He points to a red dot in the cement, suggesting I stand at its center. A few feet away from my red dot is another where my husband stands. “Do you want to get on first or last?” he asks. Without hesitation and not wanting to be the one left behind at the bottom of the mountain, I scurry to my spot and wait for what looks like a birdcage to come around the corner and pick me up. As quickly as the moving metal basket arrives, I hop on, against all better judgment. We are off, dangling several feet in the air in an instant. It seems most appropriate that in order to meet a saint, you have to risk life and limb to get there.
Located in one of Umbria’s most preserved medieval villages known as Gubbio, the Funivia Colle Eletto whisks the daring up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo. This wild ride was built for one reason and one reason only, Ubaldo himself. In the 1950s, Gubbio decided a funicular would help connect tourists and locals with the shrine of their patron saint. As I clutch a green metal pole on this contraption, it becomes more obvious that Saint Ubaldo has the last laugh. In order to see him, you must go through a harrowing journey, dangling over pine forests and old city ramparts. The stomach leaps are rewarded with some of the best views of attractive Gubbio.
The few minutes ride to the top leaves me both terrified and exhilarated at the same time. Once I spot the end to this journey by way of a metal basket, I can already feel the nerves building back up again. “Surely they slow this down so we can off,” he says to me reassuringly. As we approach a man in blue, the ride does not slow down for the faint of heart. I leap off, nearly tumbling over my own two feet. And just as quickly as I wished to be on land, I want to hop back on the ride.
We follow a path up to the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo, a blank canvas of a church. Devoid of bells and whistles on the exterior, the church boasts a light-bouncing cloister where I encounter one of Gubbio’s most famous festivals, literally in miniature form.
Groups of four-year-olds race around the arches of the basilica’s entrance, dressed in either yellow, blue or black. They are running with a giant object perched on some sticks for carrying. They are reenacting Gubbio’s Festa dei Ceri, an event that took place five days prior but clearly the sentiment is still alive and well. Each May 15th, Gubbio becomes every four-year-old’s fantasy, a race with teetering objects, all for the man behind the door in front of which I stand.
Boasting origins in the 12th century , the Festa dei Ceri honors Gubbio’s patron saint with a race of three teams of men. Each team carries a 15-foot long wooden object, called ceri or candles, weighing roughly 300kg. The race spans more than 300 meters of vertical elevation all the way from the center of town to the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo. Each team represents a different saint, Ubaldo, Anthony and George. Clearly, Ubaldo is always the favorite to win.
As I dodge the Festa dei Ceri happening before me with a slightly younger set, I step foot into the Basilica. The man himself rests at the altar, so much so that you can make out his face. The Basilica also houses the sacred ceri used in the race for the saint’s festival.
Funiculars, massive festivals, ceramics in town and even first grade school projects revolve around this man. After reading up on Saint Ubaldo, I see why Gubbio places so much importance on their right hand man. A city so complete, utterly trapped back in some magical medieval dream would not have been without Ubaldo. Serving as bishop at the time, when the big bad Frederick Barbarossa wanted to destroy Gubbio, Ubaldo somehow convinced him not to after a simply talking to before battle. In addition, it is thought Ubaldo was instrumental in seeing the town rebuild after a fire, mostly in stone to prevent the problem again. Even those who don’t believe in his good deeds can’t argue that Ubaldo has certainly created a lot of fun in Gubbio, from crazy races every May to funicular rides you can’t help but love through the fear.
After meeting the man so important to Gubbio, it’s time to head back down to roam the very streets he saved. Like an old pro, I head to my red dot, this time at a much higher perch. The wind whips forcefully, leaving this metal birdcage hanging in the balance. We head down after seeing a saint, perhaps with a little bit more faith than before that this funicular ride just might hold up, against all practical odds. I suspect Ubaldo has something to do with it.
Have you been to Gubbio and taken a ride on its funicular?
Practicalities: The hours for the Funivia Colle Eletto in Gubbio are hard to remember at first glance. It seems to close up for a few hours at around 1:30 and reopen for a few hours later in the afternoon. The funicular is open in the winter, shockingly enough. A round trip tick costs €6. You can also walk or drive up or down if you just want to splurge on a one-way ticket. There is a museum to the Festa dei Ceri at the Basilica that is free to enter.