The comparisons between Umbria and Tuscany are vast. Both regions are established among the hills, tiny towns perched on the top of each mound. They both share culinary traditions of fresh pasta, unsalted bread, truffles and wild boar. They both produce wine and churn out artisans trained in the same crafts and techniques as hundreds of years ago. And they both have that waspy golden light that seems to permeate the atmosphere, float on the fog across the plain to the next hill, saturating the already-yellow houses and the tall cyprus trees.
The difference? While Florence was in a full-Renaissance – Brunelleschi and da Vinci and the Medici’s – Umbria was stuck in a perennial war between the towns that supported the Vatican versus those who didn’t, draining its resources and leaving it forever stuck in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately for the citizens, the Renaissance never truly reached Umbria. Fortunately for us, this means that the region is nearly entirely preserved in its Medieval glory, one of the only areas in Italy.
Perhaps there’s not a better town to experience this time travel than Gubbio, a town in the northeastern part of Umbria. Though it was established as far back as the Bronze Age, it truly came to power in the Middle Ages.
True to its era, the town is built with dark gray stone and Gothic architecture. Simplistic enough to give a strange contrast to the magnificent buildings and enticing views. Gubbio has an amazing atmosphere. The people seem relaxed, nice, not particularly fashionable and not particularly worried about it. It’s a stark contrast from Milan – a much welcomed contrast for us.
Despite feeling like a gothic movie set, Gubbio was full of life. Shopkeepers called back and forth to each other, taking cigarette breaks together and just barely keeping an eye on the tourists examining their shops. Teenagers sped everywhere on vespas and old Fiats flew through the streets. Nighttime meant the bars were filled, people traipsed up and down the hills to get to the next bar, sometimes still carrying the glass from the previous bar.
Despite the revelry, Gubbio is home to the sacred Festa dei Ceri, a race held every year in May devoted to St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, as well as St. George and St. Anthony. Participants run from the main square in front of Palazzo dei Consoli through the crowds that fill the city to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, on the top of the mountain. Each team does this, however, all while carrying a statue of their saint on an enormous wooden prism. All in all, the structure weighs approximately 617 pounds.
If you already think that their crazy, think that on top of the weight of the structure, the ceraioli as they’re called, are running … up a mountain and regularly trade out carriers on the fly, never stopping to rest or switch people.
In fact, Gubbio is traditionally called the “città dei matti,” or city of crazy people. According to Wikipedia, this refers to the “proverbial unpredictability of Gubbio’s citizens.”
Gubbio seems to be a city with two souls. The ancient, Medieval soul next to an over-sized, elaborate central Palace. The quietness of a small Umbrian town next to the megaphone of its history. Loud vespas on secretive cobblestone streets. People who openly drink in public with a basilica worshiped and lovingly placed on the top of the town.
Like they always say, play hard, then run up a mountain carrying a tree trunk in less than nine minutes. Not crazy at all, right?
Read more about our Umbrian road trip stops:
Why Umbria in Autumn is great!
Photo Essay: The award-winning balconies of Spello
Photo Essay: Gubbio, Italy
Going Underground in Orvieto