The crowds pack the narrow streets of this medieval town. They are all waiting in anticipation and look up the steep street bordered on either side by tall medieval, gothic, and renaissance buildings from which hang banners and flags. Many people are dressed up in brightly colored silk shirts of blue, yellow, and black. They wear scarves around their necks and white pants. Drummers and trumpet players add to the sense of old world pageantry and the bells of the local church peal above the roof tops. All eyes are on the top street corner and people shout expectantly. Suddenly, the huge throng parts like the Red Sea and a train of men come rushing through carrying tall fat wooden pillars with religious figurines on top. There are three such massive masts and they sail through the crowd with remarkable speed, taking on a life of their own like some sort of animated standing stones that have just escaped from Easter Island. Around the corner they jauntily go, trailing a blaze of color as the troop of carriers sport red scarves, fez hats, and sashes. The speeding totem poles disappear and the crowd erupts into joyous clapping and screaming. Women weep and babies wail. To an outsider it might appear slightly ridiculous. Be careful to not smirk, however. The locals take the Festa de Ceri very seriously.
The title Candle Race is a complete misnomer. There are no candles and there is no race. The big sticks are made from wood not wax and the rush around town is ceremonious in nature, the teams judged by their skill in carrying these unwieldy columns rather than who crosses the finishing line first. Each pole represents a patron Saint who in turn represents a faction of the community—thus the passion, loyalty, and rivalry. St. Ubaldo is the union representative of the masons. St. Anthony is shop steward for the farmers, and St. George, chief negotiator for traders and artisans. Traditionally families are tied to a particular saint and their pride and honor is at stake to ensure their holy man conducts himself well in this annual mill around town.
The town is Gubbio, tucked in the Apennine mountains, on the slopes of Mount Ingino in central Italy, 200km (124 miles) north of Rome. Its cobbled streets and grey limestone buildings exude history and just outside the town is one of the country’s best preserved Roman amphitheaters, a temple to Jupiter that is still used for shows and events. The village holds a famous medieval archery competition each year and its history goes back even before the Romans, to an ancient Umbrian race evident in bronze tablets carved in an extinct language. Known as the Gubbio Tables, they can be seen in the castle-like Palazzo dei Consoli.
It is in this mammoth, fortresslike building that the Candle Race kicks off with a swordsman dashing up and down the steps in a ceremony heavy with heritage if short on logic.
Eventually the bulky, octagonal pillars emerge from the building like giant coffins. They have been there for a week, pulled from the local basilica where they must now return. But not before being hoisted into a vertical position and propelled around the town. Jugs of water are thrown over the crowd and crockery broken. Banners unfurl, trumpets blare, and the town surrenders to abandoned revelry laced with fierce pride. The candles are loose.
Bella Umbria (www.bellaumbria.net/Gubbio).
When to Go: May 15.
Perugia (42km/26 miles).
$$$ Park Hotel Ai Cappuccini, Via Tifernate ( 39/75/9234; www.parkhotelaicappuccini.it). $$ Relais Ducale Hotel, Via Galleotti 19 ( 39/75/922-0157; www.RelaisDucale-Gubbio.com).