Umbria– with its bucolic patchwork landscape of vineyards, olive groves, and tiny medieval stone hilltowns–is not known as a big party destination. The Umbrians are generally a staid and reserved populace, and the rolling hills and sleepy villages that characterize this region in central Italy lend themselves more to contemplatively sipping cappuccinos in tiny piazzas than bacchanal excess and dancing until dawn.
That said, there is nothing like an Umbrian town during that one time a year when everyone really lets their hair down. Almost every town in the region has an annual festival—often centered around the town’s patron saint feast day. Many of the citizens of each town get decked out in period garb, they get riled up, and there is an irresistible air of celebration.
For an unforgettable visit, try to time your trip to coincide with those magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, and taverne (outdoor temporary eating areas which range from refreshment stands to all-out restaurant fare) sprout overnight like mushrooms in the piazzas. During the festival period, street musicians play around every corner, costumed processions take over the cobbled streets, medieval markets are reenacted, and crossbow tournaments draw participants from surrounding towns. To the delight of all, jousting, singing, and dancing reaches far into the night. Here are five of my favorites:
The Corsa all’Anello in lovely (and largely unknown) Narni opens the festival season at the end of April. Two weeks of medieval merry-making centered around the feast day of patron Saint Giovanale on May 3rd culminate in a historic competition on horseback—dating back to 1371. Riders attired in period costumes attempt to drive their lances through a silver ring thus winning honor and glory for their terziere, or town district. Don’t miss the moving ceremonial candle offering at Narni’s twelfth-century cathedral the night of May 2nd.
For pure pageantry, nothing tops Assisi’s Calendimaggio the first weekend in May. This hill town—home of Saint Francis—sheds its normal spirit of peace and brotherly love to spend three days (and nights) locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto stage processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they vie for the honor of the Palio. The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets are available in the tourist information office).
Corsa dei Ceri
Pamplona has the Running of the Bulls, Glouchester has the Rolling of the Cheese, and–in the same category of mayhem–Gubbio has the Race of the Candles (Corsa dei Ceri). On May 15th, in honor of patron Saint Ubaldo, teams of men hoist three towering wooden ceremonial candles on litters and race uphill through the packed streets to the basilica on the slopes of Mount Ingino. Spoiler alert: the candle topped by the statue of Ubaldo always wins. To penetrate past the general pandemonium and better follow what’s going on, this is a festival best enjoyed with a local guide.
Mercato della Gaite
A perennial favorite with kids (and their parents) is the quieter Mercato delle Gaite held in late June in tiny Bevagna. Each town district–or gaite—accurately reconstructs functioning artisan workshops using both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to produce items that include silk (from silkworm to cloth), paper, bronze bells, beeswax candles, and religious icons. To beat the crowds, choose a weekday in early evening to visit the workshops, and be sure to have dinner in one of the outdoor taverns serving period dishes.
Giostra della Quintana
Where most historic festivals in Umbria are set in the middle ages, Foligno’s Giostra della Quintana in September evokes the sumptuous 1600’s, with elaborate Baroque costumes, elegant banquet dinners, and a noble equestrian tournament. The high point of this elegant festival’s pomp and circumstance is the solemn procession and blessing of the horses the evening before the tournament. Still relatively undiscovered by tourists (who make up a large portion of the crowd at other festivals in Umbria), the Quintana is a perfect way to lose yourself completely in Umbria–past and present.
Written by Innkeeper and Blogger, Rebecca Winke for EuropeUpClose.com
Rebecca moved to Italy from Chicago in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband’s renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria. She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante, blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca’s Ruminations , and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a farm in Umbria.