Bevagna’s Living History: Festa delle Gaite

Excursion from Todi: BEVAGNA

Jet-lagged but enthusiastic, we set out from Todi’s Piazza Jacopone at around 2pm on Sunday to explore the nearby town of Bevagna, which was in full festival mode. Like most of Umbria, Bevagna is a layer cake of historic eras – Umbrian, Etruscan, Roman and Medieval. Unlike most of Umbria, which is 90% hills and mountains, calves of steel are not a prerequisite for visiting Bevagna. A lovely town to tour on any stay in Umbria – especially for wine lovers since it’s next door to Montefalco and the Sagrantino wine route – Bevagna’s particularly festive in late June during its annual  Festa della Gaite. Festivals are everywhere in Umbria and you’d be hard pressed to find a month or even a week of the year without one – from Gubbio’s Festa dei Ceri to art festivals in Spoleto ( we’ll be there on Saturday) and Todi to a chocolate festival in Perugia – every season brings a new reason to celebrate.

Bevagna’s festival – which to the locals is more of a gara, or competition – recreates daily life during the period from 1250-1350. During the festival’s two weeks , each of the four historic neighborhoods, or “gaite” (from the Lombard word “ guaita” or “porta/gate”) – competes  in four different  categories :  trades (la Gara dei Mestieri Medievali), archery (la Gara del Tiro con L’arco), gastronomy (La Gara Gastronomica) and the theatrical recreation of a medieval market (La Gara dei Mercati).

The first thing we noticed while following a group of men and boys in tights carrying bows and arrows along the ancient Via Flaminia (still the town’s main thoroughfare), was that we were trespassing upon a very serious and very local event – not a spectacle performed for entertainment of tourists. At the archery competition in Piazza Silvestri, crowds from each neighborhood watched in tense silence as archers aged 4-to-64 shot aimed their arrows at little terra cotta plates hanging from statues of medieval knights.  Every time a plate was struck,  cheers exploded from the bleachers. After defeat, friends and family consoled teery-eyed children with hugs and kisses or celebrated with the victors at their gaita’s tavern.  In the bars lining the piazza, archers in medieval costume sipped espresso while watching World Cup soccer on a tiny television set. A day just like any other in Bevagna.

After the archery competition, we visited a few of the medieval trades to learn how paper was made from linen rags, how church bells were cast and inscribed, how fabrics were dyed from spices and herbs, how paints were created from soil and precious stones. Unlike Epcot or Williamsburg, here in Bevagna the costumed interpreters actually practice what they preach, just as their ancestors have done for centuries.  It could not be more, feel more… real. Just as with most of the trades still practiced today in Italy,  a respect for tradition and a sense of pride fuels every working moment.

At eight we dined in the vaulted and frescoed rooms of the Taverna San Giovanni and were entertained both before and after our dinner of gnocchi with herbs, grilled sausage and beef skewers and farro salads by two juggling jesters After plunging into history it was time for Leonardo to drive us past vineyards and olive groves, through a little pine forest (pineta) or two back to Todi.

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