Visitors to Italy are wowed by many things including its architecture, food and paintings, but to experience the heart and soul of country you need to attend a traditional festival. One such festival is the Corsa dei Ceri or the candle race. The hillside town of Gubbio in Umbria swells to capacity every year on May 15th for this event.
This day marks the anniversary of the death of Saint Ubaldo and is celebrated with a parade, and a race between teams representing three saints, Saint Ubaldo who is the patron saint and the protector of the town, St. Antonio the protector of farmers and St Giorgio the protector of merchants.
Whether you are religious or not, this is an exciting event to witness. Attracting large crowds of approximately 100,000 people, they come to join in the festivities and watch the three teams challenge each other in a test of endurance and faith.
People gather round the Palazzo dei Consoli finding a space on the Piazza Grande. A colorful sea of competitors and onlookers dress in the colors representing the saint they support in this friendly competition. Wear yellow for the Saint Ubaldo, blue for Saint Giorgio and black for Saint Antonio. In the square each team will throw a jug of water into the crowd and it is considered good luck to pick up a piece of the jug. The bishop then blesses the competitors and the large wooden candles.
The team's task is to carry a 13' piece of carved wood, weighing over 800 lbs, and covered in wax to represent a candle. This is held aloft on stretcher bars carried by the team of men throughout the city. Atop each wooden candle there is a statue of one of the saints. If lifting the replica candle wasn't hard enough, the contestants then have to charge up the hillside in a 2.5 mile race.
The men are changed every 75 yards due to the physical nature of this task from the incline and the weight of the wooden candle. It means, more people can take part in this relay and it also protects the wooden candle from potential damage.
The atmosphere is electric as this procession begins through the streets with a man on horseback trumpeting his way through crowds to clear a path for the runners who go at breakneck speed through the narrow winding streets packed full of onlookers. Colored flags line the streets and the crowds erupt into loud cheers as they see first the saints bobbing high above the throng of people. Flags are waved and encouragement is called out as their favorite team passes. Italian pride and passion buzzes through the crowd along the streets and into the hillside as the teams race up Mount Ingnio towards the Basillica of St. Ubaldo.
The beginnings of the celebration are difficult to pinpoint as some say it was to commemorate a victory of the town and others say it is to honor the goddess Ceres. Both of these would have seen the event beginning in the 1100s, therefore it is one of the oldest events held in Italy.
This unusual celebration should be on everyone's bucket list. If you are fit, you can opt to run alongside cheering your chosen team to victory. This is suitable for the adventurous sort of person who has strong legs and lungs. You can still enjoy the action even as a spectator. Be aware though, the ceri (candle) of St. Ubaldo always wins. It is his day of remembrance after all. At the end of the day the best 'Ceriolas', or one who carried the candle, is voted for by the town.
Why not book your next Italian vacation during May and experience the tradition and the fun of the Festa dei Ceri. Because of the sheer numbers of spectators, it is recommended to book accommodation early to ensure you won't be disappointed.