In a way, Gubbio is what Umbria has always wanted to be: stony, taciturn and mystical, a tough mountain town that fought its own battles until destiny and the popes caught up with it – also a town of culture, one with its own school of painters. For a city over 2,500 years old, it still seems like a frontier town, an elemental place that sticks in the memory: the green mountainside, a rushing stream, straight rows of rugged grey stone houses. On Gubbio’s windy slopes, the hard-edged brilliance of the Italian Middle Ages is clear and tangible.

It’s touristy now, but it deserves a soft retirement, and makes a great base for visiting this corner of Umbria, near the Parco Naturale del Monte Cucco with its caves, gorges, and legendary updrafts. Gubbio is a name geologists might recognise: its Gola del Bottaccione is world famous. Fans of Italian television may also recognise the city as the setting for the Don Matteo series, starring Terence Hill as the town’s crime-solving priest.

What to see and do in Gubbio

Museo Civico

On the first floor, in the enormous barrel-vaulted Sala dell’Arengo, where assemblies of the people were held, is this cluttered, fascinating museum that resembles an indoor flea market, unchanged since it was first opened in 1909, with antiquities, tombstones, sarcophagi and crossbows deposited every which way. There is a Roman inscription – Governor Gnaeus Satirus Rufus bragging how much he spent to embellish the town. On the wall is a 14th-century fresco of the Madonna, Child and SS John the Baptist and Ubaldo, attributed to the leading painter of the era, Mello da Gubbio.

Civic Museum Gubbio Umbria by Marco Rubino Shutterstock
Gubbio’s 60m-tall Palazzo dei Consoli, where the Civic Museum is housed, is one of the largest secular buildings of the 14th century © Marco Rubino, Shutterstock

The former chapel is reserved for the seven bronze Eugubine (or Iguvine) Tablets, far and away the most important inscriptions ever found in the Umbrian language. Although engraved in the 3rd–1st centuries BC, the texts are far older, dealing religious rites and purifications required to keep the gods onside.

Festa dei Ceri

Gubbio’s medieval festivals fill its solemn streets with colour and exuberance. Oldest of them all is the Festa dei Ceri, held every 15 May in honour of patron saint Ubaldo. Although first documented a couple of years after Ubaldo saved the city from Emperor Frederick, the festival has the uninhibited trappings of a pagan celebration that may have pre-dated the good bishop’s heroism. The ceri (candles) are three wooden, octagonal towers some 4m high, each topped by a wax saint representing a guild – Sant’Ubaldo (builders, dressed in yellow), San Giorgio (artisans, in blue) and Sant’Antonio Abate (farmers, in green).

On 15 May, following a mass, the wax saints are brought out of San Francesco della Pace and taken in a procession to the ceri in Piazza Grande, where they are affixed to the top of the ‘candles’. A second procession from the Porta Castello heads up to Piazza Grande, followed by a big banquet for participants in the Palazzo dei Consoli. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the bishop arrives and ‘baptises’ the ceri with jug of water. The race begins at 18.00; ten bearers hoist their respective cero on their shoulders then take off pell-mell up the streets before continuing up the mountain to the church of Sant’Ubaldo. The porters constantly peel off and new ones join – a neat trick done without slowing the pace. In the evening, the wax saints are returned to their home in San Francesco della Pace in a candlelit procession.

Getting to Gubbio

Trains on the Rome–Foligno–Ancona line stop at Fossato di Vico-Gubbio station (18km) linked to the city by BusItalia, which also has frequent buses from Piazza Quaranta Martiri to Perugia (40km; 1hr), Gualdo Tadino, Umbertide and Città di Castello.

There’s a paying car park in Piazza Quaranta Martiri, and a larger free one by the Teatro Romano, or up along the SR298 at the top of the town.