Exploring the tranquil pleasures of Gubbio in Italy's Umbria region.
My family and I made the three-hour drive from Rome to Gubbio, winding around spiraling curves as we approached the medieval Umbrian town on Mount Ingino, only to find that to reach the heart of the historic center we needed to walk up a seemingly perpendicular cobblestone street. Between pushing our 2-year-old daughter in her heavily laden stroller and feeling the sun beam down with fiery concentration, we felt as if we were walking up a wall on this last leg of the journey.
But once we reached Piazza Grande, a central square that, on one side, overlooks the expansive vista of this Italian city and, on the other, ushers visitors into the town’s charming streets, we quickly forgave the steep climb.
Gubbio, with 33,000 residents, is the largest commune in the province of Perugia and has less of a claustrophobic feel than some of its nearby Umbrian cousins like Todi and Urbino. There is a sense of grandness here — with block after block of elegant 14th- and 15th-century faded brick houses, sudden stairways adorned with bright flowers and ever more stunning views as you climb higher into the town. Our plan was to visit for the week, while staying at Fonte al Noce, a resort we’d chosen for its last-minute availability but later happily discovered was filled with similar families — that is, tired parents with small children (our family includes a 7-year-old as well as our toddler) — from all over Europe. Whether you stay a night or a week or longer, you’re likely to succumb to the tranquil pleasures of Gubbio.
On the Piazza Grande, we quickly discovered the Palazzo dei Consoli, a towering Gothic building of limestone lined with narrow arched windows. Once the place where Parliament gathered in the Middle Ages, today the palazzo houses an art gallery and museum that offers, in addition to paintings from the Umbrian school and archaeological finds, a glimpse of the famed Iguvine Tablets. We lingered over these seven bronze tablets, created between the third and first century B.C. The inscriptions in an ancient Umbrian language describe the long-ago religious rituals of Gubbio.
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Outside the palace, we craned our necks to gaze at the bell tower rising up the side of the palazzo — a slender square structure containing a 2-ton bell. Our guidebook told us that the bell-ringers use their feet to ring it. But how did this work? I couldn’t picture it: An image of grown men lying flat on their backs kicking up at the enormous bell like babies entered my mind. Later, after happening upon an elaborate costume parade that led to a series of dance performances and an archery contest in the square, we found ourselves seated beneath the tower, staring up at several men stepping forcefully on pedals to put the bell in motion. Mystery solved.
The festival we’d chanced upon was the Torneo dei Quartieri, a crossbow competition among the town districts that is preceded and followed by festivities in the town. Such celebrations are an integral part of Gubbio’s cultural life. The Feast of Candles, Corso dei Ceri, which happens every May, is the best known, with three teams racing through town carrying tall wooden pillars resembling large candlesticks, each topped with a statue of a saint. Smaller communal events take place throughout the year.
The number of things to see and do in Gubbio can be daunting, but let yourself off the hook, as we did, and spend a few hours walking aimlessly. This was how we came upon the Fontana dei Matti, or the Fountain of the Madmen. Venturing back down from the Piazza Grande toward the Piazza Quaranta Martiri, where our children had spotted a carousel, we came across some people walking silently around a simple stone fountain. We took a quick glance at our guidebook and realized we were in the Piazza del Bargello. Folklore has it that if you complete three laps around the fountain here, you officially become a lunatic.
Rather than ask pointless questions, we joined the seven or so others dutifully making the rounds. While walking in circles, waiting for madness to descend, I noted the shops surrounding the piazza, many of them offering the decorative ceramics — elaborate designs infused with deep reds and blues and gold — for which Gubbio has long been renowned.
Certified lunatics, we made our way to Ulisse e Letizia, on Via Mastro Giorgio, for lunch, one of the many fine restaurants serving traditional local dishes with truffles. Later, we strolled along Corso Garibaldi, one of the main shopping streets, and stopped for gelato, always a requirement in Italy, at La Meridiana. We were fueling up and, in my case, gathering courage, to take a ride on the Funivia Colle Eletto — a birdcage-like cable car that fits only two people and slowly ferries them to the top of Mount Ingino, where there is a magnificent panoramic view of the city and surrounding countryside. Here, too, is the restored Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo — its origins date as far back as the 13th century — where the preserved body of St. Ubaldo, former bishop and patron saint of Gubbio, is kept in a glass coffin.
Afterward, I dropped my husband and children off in the English-style gardens of Ranghiasci Park and sneaked off for a tour of the town’s many fabled churches. One of the most notable is the Church of San Francesco, an imposing 13th-century building with remarkable frescoes, including “Stories of Mary” by Ottaviano Nelli, a celebrated Gubbio painter. The Church of San Giovanni presents a humbler environment: Remains of Gothic frescoes appear in sudden patches on the otherwise largely unadorned walls, wooden chairs are set in rows in the small room with only a couple of pews behind them; several paintings, including “Annunciazione,” a fascinating depiction by Camilla Filicchi, are on display as well.
Compelling as the historic center is, it is well worth it to venture beyond the ancient gates. Just steps away, to the south of the historic center on Via del Teatro Romano, for example, are the remnants of the Roman Theater, built in the first-century B.C., where performances take place in the summer. Even farther out, on the way to Umbertide, the town bordering Gubbio to the west, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an artists’ colony, is set in an immense 15th-century castle surrounded by lush gardens. Civitella, an otherwise private institution, presents a free series of concerts and public readings in English from May 1 to Nov. 1 with such recent participants as novelist Gary Shteyngart, actor Wallace Shawn and writer Deborah Eisenberg. (When we were there, Peter Godwin was giving a reading.)
About three miles from Civitella, also in the direction of Umbertide, is a wonderful family-run restaurant called Ristoro in Campagna. It is not well-marked but you will find it if you turn into the driveway at the hand-painted sign that says “Torta al Testo.” The meals, which change daily and are offered in friendly conversation with the staff, rather than printed on a menu, are classic Italian. As our children raced after the chickens and cats that roam the premises, my husband and I relaxed on the small veranda, admiring the rustic decor, and ordered a feast — vitello tonnato, gnocchi al pomodoro, pollo a la romana. In other words, like Gubbio itself, we’d discovered the real thing.