It was late May of 2010 and we were staying in the Ubrian hill town of Gubbio. Cathy and I had just finished having an aperitif and decided to take a stroll around town before going to dinner. We were on our own passagiata when we wondered into Piazza Grande, the main piazza in the center of town.
There was a buzz in the air and we were amazed to see a row of men shooting arrows from huge crossbows that were being supported on stands. The arrows were flying across the piazza to targets on the other side, a good thirty to forty yards. About a hundred or so spectators were watching from behind the archers. Cathy and I stood with them and marveled at the arrows in flight as they made a loud noise after hitting the wood targets.
These weren’t the average crossbows you would see in an Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie that were strapped across an archer’s back, no these were between four and five feet long, magnificently hand carved on both sides, and when placed on their stand would have looked menacingly to any enemy trying to attack these archers. So strong were these crossbows that a lever was employed to pullback the bow in place and then the arrow set in it’s place to shoot.
The shooter would sit, not stand, in place, aim, and release the lever. Arrows flew as seven or eight archers were shooting all at once. This was a fascinating scene. Something I had never seen and I asked what this was all about. I was told these archers were practicing for the Festival of the Crossbow which was held the last Sunday in May every year. The competition was against the nearby town of Sansepolcro. Gubbio would visit Sansepolcro for a return match on the first Sunday in September. I was told the whole town participates in the competition and turns out in medieval costumes. There is also a flag throwing competition between the two towns. Something to see for sure.
Suddenly a hush came over the crowd watching the archers as a little old man came walking through the crowd. The crowd opened like the red Sea parting for Moses. They applauded as he took a seat and someone set up his crossbow.
“Chi e’” I asked, “who is that?”
The answer was a simple, “il maestro”, the master.
The little man sat at his crossbow, turned back the lever, set his arrow, moved the crossbow a little with his hand as he aimed, then released the arrow. Like a bolt of lightning it flew across the piazza. Bullseye!!! The crowd applauded. Two more times he shot his arrow and two more bullseyes. More applause.
Then just as quietly as he approached his bow that’s just as quietly as he got up and left, walking back through the crowd as they applauded. “Maestro, maestro bravo, bravo,” the crowd yelled as the little man gave them a wave and kept on walking through the crowd.
I turned to Cathy and said “he must be the Babe Ruth of crossbow archers.”
Later I was told that he indeed was the Babe Ruth of archers in Gubbio and the festival. In fact he had never been beat in all the years he had participated.
If you are in Gubbio the last Sunday in May or in Sansepolcro the first Sunday in September make it a must to attend the Palio of the Crossbow. It’s a don’t miss event.