This post will be very long. I hope you will stay around while I try to describe this extraordinary race.
The whole population of Gubbio is involved in the Corsa dei Ceri, which has been celebrated for centuries on the anniversary of the death of Gubbio’s patron saint, Ubaldo. The exact origins are unknown, and possibly date as far back as pagan times and were associated with spring, the fertility of the earth and feasts honoring Ceres, the goddess of crops.
Some scholars believe the name comes from this, as the “Ceri” are not giant candles at all, but enormous wooden structures. Two octagonal prisms are placed on top of each other, reaching a height of about 7 metres. On the top, they carry images of St Ubaldo, St George, the protector of merchants and St Anthony, protector of farm workers and students.
In order to be carried through the narrow streets of the city and up to the top of Monte Ingino, the Ceri are perched on top of “barelle”, a type of stretcher with cross-poles, which the “ceraioli” place on their shoulders. Teams of bearers run with the Ceri on their stretchers at breakneck speed through the town…it is a sight to behold.
The day begins early, around 5.00am with the beating of drums. The “Capitani” (those responsible for the organisation of the festival), the 3 “Capodieci” (those in charge of the 10 bearers of the Ceri) and all of the bearers hurry to the Church of San Francesco della Pace to hear mass and to take up the statues of the 3 saints which are kept there.
The Church of San Francesco della Pace just happened to be directly below our hotel room so we got to see the participants gathering.
The statues are then taken to the Palazzo dei Consoli where they are fixed to the top of the Ceri. The streets are packed by this stage. A handsome chap, who appears several times during the day leads the statues into the Piazza.
The bearers all receive a bunch of flowers from young girls wearing traditional costume in the Church of Santa Lucia. We didn’t see this, but we saw the results.
At 11.00am a parade of all the participants works its way to the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo dei Consoli. We managed to secure a good position above the crowd to see the parade work its way through the narrow streets.
Each team has a colour, St Ubaldo has yellow, St George, blue and St Anthony, black. Someone from each team carries a jug of water which will later be smashed. The handsome fellow reappeared, this time on horseback to lead the parade, from behind the first band.
We then pushed our way to the Piazza to try to see the raising of the Ceri…along with thousands of others. We didn’t get a good position, so we missed some of the rituals, including the breaking of the jugs, and the actual raising of the Ceri, but we did see them once they were up and running.
The Ceri go hurtling around the streets, their statues bobbing and swaying, with their little robes flapping in the wind…I told you it was bizarre.
This is not the actual race. The Ceri do their rounds, visiting selected places to greet people.
When the Ceri have made their calls they are brought to Via Savelli della Porta, where they are rested on prepared bases.
We just happened to arrive there in time to see the Ceri making their way to their resting spots.
St Ubaldo had to be laid down for some running repairs and everybody rushed in to touch his robes or his face.
While the Ceri are resting, the bearers head for tavernas to eat and prepare for the race.
At 6.00pm the race begins. The Ceri are raised once more after being blessed by the Bishop and they begin their frenetic race through the streets. The streets are crowded with onlookers and teams surge ahead of the Ceri so the way is opened for the bearers to run with these enormous things on their shoulders. There is a constant stream of new bearers ready to take over from their quickly exhausted team mates.
We found a good position to watch the Ceri race past us. First of all St Ubaldo made his way to the start of the race.
Then our familiar horsemen appeared.
Not long after the Ceri came racing around the corner.
If you look closely in the next photo you will see that the middle Ceri has toppled over., drawing loud gasps from the crowd. It was quickly recovered and went on its way.
While they were tearing through the town we ran up to the Piazza dei Signoria to snare a position for the bit of the race where they enter the Piazza and, at a sign from the mayor make 3 circles around the Piazza before heading out of the town and speed up the path to the Basilica of St Ubaldo at the top of Monte Ingino. We had been up earlier in a slightly scary chair lift and I can report that the mountain is high and steep.
The horsemen entered the Piazza first.
The crowd closed in behind them.
Every vantage point was taken.
Then the Ceri appeared and did their circles.
And headed off towards the gate out of the town.
From this point on we watched the rest of the race on TV as we realized we would never get a reasonable position near the finish and we wanted to see how it ended. To watch these huge things being carried up the mountain path at great speed is incredible.
You might think the first one home was the winner, but no, this is not the case. The race is always run in the same order, St Ubaldo first, St George second and St Anthony third. The streets are too narrow to allow passing and there are established rules, which must not be broken.
The prize goes to the one who has put the greatest distance between himself and the one behind, or to close the door to the door of the church to prevent the ones behind from entering, which St Ubaldo succeeded in doing this time. Attention is also paid to the efficiency of the takeover of the bearers and any falls that may have taken place.
Heated discussions take place over hours, or days, about who was the best on the day. I would love to be a fly on the wall to hear all this.
Once all 3 Ceri are inside the gates of the Basilica of St Ubaldo they remain there until the following year when, on the first Sunday in May, with much ceremony, the Ceri are once again brought down to the town for the festivities to begin again.
If you go to Gubbio to watch the Corso dei Ceri, and I really suggest that you do, here are some tips.
One of the best places from which to watch the race is on some strong shoulders.
…or secure a ladder and climb to a window ledge.
You are never too young to get involved.
Wander around the streets and take in all the sights.
Enjoy the bands that play all day. One even wandered into the restaurant where we had lunch.
Go to Gubbio the day before the race to get the lay of the land and stay longer if you can as there are other activities in the days following the event.
Stay in the centre of town to be part of the event. We stayed at the Bosone Palace, and it was excellent. The room was lovely and it is on the route of the race. A slightly better option could be the Relais Ducale that faces the Piazza della Signoria, because it has balconies that overlook the Piazza. You would have a bird’s eye view of the major proceedings.
Gubbio is a wonderful town to visit any day, but to be there for the Corsa dei Ceri is a very special experience. I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.