All year round, young and old at Gualdo Tadino prepare for the annual Giochi de le Porte. divided into four rioniwith each section of the city surrounding a different city gate, the citizens of this medieval Italian city in the heart of Umbria are gearing up for 3 days of continuous events to honor their patron Saint Michael the Archangel.
Always held on the last weekend of September, Friday night begins with the opening ceremonies and four rival tavernas ready to serve delicious local wines and dishes. However, this year, due to the special Italian parliamentary elections, the games will start on Friday September 30 and end on October 2.
On Saturday evening and Sunday morning, you can watch up to 1,000 people battle it out from the four gates as they parade through the city in exacting reproductions of late medieval costume and re-enact scenes of medieval life and allegories. This amazing procession is followed by medieval archery, crossbow and slingshot competitions. But the finale and climax come Sunday afternoon with the palioor donkey races, through the city center.
The Giochi de le Porte are not the only peculiarity of this town of 15,000 inhabitants. Gualdo Tadino has a long history dating back to pre-Roman times, houses one of the few emigrant museums in Italy, is surrounded by beautiful nature and is renowned for its production and glaze of artistic and functional ceramics.
On top of all that, that’s where I live! So let me give you a quick tour and tell you why you’ll love my adopted hometown.
Step back into history at Giochi De Le Porte
The original celebration
Relaunched 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 dates back to ancient times, as the winner has the privilege of burning an effigy of the Bastolaor witch, legendary figure of Gualdo who is said to have started the devastating fire that destroyed the city in 1237.
The donkey races are a 20th century addition, making for a very exciting afternoon. There are two races through the city center, the first between donkey-drawn carts carrying a charioteer and a brakeman and the second with a single bareback rider.
Last time I attended the race, I had my camera ready to take a picture, but only managed to capture the tail of the donkey! Donkeys run at 50 km/h for 800 meters (about 31 mph for half a mile), passing you in the blink of an eye! It’s really a pleasure to see a donkey and a rider pass you at this speed.
The Corteo Storico
The corteo storico (historic parade) is also really captivating. Each team will work for months designing floats, costumes and props to tell a story based on a theme, such as Marco Polo’s Silk Road or Dante’s. Hell. The attention to detail is amazing and some costume fabrics cost hundreds of dollars.
The pageantry also includes faithful reproductions of how people lived in the Middle Ages, from farming and crafts to arts and healing. As the gala passes through the medieval streets of the city with drums and flags waving, you are quickly mesmerized by the beauty of it all and transported back in time.
The games between the competitors of each gate are also fascinating in archery, slingshot and crossbow. Dressed in costume, each contestant has five shots to make their mark in just 4-5 minutes. Everything counts for the final tally, as outside experts are invited to judge each team’s performance. At the end of the event, the banner of the winning portal is hung throughout the month of October on the terrace of the Hôtel de Ville.
You can find more information on the official website (only in Italian) of Giochi de le Porte.
The famous ceramics of the city
History and technology
If you can’t make it to Gualdo Tadino for the Giochi de le Porte, you can still enjoy the city’s pride and joy – colorful ceramics depicting historical and mythical scenes. You can even see many of these beautiful ceramics while walking around the city, as they adorn the niches and walls of the streets.
The special majolica The technique was first established as one of the city’s most important products in the 1300s, its fame spreading as far as Rome. At 17e century, a ceramist obtained from the Pope the authorization to apply gold on ceramics using an innovative technique, which helped to make Gualdo Tadino’s ceramics known as a luxury product beyond the Italian borders.
The ancient technique to create the unique luster is achieved through the application of a mixture of metallic salts and clay diluted with wine vinegar, which when subjected to a special cooking process produces iridescent color effects of golden yellow, ruby red and silver.
The painted parts are fired at low temperature for a long time in a special oven. The combustion of wood such as broom and particularly smoky substances promotes the emergence of iridescent gold and ruby colors.
In 1873, Paolo Rubboli rediscovered this firing technique which made ceramics look like a precious metal. You can see pieces of this ceramic tradition in various shops in the city, 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 potting rooms and can see the clay kilns known as muffola. I was particularly impressed with the story of Daria Rubboli, the family matriarch, and how, despite everything, she managed to take over the family business after her husband’s death in 1890.
Today, many talented local potters continue to create these beautiful traditional works of 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 almost everyone in town, at some point in their life, has worked in one of these factories. There are still a few factories making terracotta artifacts, kitchen vessels, and floor and wall tiles.
The Museo Della Ceramica–Casa Cajani also presents an archaeological exhibition. Entrance fees for the Museo Della Ceramica–Casa Cajani and the Rubboli Museum cost €5. Both are open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and most holidays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
A fascinating mix of history, art and nature
But make no mistake: there is more to Gualdo Tadino than donkey racing and the ancient art of ceramics! The town is blessed with beautiful natural surroundings, including the Valsorda, a park at 1,000 meters above sea level full of hiking trails all leading to spectacular views. One May, I was transported to heaven when I reached a field of wild daffodils, their scent 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 Rocca Flea, it takes its name from the nearby river Flebeo, later called Flea. (There’s also a delicious Gualdo beer of the same name, but that’s another story!) Today, you can stroll through the halls of the castle and admire the works of Matteo da Gualdo, an eclectic artist who embellished the churches of Gualdo in the late 1400s. Naturally, you will also find beautiful works of the town’s traditional ceramics.
For such a small town, Gualdo Tadino is 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’s (of course!) the Museo del Somaro, or Donkey Museum, which has a collection of 100 works by visual artists, all paying homage to Gualdo’s beloved beast of burden.
Proud of their heritage, the Gualdois are happy to invite you to visit all the museums in one day for only €6. The Emigrant Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Donkey Museum is only open on Saturday and Sunday at the same times.
Medieval parades, beautiful nature, donkey races and artistic ceramics – not to mention the pure mountain air and unknown tranquility – Gualdo Tadino holds a special place in my heart and in my life. You won’t want to miss it!
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