If you’re heading to Tuscany this summer, don’t spend all of your time in the one region. Branch out to the small region of Umbia, Tuscany’s neighboring region for a sample of dun summer events and festivals sure to put a bit of Italian flair into your summer. In the middle of June, Grello, a small village in Umbria, has a most unusual feast.
One of the biggest events in Umbria is the Eve of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 23rd. In the very small town of Grello, the entire town turns out to celebrate the event along with plenty of visitors from neighboring communities. Of course that means that you can tag along as well. You’ll be lavishly welcomed into the fold just as all visitors are in small Italian towns.
The event contains a huge meal and a bit of festive fun. The food is brought to the piazza of the town by the girls and women who have spent days preparing in the kitchens of local houses. While the women are setting up the food, the boys of the town have work to do.
The boys of Grello divide into groups of five. Each group represents a neighborhood in the small town and the teams compete. Each of the five lights a firebrand, or tall straw broom. Holding the flaming firebrand, the teams race. The race takes all the boys around the old castle walls on the crest of a nearby hill. The boys proudly hold the firebrands high so friends, family and neighbors can see and chart their progress. The teams circle the walls three full times before heading back to the piazza and the waiting crowd.
Each team is in competition with the others to be the first back to the piazza, although this is not the end of the race. As they arrive in the square, each team races to set the waiting wagon of hay alight. An enormous haystack waits in the piazza on a wooden wagon, and the lit firebrand is thrust into the stack to set it ablaze.
The team members then grab the wagon and race off at a dead run dragging a burning wagon of hay and wood down a steep hill and through the fields below along an established path.
Throughout this, the rest of the village cheers and shouts their approval as each team competes. Finally, the winner arrives back in the village among great cheers and calls of triumph. He is given the honor of lighting the Midsummer Night’s Bonfire in the center of town to start the evening fun. Live music plays and the younger set dance the night away in merriment and fun.