Bike Across Italy - Day 5 - La Fest dei Ceri or 'Candle Race' - join the stampede!

Heeeere comes the Saint ... St Ubaldo always wins, despite nearly toppling sideways atop his 600 kg 'candle


May 16, 2007:

Day 5 PHOTO GALLERY

NO ONE with a personality ever rubbished a rest day on a challenging bike trip.

After much grinding uphill in the unexpectedly toasty May heat, the group rejoiced the opportunity to languish in mystical, medieval Gubbio for two nights. I had every intention of sleeping in and trying to shake the stomach bug that had been dogging me since getting off the plane, but this was not to be.

Starting at 5am, what sounded like a 44 gallon drum being refashioned with a frozen leg of ham reverberated in the street below, reminding me of the STOMP performance I saw recently in NYC. A cacophony of cheering, bell clanging and cornet bleating followed, repeated every fifteen minutes until my alarm sounded.

The centuries-old Festa dei Ceri, or Festival of the Candles, is celebrated every May 15 in many parts of Italy and also in Italian communities around th world. Ciclismo Classico times its May Bike Across Italy tour to coincide with a 2-night stay to witness this event first hand. From the trip notes:

A festival dedicated to the patron Saint of Gubbio, St Ubaldo. The origins of the festival are uncertain, some say it arose from the very ancient Umbrian rites in honor of Ceres, others from a historical event which took place in the free Communie of Gubbio around 1000 A.D ...


Imagine a 'running with the bulls' scene of epic proportions, a seething crowd through which three towering ceri or 'candles', each weighing 600 kilos and topped with an effigy of a patron saint, are hoisted on stretchers and then ploughed through the twisty cobbled streets of Gubbio at a Lance-on-his-last-legs pace. The bearers are the town's strongest men dressed in red kerchiefs, white pants, and blue, black or yellow shirts, depending on which saint they are assigned to hoist. The giant candles are actually comprised of two gothic-looking, turned wood columns stuck end on end, each hexagonal in cross section and chamfered like big fat kiddy pencils at each end. A wedge is soaked with water from three special urns to causing it to swell and lock the candle to the stretcher.


The procession starts at 5pm on May 14 and lasts all the next day, and every man, woman, child and yipping chihuahua - even tourists in the know - join the fever and sport the signature red neckerchiefs.

As it was chilly and damp in the morning I felt like a conspicuous party pooper standing there in my lime green hiking jacket and matching Keens sandals. Curiously, I seemed to be the only Asian face in the crowd ...

The day starts with the first of many ringings of the large bell in the cathedral (Duomo) in full view of the throng. The bell is so big, men in red pants are on standby to push it 180 degrees or more with their feet. At some point it is allowed to rotate a full 360 degrees, eliciting a thunderous reaction from the crowds below.

After circling the flagpole in the Duomo plaza three times, the men run with the three massive candles through the streets ... hence the name, Race of the Candles. Every few feet the bearers are replaced by others to make sure no one gets tired. A video of this event from last year showed the giant structures falling sideways into the crowd, upon which they were immediately hoisted vertically again. It's a wonder no one is crushed.

At some point the crowds surge into the Duomo for a giant banquet. You needed a ticket to get in, but pointing my camera through the doors revealed a riotous table-dancing party with bandsmen blasting fanfares on their tubas continuously.


Then the race continues into the afternoon. Round and round the twisty, hilly and stony streets of Gubbio. At day's end is the grand finale: the candles are hauled up a nearby steep, switchbacky hill called Mount Ingino. No wonder the Italians are healthy - any caloric excesses in the marbled meats, starchy pastas and cheeses are countered by walking, walking, walking, on steeply inclined, cobbled streets and hill trails. We hiked that hill in the morning and it took a good half hour or more. Forget gymnasiums, just walk up an incline.

On reaching the top one enters the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo, a giant church dedicted to the patron Saint. There's a surprise treat - he's preserved right there at the alter in a glass sarcophagus.

"Is he real or is that a model?" I asked Frank, the Ciclismo Classico guide who'd popped by to join us.

"That's not a Barbie doll up there, he's the real dude!"

While the others gave their knees a beating and descended the way we'd come, I decided to take the cute little cable car just for the heck of it. It was a blast - for 4 Euro I was piled into a little circular green cage like a songbird and whisked back to ground zero and into the gullet of the celebrations ...



Gubbio is famous for ceramics - that is, painted plates, soap dishes and urns, the kind that you see placed on a washbasin with such élan in Martha Stewart Living. Dana had us visit one of perhaps two remaining artisans who still did all his work by hand, firing each piece on his kiln, in the face of many stores turning to mass production. Sadly, he'd since died of a tumor. Dana said she and Frank had commissioned him to create a special set of plates with the family crest on it. Apparently, the Prince of Monaco had stopped by 6 times asking if he could buy them.

"Let him have them!" said Dana. Why, the artisan could always make another...

"No no no, these are made especially for you."

I found a neat gift idea - ceramic tiles ranging in size and price from 5 to 40 Euro painted with different professions for your loved or liked one - Doctor? Dentist? Mechanic? Architect? I even saw 'Cyclist'.

While trying to think of someone to gift with one of these tiles, the proprietor told me that every house in Gubbio has a high door and a low door. The high one is where you receive visitors, so that you are standing above them when you greet them. If they seem dangerous, you can kill them more easily than they can kill you. Quite logical, really.

Right now I am sitting in bed resting my cycling legs and tummy with the television on and the Festa dei Ceri looming large and loud on the screen, and even larger and louder through my hotel room window.

Tomorrow: Gubbio to Spello via Assisi.


View of Gubbio from the mount, before a thrilling 'bird in a cage' elevator ride down to the bottom




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