SARONNO, Italy – There is a special place high above the town of Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera, that has fascinated me for all the twenty plus years I have lived here. It’s called Montallegro. There isn’t much up there, a church and a couple of hotel/restaurants and some hiking paths through the woods that lead to Portofino on one side and Chiavari on the other, but I am continually drawn to it.
|The View from Il Pellegrino|
It’s a very peaceful place, beyond the reach of the hustle and bustle of the posh seaside towns below. Behind the church there is a path through the woods with the stations of the cross, and at the end of the path there is a small hotel/restaurant. But more about that later.
The centerpiece of Montallegro is the Sanctuary of Montallegro and the many ex-votos that hang on its walls. It was built during the 16th century, a time when Rapallo was attacked and sacked by the Ottomans and Barbary pirates. Rapallo was only a village of about 1,300 people, so it was easy for the famous Turkish pirate, Alì Dragut Rais, to overtake the small army, sack the village and capture a good many of the town inhabitants and take them off to Algeria to sell as slaves.
|The Sanctuary of Montallegro|
It was a devastating event. The townsfolk then built a castle/fortress near the waterfront, got themselves a cannon, and from that point on were able to protect themselves from further attacks. Both the castle and the cannon are still there even though the pirates are long gone.
But less than ten years after the attack by Ali Dragut Rais, Rapallo once again became a battleground. This time the war was between the two local noble families, the Bianchi and the Del Torre, who were fighting each other for control of the territory. At the same time, an equally dangerous threat was that of the plague, which had killed thousands of Europeans, and was spreading throughout Liguria. If by some miracle you managed to avoid dying from the plague, you then had a good chance of dying from small pox or TB and if not those diseases then of hunger because of the famine caused by the fact that no one was tending the fields which were flooding because of the torrential rains.
|Rapallo, Sea Front and Castle|
In other words, life was tough. It was during this period that a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola of Canevale, claimed that the Virgin Mary came to him while he was tending his goats in the hills above Rapallo, and told him to build a church on that site. There’s actually more to this story, but I’ll save that for another Sunday. The point is the church was built and even during the period of construction, life seemed to miraculously improve for the people of Rapallo.
The townspeople thanked the Virgin Mary for their improved fortune and began showing their thanks by bringing ex-votos to the church and putting them up on the walls. Farmers would give thanks for healthy crops, the merchants and artisans for continued success. Even seamen and fishermen would go to the church and make their vows and pray to the Virgin Mary to keep them safe at sea.
|A Sailor's Ex-Voto|
Just because the pirates weren’t attacking the town any more didn’t mean that they were not lying in wait behind one of the many coves that line the Ligurian coast, ready to pounce on the ships hauling cargo or bringing in treasure from far- away places. And let us not forget the ever present danger of storms at sea and what that represented to fragile fishing boats or sailing ships propelled by men pulling oars when the wind blew hard from more than one direction.
So yes, if they did survive, even the salty sailors would trek up the mountain and show their gratitude with a heart or a painting or a souvenir brought back from where ever they were. From its position high above the town, Montallegro was the perfect place to sit and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for their survival for they knew just how precarious their journey had been.
|A Silver Ex-Voto|
But I’m not a sailor or a merchant or even a farmer, I’m not even a believer but there is something spiritual about being up in Montallegro that brings me peace. I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting out under the trees at Il Pellegrino and just thinking about things and enjoying that feeling of renewal that I get when I’m there.