of the Ceri in the middle of the month and the Racing Silk of the Crossbow at the end. One can see the large Ceri, monumental wooden carved candlesticks, inside the Basilica. The Corsa dei Ceri involves a wild race through the medieval streets of the town and a stiff climb up the mountain to the Basilica, carrying each of three Ceri topped with a statue, respectively of St. Ubaldo, St. George and St. Anthony. The Ceri symbolize the three factions of the city's populace: masons, farmers and artisans. During the war years, when the men were away, the women carried on the tradition, lining up eight abreast with fixed framed wooden poles supporting the Ceri, over 20 feet high with a weight of 600 pounds, over their shoulders.

Ceri of Gubbio

Ceri of Gubbio

The other of Gubbio's main traditions is the Palio della Balestra, The Racing Silk of the Crossbow, involving archers from Gubbio and Sansepolcro who dress in medieval costumes matching crossbows in a contest dating back to the year 1461. One can see the Gubbian archers practicing in the arena beside the tram station, as the tram begins its ascent up the mountain.

The Storm Finds Us As We Take a Hasty Refuge!

Emerging from the Basilica, we retrace our steps to the tramway and a familiar sound greets us. Claps of thunder! These are soon joined by lightning striking throughout the valley below! As the heavens open and rain pours down, we take a hasty refuge in the coffee bar near the tramway station. We and about ten others are now stranded at the top of the mountain, for none of us desire to be captive in a small metal cage as lighting strikes all around us.

The young man behind the bar is very effusive, and wanting to practice his excellent English, begins asking us questions. We end up talking about American and British music from the 60's of all things. As it turns out he is from Albania, and we guess that 60's music is still very popular on the radio there. So while the rain pounds on the roof as a percussive background, we all sing a selection of Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. The addition of cymbals in the form of thunder add to this unusual cacophony. There isn't much food, so we are content to munch potato chips and drink chilled wine as we wait out the storm, singing songs from our youth with a new Albanian friend. I don't think we will ever get a recording contract, but it is just another unexpected adventure in Umbria.

Another Rainbow as We Leave Gubbio

And so our day ends as it began in Gubbio, chasing the rainbows!

Antique Fair at Arezzo


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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