39km (24 miles) NE of Perugia; 170km (106 miles) SE of Florence; 200km (124 miles) N of Rome

Gubbio is every inch the classical Umbrian hill town, a magical, medieval city of sharp-edged fortress-like buildings, stacked at the base of a monumental tree-covered pyramid of a mountain. Gubbio is proud of its patron saint, medieval palaces, and homespun school of painting. And its hill-town cocoon of Gothic silence occasionally bursts open with the spectacular color and noise of some of the region's most deeply ingrained traditional festivals.

Traces of both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens have been found around here, proving that Gubbio has been prime hominid real estate for well over 30,000 years. But the Umbri tribes that established their city in the 3rd century B.C. probably lived on the valley floor, with their backs against the mountainside. They allied themselves with the Etruscans, then with the encroaching Romans, and, as the Roman municipium Iguvium, lived wholly on the valley floor. It was a modestly prosperous city during Roman times, but the fact that the Roman Via Flaminia skipped it helped keep Gubbio out of the limelight, and many of its Etruscan neighbors were subjected and Latinized in more fundamental ways.

The Eugubium of the Dark Ages suffered its share of Gothic sacking, but by the 11th century it emerged as a bustling trade center. The smooth talking of its incorruptible and wise bishop Ubaldo is said to have saved the town from Barbarossa in the 1150s, and after dutifully sanctifying the man soon after his death (he was canonized in 1192), the medieval city went about building walls and attacking its neighbors in grand Umbrian style.

Though a worthy antagonist to warlike Perugia down the road, Gubbio never neglected its spiritual side. It welcomed St. Francis, and later his monastic cult, and became particularly beholden to the saintly Assisian after one visit. Francis, on hearing of the problem the Eugubines were having with a voracious wolf, went out into the woods and had a serious tête-à-tête with the offending lupine. Francis returned to town with the giant black wolf trotting at his heels and, in front of the townsfolk, made a pact with the wolf that it would no longer attack the local sheep and men if the town would feed it regularly; the deal was sealed with a paw-shake.

In the early 14th century, riding high, Gubbio built its monumental center and the best of its palaces. In 1384, however, began the long, boring, but basically benevolent reign of the Urbino counts, and later dukes, of Montefeltro. During this time, Gubbio became widely known for the high-quality glazed ceramics and majolica that came out of its workshops, especially that of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli (ca. 1472-1554), an innovator and one of the world's greatest masters of the craft. In 1625 the Duchy of Urbino along with Gubbio was annexed by the Papal States, and ruled by the Popes until Italian unification in the 1860s.

These days Gubbio is thriving once more, with a revival of traditional industries fed by a steady stream of tourists -- within Italy it's also famous as the location of hit TV series Don Matteo. The setting has since moved to Spoleto, but don’t mention this to anyone in Gubbio, lest someone drops one of the geranium-filled pots adorning the stone balconies on your head.