Gubbio is the most thoroughly medieval of the Umbrian towns, an immediately likeable place that’s hung on to its charm despite an ever-increasing influx of visitors. The streets are picture-book pretty, with houses of rosy-pink stone and seas of orange-tiled roofs; the setting is equally gorgeous with the forest-clad mountains of the Apennines rearing up behind. A broad and largely unspoilt plain stretches out in front of the town, and the whole ensemble – especially on grey, windswept days – maintains Gubbio’s tough, mountain-outpost atmosphere.
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The town was once a powerful medieval comune, always important as the gateway to Ravenna and the Adriatic (it was a key point on the Roman Via Flaminia), but these days Gubbio is a town apart, not really part of Umbria, Tuscany or Le Marche – one reason it’s been spared the onslaught of modernity. Buses arrive in the Piazza dei Quaranta Martiri at the foot of town, named in memory of forty citizens shot by the Germans in 1944, a reprisal for partisan attacks in the surrounding hills. It’s a ten-minute walk uphill from here to the central Piazza Grande and Gubbio’s main sights.
Via dei Consoli
There are dozens of picturesque odds and ends around the streets, which are as wonderfully explorable as any in the region. Along Via dei Consoli – the main medieval street (and home to most of the ceramic shops) – it's worth tracking down the Barghello, the medieval police station. This also gives you the chance to survey the adjacent Fontana dei Matti (the “fountain of the mad”), undistinguished but for the tradition that anyone walking round it three times will end up mad.
Gubbio’s doors of death
No one can quite agree on the origins of Gubbio’s Porte della Morte, the “doors of death”. Almost unique to the town (there are a few others in Assisi and southern France), these are narrow, bricked-up doorways wedged into the facades of its medieval townhouses (with the best examples in Via dei Consoli). The party line is that they were used to carry a coffin out of a house, and then, having been tainted with death, were sealed up out of superstitious fear. Nice theory, and very Italian, but judging by the constricted stairways behind the doors, their purpose was probably defensive – the main door could be barricaded, leaving the more easily defended passageway as the only entrance.
Top image: Gubbio with Palazzo dei Consoli and the Church of Giovanni Battista, medieval town in the Province of Perugia, Umbria, Italy © Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock