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Mar 09,2007
Travel and Adventure: Unspoiled Umbria
by Sheila Sobell and Richard N. E

It is a city gone mad with flags. On every balcony and at every window are flags, banners, and gonfalons in a riot of colors to rock your senses. Around you men and women in medieval and Renaissance costume have become a singing, dancing procession carrying flowers, torches and candles, and waving flags as they recreate the conflict between the Fiumi and Nepis families, who divided the region into the Lower Part and the Upper Part of Assisi in a blood feud that lasted two centuries. Welcome to Assisi's Calendimaggio, a festival celebrated each May in this corner of Umbria, Italy.

BLOOD FEUD - Men and women in medieval and Renaissance costume sing and dance, carry flowers, torches, candles and wave flags in this procession to commemorate Assisi's Calendimaggio, the blood feud between the Fiumi and Nepis families of Umbria, Italy. CNS Photo by Richard N. Every. 
COSTUME CONTEST - The Calendimaggio is a contest between the two sections of Assisi (the Parte de Soto and the Parte de Sopra). The contest is to see who can recreate the music, the costumes and the art of flag waving of the period most accurately. CNS Photo by Richard N. Every. 
HEART OF ITALY - On every balcony and every window are colorful flags, banners and gonfalons. Spectators of all ages line up along the side of the streets during the Renaissance procession. CNS Photo by Richard N. Every. 
STREET ARTISTS - A street artist creates a picture of the Calendimaggio. The pageant is celebrated each year on May 3 to 5. CNS Photo by Richard N. Every. 
This is Umbria, the "spiritual heart of Italy." Still very much an off-the-beaten track destination that lies in the shadow of neighboring Tuscany, Umbria is the home of more saints, monasteries and related art that any other region in Italy.

Step back in time with the Calendimaggio May 3-5. This medieval pagan pageant is designed to delight the eyes as well as the ears, depending of course on your sensitivity to sound and your capacity to roll with thunderous drum rolls from troupes of enthusiastic musicians. Calendimaggio is essentially a contest to see which section of Assisi (the Parte de Sotto or the Parte de Sopra) can most accurately and beautifully re-create the music and costumes of the period, as well as excel in the art of bell ringing, flag waving and games of skill like the long bow, tug of war and log sled race.

It originated from a blood feud between the Lower and  Upper parts of the city, led in the 1300s by the Fiumi and Nepis families. The three-day celebration culminates in the selection by jury of the Lady of the Spring.

Unlike Sienna's Palio and other Italian festivals, much of Calendimaggio's charm lies in its smallness. It is produced by and for locals and not an international tourist attraction. For example, in 2006 the opening ceremony included a memorial to a musician who had died earlier in the year, and who had always played an integral role in the production. Though the songs and speeches are all in Italian, the spectacle needs no translation as you lose yourself in the cacophony of bells, drums, brass and strings as they reach an ecstatic crescendo.

Like California's Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, the hats, gowns and sumptuous wardrobe are made and modeled by residents, who work yearlong to get it right. Here's a chance for youngsters to hone ancient skills under the tutelage of masters - apprentice flag throwers and horn players strut their stuff after their elders' spectacular demonstration opens the ceremony. In addition to its popularity with residents of Assisi and the surrounding region, the festival is gaining interest from sophisticated Europeans, so you'll catch a flurry of foreign languages, adding to the romance.

Hotel rooms need prompt booking. If you don't wind up bedding down in the immediate city area, the surrounding region also offers a treasure of cultural treats. You can move between cities by rental car, taxi and coach. To purchase tickets for the Calendimaggio, the simplest method may be to just show up in Assisi and ask for the Ente Calendimaggio office in Piazza del Comune, where we actually saw some Brits buy tickets on the day. If you don't snare a seat, don't worry. You can always watch the proceedings from the sidelines standing area.

The glory of the Calendimaggio isn't limited to the main piazza. Throughout Assisi's narrow, winding streets, you'll find artists creating virtually life-size illustrations of the Calendimaggio, while leather craftsmen hand-make gorgeous shoes and purses, often at reduced prices due to the time of year. Look particularly for Il Tapiro leather shop (pelletterie) for bags and shoes on Via S. Francesco.


Gubbio's Corsa Dei Ceri, May 15 - Don't leave Umbria without witnessing an amazing show of strength and religious devotion celebrated yearly in nearby Gubbio. This complicated ancient festival culminates on St. Ubaldo's eve, May 15, when candle-bearers hoist massive wooden pillars called ceri (candles) 10 feet tall and weighing 880 pounds onto their shoulders and race along Via Dante to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo. Each candle represents one of three saints (Ubaldo, Giorgio and Antonio) and each candle-bearer is dressed in representative colors.

A little-known anecdote credits the women of Gubbio with equally amazing strength. According to locals we interviewed, during World War II, when most of the city's men were recruited by the military, women hefted the candles around the city themselves in order to keep the tradition alive. Once the men returned home from the war, they resumed their traditional role in the festival.

Spello's Le Infiorate per il Corpus Domini, June 9-10 - Wake to medieval streets that literally have become an artist's palette. Every year, artists create pavement drawings depicting traditional pictures of saints and ornamental motifs from the Renaissance. Then overnight, the infioratori use petals to complement the paints, covering all the drawings with flowers. They create some 65 carpets of flowers, each about 50 feet in size.

Corpus Domini is a free event celebrated along the main street between Borgo and Vallegloria. Be there to see the best creations awarded prizes, as these works of art are as fragile as their scent - here today and gone tomorrow.


The delights of Italian cuisine are legendary, so it's no surprise that Umbria is headquarters of cittaslow (the slow food movement). Here shops still close for the afternoon siesta so that families and tourists can savor gastronomy in all its glory. Umbria is truly your chance to holiday where slow is celebrated and furiously fast is anathema, unless of course you're part of the Corsa dei Ceri.


Umbria is off the beaten track for direct flights, but you can reach the region from a variety of international airports in Pisa, Rome and Ancona. You can take a bus from Rome's Fiumicino airport or a train from Pisa airport or catch a connecting flight to Sant'Egidio International Airport located 11 kilometers (7 miles) from Assisi. Ultimately, your hotel may provide transfers or it just might be easier to rent a car to tour the region. For more information on tourist accommodations, transportation and dining, visit www.assisionline.com, www.en.umbriaonline.com, www.italiantourism.com, as well as any Italian Tourist office.

To order tickets for the Calendimaggio, try writing to Ente Calendimaggio, Piazza del Comune, 06081 Assisi (PG) Italy. The ticket prices vary annually. In 2006, tickets for the first day were 15-10 euros; 30-35 euros for subsequent days and 65-80 euros for a full pass. Of course, it just might be easier to buy the tickets on the spot or stand on the sidelines and enjoy the glorious production.

© Copley News Service

1905 times read

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