Friday, November 6, 2015


A city built on the side of a hill

Our host in Orvieto suggested a drive to Gubbio, a town we had not heard about. She said it had a very medieval look to it along with Roman ruins. We decided to follow her advice and make it a day trip. The drive through the Umbria countryside was absolutely beautiful. For some reason Umbria has a lot more trees than Tuscany so we really got to see the beautiful fall colors that were missing in Tuscany. Perhaps the difference is that Tuscany has more rolling hills which allow for more land to be cultivated. Since much of that land is used to grow grains, the fall season is mostly brown. Even the vineyards had lost their leaves by the time we were there so they did not do much to relieve the monotony of color. In Umbria, the leaves are still on the vines so combined with the beautiful autumn leaves of the forest, the drive itself was worth the time.

An old warehouse now houses craft sales
We arrived in Gubbio around noon and began looking for parking. This is problematic in Italian cities because they have so many towns and cities with a ZTL (Limited Traffic Zone) to control the amount of traffic in the narrow streets. If you mistakenly enter one of these zones, a camera will catch you and issue the fine automatically. Since these fines can be €95, it is best to avoid them. On top of that, parking is designated as free or pay and it can be difficult to discern which is which. Some free spots are limited to residents of the area, so it is essential to be careful to not park in the wrong spot. In theory, these are designated by color: white for free, blue for pay, and yellow for locals only. However, this is not consistent either, so you also need to look for signs and pay machines. We did find a large free lot near the Roman Theatre but only after getting caught on a narrow street where we met a long line of cars coming down the mountain from church. The lot we found had no lines on its gravel and looked full, but we found a spot at the end of a line that looked safe, so took it. Two more cars quickly joined us so we felt safe.

Madonna in the Church of San Giovanni
Follow me and I will make you fishers of men
From there we found the Tourist Information office where we picked up a map and some advice on what to do. Gubbio is built on a steep hillside which promised more climbing. As we looked up, we were pleased to learn that the town added two free elevators in 2000 to aid both locals and tourists. I’m sure we would not have enjoyed Gubbio as much without these recently-added amenities. A quick stop at the Church of San Giovanni began our tour. Interestingly, this church has only the single nave, no side chapels at all. Built in the 13th century, it would become the model of other Gubbio churches.
Ceramic street scenes from the Quartiere di San Martino. These decorated the hallway leading to the elevator.
The first elevator takes one up to the Piazza Grande and the Palace of the Consuls. Today this former government building is a museum. We passed on the museums but enjoyed the view of the city. The square opens up overlooking the city below with a straight drop off of several feet. The hillside is a steep one.
Piazza Grande and the Palace of the Consuls
A scene from the Piazza Grande
From there we found the second elevator to the Duomo and Ducal Palace. As we left the elevator, our only option was to enter the church, another magnificent example of Italian Christianity. Most interesting was the sarcophagus of San Giacomo. One impressive painting shows the conversion of Saul. Across the plaza is the Ducal Palace which today is a museum so we did not enter that building either. On the outside we saw  the trail up to the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo high above the town. Beside the trail were some stone snails. We found no explanation for these or for the wire trees above the snails.
Sarcophagus of Saint Giacomo
The conversion of Saul
We decided to pass on the 2 kilometer trail and take the Cable Car, a much easier and exciting option. To call these things cars is a bit of a misnomer as they are simple wire cages large enough for two people. They slow down the cars so people can get on, but even at that some people get an extra push to get on before the car disappears up the hill. The ride was smooth and not windy as expected given the winds we were feeling lower down. At the top we had more great views of the city and surrounding countryside. The basilica already existed in the 13th century and has been restored several times. Above the high alter at the front of the nave is the “uncorrupt” body of Ubald, patron saint of Gubbio who died in 1160. The stained glass windows created in 1922 exhibit scenes from his life.

Looks like fun?
Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo
The Saint
Scenes from the life of Sant'Ubaldo decorate the basilica
The basilica also houses the three Ceri which during the Ceri Festival in May are carried through the streets with their respective saints perched on top. The 300 kilograms are raced through the streets and back up to the basilica. I don’t envy the men who are honored to run the race. Even though there are about 20 men per Ceri, the pictures illustrating the celebration show many grimacing faces.

The three Ceri
Views from the top of the funicular

We finished our tour of Gubbio with a walk around the Roman Theatre and its nearby park where we watched children playing soccer, a common sight throughout Italy. The theatre is the sight of classics during the summer months. It looks like a fine place to watch a play or concert.

Something we see everywhere: Kids playing soccer

As a final note, Gubbio lays claim to the biggest Christmas tree in the world which fills the mountain between the upper town and the basilica.  

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