In Gualdo Tadino, San Donato Euphoria
We took the motorcycle to Gualdo Tadino at the end of September to a medieval festivals where donkeys star (a draw for Pino, who has a few asinelli). During our nearly forty years living in Umbria, we’ve been assiduous followers of all the many festivals, most of them celebrating a competition among districts of the town while re-creating their medieval or Renaissance history. But we’d never attended a festival where the victorious quartiere celebrates with everyone euphorically rubbing faces – and even hands – with charcoal.
This year, the San Donato district triumphed in three days of competition among the four quartieri of Gualdo Tadino during their late September festival Giochi de le Porte (games of the doors/gates, i.e. the four medieval city entrances). The donkey races – four jockeys (one for each quartiere, or porta) riding their donkey bareback – was the final competition and San Donato’s donkey crossed the finish line first, solidifying their victory. In minutes, the main square of Gualdo Tadino overflowed with San Donato portaioli of all ages furiously waving their San Donato yellow and white scarves, chanting “San DO – NATO!” as they reached out to caress the sacred Palio (banner), now theirs – until next year.
The blackening of their faces with charcoal followed, for after winning the coveted Palio, the triumphant portaioli set fire to the effigy of Bastula, the medieval witch who had betrayed Gualdo Tadino, hugging each other and cheering until the fire smolders. Then all fingers into the ashes to draw on their own faces – or those of their friends. Many traced the number 12 on their faces this year, marking the twelfth victory for San Donato in forty years of this festival. The portaioli of the other quartieri – San Facondino (yellow and green, their colors), San Martino (yellow and red) and San Benedetto (blue and yellow) – headed off to their own taverne for consolation dinners (and the planning for the next festival).
Inspite of San Donato portaiola, Cinzia’s advice on where to eat/not to eat – “All four taverne serve great food – but tonight, avoid the winning taverna as too crowded” – Pino and I decided to head to the San Donato taverna for dinner after the main piazza celebrations. We wanted to share in the euphoria as well as the good eating. And we did. The San Donato triumph greeted us right after we passed the posted menu at the taverna doors and headed inside to order: a beaming red-shirted woman with charcoaled face took our order. And even the young volunteers of all ages hustling to tables with trays had blackened faces. The stone-vaulted San Donato taverna tables were full with jubilant portaioli (and visitors like us), enjoying the post-victory euphoria – and good food cooked by volunteers. Pino chose the roasted pork shank and I opted for the gigli (short and twisted) pasta with a savory sauce made of goose meat.
The winding medieval alleyway leading out of the taverna twisted back to the main square. We stopped to take in a taste of the nocturnal elation: San Donato drummers in yellow and white neck kerchiefs, blackened faces stern as they pounded out their quartiere’s victory, were surrounded by jubilant portaioli, many of them dancing, others hoisting up the yellow and white San Donato quartiere flags. The San Donato euphoria would last tip dawn.
Read about our Assisi’s astounding medieval celebration
Read about Gubbio’s medieval festival, one of my favorites
Read about a fascinating May festival near Gualdo Tadino
Don’t miss Spello’s stupendous festival
Read about Cascia’s medieval celebrations
Read about Bevagna’s late June re-evocation of medieval life