The day after school got out, we left Perugia for our longest trip of the year. This morning we’re in Ferrara, sleeping in after six days of heavy sight-seeing. Soon we will head to Sardinia for our second week.
May 15th marks the annual ceri races in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (just an hour away from Perugia). This is one of Italy’s longest standing celebrations. Since 1160, this festival has taken place year after year uninterrupted. The frenzy, the intensity, the color, the history, the dedication, the passion (as well as the insanity) of the Gubbian citizens are legendary. We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in July. Some have said it is the most spectacular event in all of Italy. So, last Wednesday we joined the party.
Although the details of the origin are in doubt, the holiday is clearly recognized as a tribute to St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, who died in 1159. Since the one-year anniversary of his death, the citizens have raced through the town carrying three mammoth pillars (representing ceri or candles) with statues of saints on top. The rules of the race are strict. The two-mile trek begins in the center of town. Groups of men run through the course carry the saints in formation. St. Ubaldo must always be in the lead followed by St. Giorgio and then St. Antonio. The whole point of the race is to get the three 600-pound ceri through the town and to St. Ubaldo’s church on the top of Mt. Ingino. Speed and complete physical exertion are expected by the honored men who carry these statues.
The town divides itself into teams. Citizens can choose the saint for whom they will cheer. Nearly every man, woman and child in Gubbio was dressed in the traditional color of their saint. Yellow stands for St Ubaldo, the patron of masons (in addition to the patron of the whole town); blue is for St. George, the saint of craftsmen and merchants; and black is for St. Antonio, protector of farm workers. Everyone is united in color by tying a red scarf around the waist and neck.
While the actual race doesn’t begin until 6pm, the day is filled with pageantry and ritual. We missed a couple of the highlights, but made it in time for one of the special events of the day, “the exhibition” which is the procession through town to visit all the people who are too old or tired or sick to attend the race. The exhibition also passes by the homes of former ceri-carriers. Up and down the narrow streets, men display the ornate wooden pillars to the windows of the townspeople. Crowds follow.
After a communal lunch, the athletes of each team meet in Piazza Grande. At 6pm, the captains of the celebration ride horseback down the road signaling that the race will begin. By now the race course is packed with spectators. Thousands of people line the streets. It feels exciting and dangerous. The boys said that the pull of the crowds reminded them of an undertow at the beach. It got the blood pulsing. There’s a fine line between curiosity and panic, and when you hit it just right, you feel completely alive. That’s what this day did to me.
After the saints passed us on the hill running towards the finish line, we made our way back to the town square then headed home. However, the Gubbians told us that some of the most lively hours of the day begin after the races when the bars and restaurants and piazzas fill up all night with festivity. We couldn’t stay; it was getting late, and we had to drive back to Perugia.
Before leaving, we did make a stop at the Fontana dei Matti which, legend has it, will give one the propensity for insanity (like the local townspeople) if circled counterclockwise three times while being simultaneously splashed by a Gubbian.
Ray decided to give it a try.
by guest blogger Tom
I just got back from an overnight trip with my class to southern Italy. We left on a Tuesday morning. I met my teacher and the other students at the bus stop at 7:00 am for a five-hour drive down to Pompeii to visit the ancient ruins.
During the bus ride down, kids listened to music on their phones to pass the time. I played Uno with my friend Luca. Halfway through the trip, we stopped at an Autogrill to eat lunch and buy a snack. I bought two big bags of marshmallows.
We stayed at the Hotel Vittoria near Naples. We arrived around noon and checked in. The hotel itself was good. I shared a room with Matteo and Giovanni. There were no teachers or chaperones in our room telling us when to go to bed so I stayed up until 1 am listening to music and watching a movie. Only one unfortunate thing happened while we were there. I was playing with a toy that Matteo brought. It was a squishy ball filled with powder that stretches into many different shapes. When I was trying to twist it into a face, it suddenly exploded and sent white powder everywhere. It was all over the beds, the chairs, the carpet and all over me. It took forever to clean up.
Unfortunately, the food wasn’t so great during the trip. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of our hotel. Dinner was pasta with ragu, steak and potatoes and then gelato for dessert. Lunch was gnocchi, potatoes, chicken and gelato. For breakfast we were served a bagged croissant and a jar of pear juice. (American breakfasts are so much better.) During the trip, we stopped for a gelato break three times. Italian kids eat so much ice cream.
During our first afternoon, we went to look at the Pompeii ruins with a guide. Pompeii is an ancient city that was buried by ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It was interesting for a little bit, but after a while it got hot and I became tired. At the end of the tour, we visited the museum which displays casts of humans who were buried by the ash. We also saw the houses and stores where those people lived and worked. We spent most of the day in Pompeii and got back to the hotel around 8pm
During the second day we visited Il Antro della Sibilla a Cuma which is a cluster of caves up in the hills. These caves used to be the homes of fortune tellers during the time of the ancient Romans. People could visit and ask the women (called sibyls) a question about their fate and the women would give them a vague answer. We spent about three hours up there looking at the caves. There were lots of plants and trees and geckos. And there was a great view of the ocean too.
Before we got on the bus to go back to Perugia, we stopped at another gelateria. I got a popsicle shaped as a watermelon with chocolate for the seeds. Then, we headed home. During the bus ride, we played “monkey in the middle” with a bottle of water, but after a while, the teacher told us to stop so we sat quietly until we arrived in Perugia. My parents and Ray were waiting for me. I went to sleep as soon as I got home, but I still felt tired for the next few days.
It’s impossible to visit a city in Italy without facing centuries of death. It seems that every town is filled with crypts, catacombs and necropolises. Some of the most compelling sites in this country are the graves of illustrious Italians. We’ve seen the tomb of Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, St Francis of Assisi and Galileo Galilei among many others. Even when the dead aren’t famous, their graves sometimes are. They are everywhere.
Beyond the famous burial sites, Italy is filled with cemeteries. There is a “monumental” cemetery in Perugia that Matt and I visited a couple months ago. Some of Perugia’s most important families have erected ornate (and fanciful) mausoleums here to house their remains.
Last weekend we were in Cortona, Tuscany. As we were taking in the view from the top of this small hill town, Matt saw a big beautiful cemetery in the distance. We decided to visit it on our way home.
Italy does cemeteries well. The grounds are bright and colorful. Nearly every grave or slot on the wall is full of flowers, flickering electric lights and framed photographs. There is nothing creepy or ghosty about them. The atmosphere is soft and the souls seem tangible. The people look at you from their pictures, and you can’t help but want to know more. I can imagine them once living and eating pasta, making wine and gesturing.
We arrived through the main gate with my parents (who are here for a few more days). Once we entered, the six of us separated and wandered through the rows. During our visit we admired the old names and we admired the elegant photos. We tried to find someone who had lived for up to 100 years (with no luck). We found the most recent date-of-death (February 23, 2013). We saw graves of kids. We saw tombstones for entire families, and we discovered many parents who outlived their children.
We finally left the grounds when the wind picked up. Despite the sunshine, we were freezing cold. As we drove away, we talked about the graves and the people who died. Tom and Ray both said that this cemetery was way better than a museum or church.
Then we talked about what we wanted to do with our own remains. The boys are undecided about cremation or coffins. Matt wants to donate his whole body to research, so do my mom and dad (then they want to be buried near Eugene or at their farm.) I think I might want my ashes to be gently tucked away in an Italian cemetery like this one.
There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.
First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia. One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt. So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread. Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.
They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years. They speak nostalgically of the past: “The streets use to be full every night. And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded. Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.” Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia. It’s charming. There are lots of Italians. To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive. But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.
Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.
And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation. Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India. The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor. Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government. They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED. There’s also the problem of taxes. These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti. And they explain that most of that money finds its way into the hands of the aforementioned politicians. Finally, things really started to sink low for Italy after the global financial crisis of 2008 and the European debt crisis of 2011.
As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi. Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves. Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years. College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores. And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived. It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.
But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly. And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.
Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before. We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry. We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new. We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing. They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town. Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day. And each time, it fills up more and more. It’s like a little celebration inside.
We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living. It’s evident. Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment. This is inspiring. They take time for pleasure. They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life. And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.
With the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, the mythological griffin is found all over Perugia. It’s the city’s symbol, its emblem, its mascot, and during a soccer match, its nickname.
The city chose this creature as its protector during the Renaissance because of its association with strength, courage and intelligence. The wings give it speed; the claws give it ferocious power. It’s a combination of the king of beasts and the king of birds. Around here the griffin is everywhere. Small and large statues guard the entrance to government offices, museums and public buildings. Pictures are found on napkins, coasters, wine bottles and chocolate bar wrappers. Griffins are also painted onto the traditional ceramics of central Umbria. This month, Matt and I went on a griffin hunt to find as many as we could around our apartment in downtown Perugia. Here are some of our favorites.
And just two hours ago, I took a picture of a griffin I hadn’t yet seen. Like the saltless bread, this statue represents the Perugian irreverence towards centuries of papal rule. In the clenches of the griffin’s right front claw lies the Pope’s hat. (And in the right claw is a snake representing the Italian triumph over the fascist years.)
But the griffin that is most personal to me is the one I wear every day. For Christmas, my aunt and uncle visited a local jeweler and had silver griffin pins made for all of us. They give us superpowers. Without them, we’d probably still have the flu.
Italy sort of celebrates the Day of the Dead. Not with the vibrant pageantry of Mexico nor in the reflective, communal way that our family has celebrated since Luke died, but it recognizes the holiday enough to give the kids a day off from school. Combined with All Saints Day, this long weekend justified a trip to Rome. So on Wednesday, we hopped on a train from Perugia. We spent Thursday counting fountains, eating gelato and dodging rain. When Friday arrived. I felt nostalgic. I knew if I were home I’d be hanging paper skeletons and lighting candles. I knew our house would be full of friends. It would feel warm, sacred and festive. Instead, it was just the four of us way over here. But I still wanted that lighthearted, irreverent confrontation with death and I wanted to feel a connection with those who have died, so we did our best to create an itinerary immersed in old bones.
It started at the tomb of Julius Caesar in the heart of the Roman Forum. His burial site actually resembles a Day of the Dead alter; there are flowers and notes strewn on nearby rocks in honor of this Roman ruler who was killed 2000 years ago. We listened to stories of his rise to power and his betrayal by his senate friends (ex-friends, I guess). Later, we walked to the site of his assassination. It’s adjacent to the famous Cat Sanctuary. For a price, you can adopt real Roman cats which are believed to be reincarnations of the ancient emperors.
That evening, we jumped ahead 1500 years (and millions of dead people later) to the Capuchin Crypt. The guide-book descriptions did not do this place justice. It was way more edgy than we expected and perfect for our day. I still don’t quite understand what happened and why, but apparently, about 400 years ago, when the an order of Capuchin friars relocated from their old monastery to the present one at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, they brought the bones of their fellow monks with them. They didn’t have enough room to bury them all, so they used the bones to create intricate mosaics and decorations all over the walls of their chapel! Seriously. And it’s actually pretty. Coffee colored skulls, femurs and pelvises from thousands of bodies are arranged artistically in four little white alcoves down a warmly lit corridor. The chandeliers that light the rooms are also made of bones (small ones, maybe vertebrae and fingers). Some of the bones have been put together to form a complete skeleton. Some are just neatly stacked. Some are arranged in the shape of flowers. There was a message printed as we peered into one of the rooms that reads, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
As we were looking around, someone told us the crypt was closing early. She told us that once a year, on the Day of the Dead, a mass is celebrated among the bones, and we were welcome to stay if we wanted. I couldn’t believe our luck. Tom and Ray saw it differently, though, so they chose to get gelato and take a walk with Matt while I joined about 20 live Italians and 4000 dead monks for a short service.
Later on, after we returned to our hotel, I received several emails from friends at home who were making alters, remembering people who died and keeping the spirit of this holiday strong.