All year long, the young and old of Gualdo Tadino prepare for the annual Giochi de le Porte (Contest between the City Gates). The contest is held between four sections of the town or rioni, each with its own city gate. The citizens of each rioni of this medieval Italian town in the heart of Umbria prepare for 3 days of continuous events to honor their patron St. Michael the Archangel.
Always held on the last weekend in September, Friday night starts with the opening ceremonies and four rival taverns ready to serve delicious wines and local dishes. However, this year, because of the special Italian parliament elections, the games will start on Friday, September 30, and end on October 2.
On Saturday night and Sunday morning, you can enjoy watching as many as 1,000 people compete from the four gates as they parade through the city in rigorous reproductions of late medieval costumes and reenact scenes of medieval life and allegories. This amazing procession is followed by contests of medieval archery, crossbow, and slingshot. But the finale and highlight comes on Sunday afternoon with the palio, or donkey races, through the town’s center.
The Giochi de le Porte isn’t the only thing special about this town of 15,000 inhabitants. Gualdo Tadino has a long history dating back to pre-Roman times, hosts one of the few Emigrant Museums in Italy, is surrounded by beautiful nature, and is renowned for its production and glazing of both artistic and functional ceramics.
On top of all that, it’s where I live! So allow me to give you a quick tour and tell you why you’ll love my adopted hometown.
Go Back In History At The Giochi De Le Porte
The Original Celebration
Revived 53 years ago as an annual event, the first Giochi de le Porte was recorded in 1661. At that time the city council decreed that the games would begin on May 8, last eight days, and during that period all taxes were to be suspended. Today, the grand prize for the winning team also goes back to ancient times, for the winner gets the privilege of burning an effigy of the Bastola, or witch, Gualdo’s legendary figure who is said to have started the devastating fire that destroyed the town in 1237.
The donkey races are a 20th-century addition, making for a very exciting afternoon. There are two races through the town center, the first between donkey-drawn carts carrying a charioteer and brakeman and the second with a single rider on bareback.
The last time I attended the race, I had my camera ready to snap a photo, but only managed to capture the donkey’s tail! The donkeys run at 50 kph for 800 meters (about 31 mph for half a mile), flashing by you in a blink of an eye! It is really a thrill to watch a donkey and rider whiz past you at that speed.
The Corteo Storico
The corteo storico (historic parade) is also truly captivating. Each team will work for months designing floats, costumes, and accessories to tell a story based on a theme, such as Marco Polo’s Silk Road or Dante’s Inferno. Attention to detail is astounding and some of the costume fabrics cost hundreds of euros.
The pageantry also includes faithful reproductions of how people lived in the Middle Ages, from agriculture and crafts to the arts and healing. As the gala passes through the town’s medieval streets complete with drums and flag waving, you are quickly mesmerized by the beauty of it all and transported back in time.
Also fascinating are the games between each gate’s competitors in archery, slingshot, and crossbow. Dressed in costume, each contestant has five shots to make his or her mark in only 4 to 5 minutes. Everything counts for the final tally, as outside experts are invited to judge each team’s performance. At the conclusion of the event, the banner of the winning gate is hung throughout the month of October on the terrace of the City Hall.
You can find more information on the official website (only in Italian) for the Giochi de le Porte.
The Town’s Renowned Ceramics
History And Technique
If you aren’t able to make it to Gualdo Tadino for the Giochi de le Porte, you can still enjoy the town’s pride and joy — colorful ceramics depicting historical and mythical scenes. You can even view many of these beautiful ceramics while just walking through town, as they grace street niches and walls.
The special maiolica technique was first established as one of the city’s most important products in the 1300s, with its fame spreading as far as Rome. In the 17th century, a ceramist obtained permission from the pope to apply gold to ceramics according to an innovative technique, which helped to bring Gualdo Tadino ceramics fame as luxury goods beyond Italy’s borders.
The ancient technique to create the unique luster is obtained through the application of a mixture of metallic salts and clay diluted with wine vinegar, which when subjected to a special firing process, produces iridescent color effects of golden yellow, ruby red, and silver.
The painted pieces are fired at low temperatures for a long period of time in a special kiln. Burning wood such as broom and substances that are particularly smoky help the iridescent gold and ruby colors to emerge.
In 1873, Paolo Rubboli rediscovered this firing technique, which makes the ceramics look like precious metal. You can view pieces of this ceramic tradition in various shops throughout the town, as well as in two museums: Museo Della Ceramica–Casa Cajani and the Rubboli Museum.
The Rubboli Museum is particularly fun to visit as you are escorted through the last century’s potting rooms and can view the clay kilns known as muffola. I was particularly impressed with the story of Daria Rubboli, the matriarch of the family, and how, despite all odds, she successfully took over the family business after her husband’s death in 1890.
Today there are many talented local potters who continue to create these magnificent works of traditional art, as well as more modern pieces. Since the 1970s, Gualdo Tadino has continued to manufacture functional items like tiles and other household items, and nearly everyone in town, at some point in their lives, has worked in one of these factories. A few factories still exist making terracotta artifacts, cooking vessels, and floor and wall tiles.
The Museo Della Ceramica–Casa Cajani also has an archeological exhibit. Entrance fees for the Museo Della Ceramica–Casa Cajani and the Rubboli Museum cost €5. Both are open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and most holidays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
A Fascinating Blend Of History, Art, And Nature
But make no mistake: There’s more to Gualdo Tadino that donkey races and the ancient art of ceramics! The town is graced with beautiful natural surroundings, including the Valsorda, a park at 1,000 meters in height full of hiking trails all leading to spectacular views. One May, I was transported to heaven upon reaching a field of wild daffodils, their perfume wafting all around me. On a clear day, you can even see the Adriatic Sea, which is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
You also won’t want to miss the restored fortification and 13th-century castle of Federico II, Emperor of Swabia. Called the Rocca Flea, it derives its name from the nearby river Flebeo, later called Flea. (There’s also a delicious Gualdo beer by the same name, but that’s another story!) Today you can wander the castle’s rooms and admire the artwork of Matteo da Gualdo, an eclectic artist that beautified Gualdo’s churches during the late 1400s. Naturally, you will also find fine works of the town’s traditional ceramics.
For such a small town, Gualdo Tadino is actually full of museums, including the Museo Regionale dell’Emigrazione Pietro Conti, or Emigrant Museum. Having Italian ancestry myself, I was particularly moved by the documentary photographs and videos on display as well as the evocative collection of suitcases.
Last but not least, there is (of course!) the Museo del Somaro, or Donkey Museum, which has a collection of 100 works by visual artists, all paying tribute to Gualdo’s beloved beast of burden.
Being proud of their heritage, the Gualdese are happy to invite you to visit all the museums in one day for a mere €6. The Emigrant Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Donkey Museum is open only on Saturday and Sunday during the same hours.
Medieval parades, beautiful nature, donkey races, and artistic ceramics — not to mention the pure mountain air and undiscovered tranquility — Gualdo Tadino holds a special place in my heart and life. You won’t want to miss it!
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