Giant candle race brings sleepy Italian town alive

Mon May 18, 2009 9:13am EDT
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By Deepa Babington

GUBBIO, Italy (Reuters) - Trumpets blare, women weep and a giddy crowd roars as burly men carrying towering wooden pillars charge through narrow streets in a medieval tradition of pride and devotion to their patron saint.

For more than 800 years, the ancient central Italian town of Gubbio has erupted in a riot of yellow, blue and black each May for the "Festa dei Ceri" (Festival of the Candles) to honor patron saint Ubaldo Baldassini, a 12th century bishop.

In a day filled with feverish festivities that include hurling jugs of water onto a crowd, the highlight is a strenuous race where three teams tear through the town and up a mountain with 400-kg wooden pillars balanced on their shoulders.

The festival taps into a deep-rooted sense of local pride and tradition -- the sort of fierce identity tied to their town or region that Italians are famous for. Gubbio's residents -- known as "Eugubini" -- scoff that even residents of nearby Perugia would not understand what makes their event so special.

"There's a lot of kinship between us Eugubini and this is something that really unites us all," said 36-year-old Massimo Fiorini. "Perhaps I haven't seen this guy here for a whole year, but for one day, he and I are brothers."

The emotion is even stronger for the hundreds of former or current bearers of the wooden pillars known as "ceri" (candles), who struggle for words to describe their exhilaration.

"The only emotion stronger than this that I have ever felt was when my daughter was born," says Matteo Baldinelli, 40, a so-called "ceraiolo" or candle-bearer dressed in a yellow shirt with a red bandana in honor of his team, St. Ubaldo.

"It's difficult to explain, this is something that we have been brought up with since we were little, we've lived it all our lives."   Continued...

<p>The St. Ubaldo Ceraioli run as they carry their candle during the Corsa dei Ceri (Candles Race) in Gubbio May 15, 2009. Corsa dei Ceri, a festival to express gratitude to St. Ubaldo, the then bishop of Gubbio, dates back to the middle of the 12th century. The Ceraioli who support the 400 kg (882 pounds) wooden candles wear coloured shirts to represent their respective saints; yellow for St. Ubaldo, blue for St. Giorgio and black for St. Anthony. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca</p>