Gareth and I looked at each other. What was going on? We were sitting outside in the sun enjoying brunch at a little bar in the hilltop town of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy. It was a Sunday morning, and we had come early hoping that we might miss the masses who, like us, arrive in droves to admire the cathedral for which the town is famous.
Judging by the amount of people crowding our little square at the moment, the chances of a short queue was getting slimmer by the second. And they were all looking down the winding road that we had followed, which we assumed would eventually lead to the top of the hill and the centre of the old town.
I stood up from my seat to get a better view, and suddenly they were there. Four trumpeters dressed in red and blue medieval clothing had stopped on the edge of the square. Behind them were drummers, also in red, and a following of onlookers brought up the rear. The trumpeters blew a few notes, then marched off in procession once more, the drummers keeping the rhythm.
Gareth and I quickly finished our meal. I was excited. I’ve always wanted to go to a medieval or renaissance faire, and it seemed like today might be my lucky day. We chose a different route up the hill, hoping to bypass the throngs following the parade, and stopped dead when we reached the main piazza.
A sea of people surged under the shadow of the immense Gothic cathedral. We couldn’t get close to it, because the steps leading up to the entrance were blocked off by barricades and people in police uniforms were keeping a nervous eye on the crowd. The musicians, along with a few dignitaries also dressed in traditional clothes, were already up on the steps.
We pushed our way through the people to try and get a closer look. Something was obviously going on, not a faire like I had hoped, but a festival of some kind. Around us, the people were chatting excitedly in Italian. It felt like they were waiting for something.
Suddenly everyone turned around and looked up. A self-propelled device that looked like the blades of a fan with a green wreath around it came hurtling down a rope towards the duomo. It crashed into the statue of what might be the local saint, or perhaps the Virgin Mary, setting off smoke and the sound of crackers crackling. The crowd burst out cheering.
Gareth and I looked at each other. We were baffled. We had no idea what had just happened.
The crowds started dissipating and we decided this could be our chance to get inside the cathedral. We waited impatiently while the barriers were removed, then sprinted up the steps. A stern-faced guard at the main gate made it clear that we were not going to get in this way. We headed towards the side door where we saw other people entering the cathedral. Just as we were about to step out from under the intense noonday sun into the cool dimness beckoning inside, another guard barred our way. “No tourists,” he stated in a no-nonsense tone.
And just like that, our hopes to see the inside of Orvieto’s duomo were dashed.
We ambled down the hill back towards our car, somewhat disappointed and yet thrilled that we had unwittingly stumbled upon a local festival. Even though we did not know what Orvieto’s people were celebrating, we were glad at the chance to be a part of it.
Do you know which festival we stumbled upon? Please shed some light in the comments below if you do. Do you like taking part in local festivals?
For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.