A Wolf, a Walk and Many Wildflowers
A Wolf, a Walk and many Wildflowers
14 May 2007
Gubbio, nestled against jutting flattened conical peaks in north Umbria, was our destination this past weekend. A walled town with roots in the ancient Umbrian culture (a pre-Roman society contemporaneous with but culturally and linguistically different from the Etruscans to the west), Gubbio is an intriguing and beautiful place. To get there we took the train from Siena east to Perugia (about 3 hours with two changes), then north by bus (just over an hour). Gubbio can be traversed on foot in only 20 minutes – except it is so pretty and with nooks and crannies to explore everywhere that it is impossible just to walk across it. We had come without a hotel reservation, wanting to see our options for ourselves. After getting a map at the local information office we sat on a bench and phoned several hotels listed in our guidebook. The least expensive sounded interesting, was only two blocks away, and we immediately liked the atmosphere and the room we were shown.
We may have been the only guests at Albergo Grotta dell’Angelo (hotel “Cave of the Angel”), which is run by the extended family of Silvano Ceccini. In the course of our two days there we met the 3 year old granddaughter Anna, her aunt, her father and the grandparents. Our small, quiet double-bedded room was spotless, with a view out the window onto a lovely garden and the upper part of town, backed by mountains that pop up right behind Gubbio. The attached restaurant, one of the best and least expensive in town, does a great business and we had a nice dinner in the covered patio area that first night after a walk exploring town.
We had come here to hike the “Gubbio Double Ring Walk” from our hiking book, and spent all day Saturday doing that. We first stopped at a small deli and had them make a panino sandwich with pecorino cheese and salami (cost determined by weighing each part), picked out a few of the season’s first apricots at a fruit shop, and set out for Porta Romana (the road out this gate leads, of course, to…Rome). The start of our walk was unusual. Just outside the gate is the Funivia, a sort ski lift. But instead of seats you ride in a metal basket, which holds two people standing up, both of them hanging on tight and wondering how secure this is. The funivia goes up quickly about 1500 feet to near the chapel of Gubbio’s patron, St. Ubaldo. There are incredible views out and a coffee bar where we had one more cappuccino before setting out.
Our walk was about 12 miles in all, longish but along pretty back country roads in perfect weather with spectacular views and a seeming endless supply of wildflowers we’d never encountered before. The high Apennine peaks of Le Marche region formed a dramatic backdrop for much of the day, and coming back toward Gubbio we climbed to the top of Monte Ingino, about 900 meters and topped by rock wall ruins – an old watchtower? Looking down at Gubbio from on high, it is clear from the numerous rings of high stone walls that defending against hostile visitors was an ongoing need – nasty and brutish seems to have been the theme of the town’s long history.
Other highlights of our stay included seeing the remains of a Roman theater just outside the walls, Gubbio’s “corso” main street alive with hundreds of young people strolling and being boisterously seen on Saturday night, and sipping Campari and soda at an outdoor café while watching the locals go by. We enjoyed talking with our Kosovo-born waitress at Trattoria La Lanterna our second night about her Albanian ethnic origins and her parents having come here as refugees after the war with Serbia – asked how she like Gubbio, she smiled and said “I am here by force, not choice..,” meaning she came as a young girl with her parents, with whom she still lived. She hoped Kosovo would be able to achieve its independence (currently disputed by Serbia but supported by the US and others). She confirmed what we’d noticed on the main street that night – there are lots of young people in Gubbio. Many more than one sees in Siena.
So what about the wolf? Well, back in the 1200’s, Gubbio’s ferocious wolf used to terrorize the town and now and then gobbled up some of its citizens. Then Francis from nearby Assisi came and had a chat with it. The wolf agreed to desist in return for the townspeople leaving food out. This instance of Francis’ unique ability to talk with animals is commemorated in a life sized bronze statue depicting the wolf with its head on Francis’ lap. Little statues of the Lupo di Gubbio are available in souvenir shops.
Gubbio’s fame also comes from its odd and exuberant Festa dei Ceri, Ceri Festival, held each 15th of May (tomorrow!). A frenzy builds as this time of year approaches and dozens of members of three guilds, each dedicated to a saint, carries a tall (15 feet at least) structure looking a bit like a big wooden candlestick with the saint’s stature at the top through the town on a raft-like structure with poles, allowing the very heavy Ceri to be carried on the shoulders of about 20 people. We were a few days early for this ceremony, but a local TV station broadcast a film about last year’s event which we watched in our hotel room in fascination. The festival includes marching drum corps, priestly blessings of the three guilds that compete in racing their Ceri through town, drinking of white wine directly from large decorated urns that look as though they came from 2500 year old Umbrian tombs, and great merriment.
Before we set out on our Saturday hike, the barista at the coffee bar told us that in Gubbio people think of this Festa as equal in importance throughout Italy to Siena’s Palio horse race. She admitted with a wistful smile that of course they knew it was not quite as famous or important, but a close second! She had ready to hand a calendar to show us the important aspects of the Ceri festival. The deeper meaning eludes us and we clearly need to know more!
Two nights in Gubbio was not enough. We would like to go back again and have time to see the Roman ruins, the archaeological museum and the famous Eugubine (or Iguvine) Tables. These seven bronze plates, discovered in Gubbio in 1444 but dating from about 300 BC, are inscribed in the ancient and now extinct Umbrian language, a distant relative of Latin. They are unique in the world, no other similar description of pre-Roman, pre-Christian religion written by adherents themselves exists in Europe. In all, our Gubbio weekend let us explore an utterly charming place, one not overrun by tourists and possessing a strong sense of itself. For us, this place had both a liveliness and a feeling of serenity.
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