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June 22, 2010

Seeing Gubbio for the first time will take your breath away. It appears like an Italian City Of Oz–a cluster of ivory medieval buildings, surrounded by a shimmering green forest. Here is a perfect place for a peaceful retreat–your visit can seamlessly blend together history and nature AND you’ll eat very well here–enjoying the local wine, truffles, and cured meats. It’s a lovely spot to wander around and shop for ceramics and antiques–there are awesome medieval churches to slip into and an impressive palace/museum at the top of the whole village. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a gondola ride from the village to Mount Ingino and hike down.  Or why not just sit in the piazza and enjoy the sunset views as the church bells gong?

I first heard about Gubbio through California friends who’d bought and renovated a house in nearby Umbertide. They sent me an ecstatic e-mail report of their experience at Gubbio’s most famous event, The Race of the Ceri. Every May 15, three 20-foot wooden statues, representing the town’s patron saints, are run through the streets and up the slopes of Mount Ingino. Three days of festivities surround the race and thousands crowd to Gubbio for the celebration.

The rest of the year, besides the periodic sbandieratori (Flag Thrower) shows, a crossbow tournament, and the lighting of Mount Ingino that creates what’s claimed to be The Biggest Christmas Tree In The World, Gubbio lives up to its “City of Silence” nickname. Set in northeastern Umbria, it’s  somehow not been compromised by tourists and retains a small town, authentic atmosphere.

I loved staying at The Relais Ducale, at the top of the town on Piazza Grande.

The hotel used to be the 15th century guest house of the Duke of Montefeltro–who you might recognize from this Piero della Francesca masterpiece. He had to be painted like this because the whole right side of his face had been disfigured in a jousting tournament–he lost an eye and the bridge of his nose.

The Duke’s guesthouse was renovated in 1997 and it is splendido–just 30 rooms, all furnished with antiques and each one unique–and there’s beautiful dining terraces and salons to relax in.  The place is run by the Mencarelli family–a most charming group who also owns restaurants in Gubbio and another hotel: the Renaissance Bosone Palace, where Dante stayed when he was exiled from Florence!

For budget digs in Gubbio, I’ve also stayed at Le Logge (V. Piccardi 7-9-11), with starting prices at 37euro a night for a lovely single with private bath.

This place is LOADED with history.  There’s the Roman amphitheatre–where concerts are held in summertime. And there’s such legendary gems as Gubbio’s fanciest restaurant,  Taverna del Lupo–where it’s said Saint Francis tamed a wolf (Lupo) to come and eat lunch. These days, the restaurant is critically acclaimed for its regional specialties, with a menu featuring dishes that incorporate truffles found in the nearby forest.

I love Gubbio’s casual Osteria Dei Re (Via Cavour 15, Closed Wednesday), where the smell of salami hits you as soon as you walk through the threshold. Here’s where the waitress in jeans brings you over a huge terracotta plate of delicious cured meats and cheeses, along with a tumbler of earthy local red wine. When I saw the carbinieri at the next table enjoying themselves, I figured I’d hit the right spot.

The ceramic shops here are crammed with stunning pieces. Gubbio is known for its bucchero style–a black background with copper-colored decoration. It’s also renowned for lustreware, vivid colors with an iridescent sheen. Check out La Fornace del Bucchero (10 Federico da Montefeltro) and Magnanelli (Via XX Settembre 31).

You could ask your hotel concierge to hook you up with a truffle hunter and spend a morning out in those forests searching for Gubbio’s black diamonds. My recommendation is Marino Aringoli (329 492 0376, Marino has been hunting for about 40 years and it’s a thrill to join him and his 2 dogs for the adventure.

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