CHIAVARI, Italy – After my brother’s first visit to the Italian Riviera, I was curious to know what he had enjoyed most. I was a little surprised when instead of naming one of our famous seaside towns like Santa Margherita or even historic Genoa, he said Montallegro.
It must have been the part when we were having lunch under the leafy trees looking out over the harbor and town of Rapallo far, far below us that he liked. It surely couldn’t have been the harrowing ride up the side of the mountain in the cable car because I saw him gripping the handrail as we sailed high above the trees. Nor could it have been the part where we were climbing the steep slope to get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro either, because I wasn’t the only one gasping for breath at the top of the stairs.
Truthfully other than the church and two hotel/restaurants, there isn’t much else up on that mountain, unless you count the hiking paths through the woods that lead down to sea. What it is, is a very peaceful place far from the reach of the hustle and bustle of the posh seaside towns below. But the main reason I had brought my brother all the way up the mountain was to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro and all the ex-votos in the church.
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The Basilica is the centerpiece of Montallegro. It’s the only church I’ve ever been in where the walls are covered, practically floor to ceiling, with ex-votos, those small offerings often given in gratitude to a saint for fulfilling a vow. The ex-votos in Our Lady of Montallegro were given for help in passing a school exam to recovering from an illness to being rescued from the middle of the sea during a war time bombing. Some ex-votos are photos, others are hand drawn pictures or copies of school exams or medical results, but mostly they are little silver hearts tied with a small red ribbon. Ex-votos are part of a very old tradition that dates back to ancient Egypt, and like the Egyptians, the people of Rapallo had many reasons to be grateful.
During the 16th century, when the church was built, Rapallo was just a small village of about 1,300 people. With easy access from the sea, the village was often attacked and sacked by the Ottomans and Barbary pirates. With only a small civilian army, it was fairly easy for the famous Turkish pirate Alì Dragut Rais to overtake the village. During one brutal attack he sacked the village, captured many of the village’s inhabitants and then sailed away to Algeria to sell his captives as slaves.
After that devastating event, the villagers decided to build a fortress near the waterfront, and get themselves a cannon. Both the fortress and the cannon are still in place, just in case they are needed, 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 looming, the Black Plague.
The Black Plague, which had already killed thousands of Europeans, was rapidly spreading throughout Liguria, and if by some miracle you managed to avoid dying from the plague, you had a good chance of dying from small pox or TB, as both of those diseases were also spreading like wildfire. And if you did manage to avoid those diseases, there was always the threat of dying of hunger because of widespread famine caused by the fact that so many people were dying there was no one left to tend the fields, which were flooding because of torrential rains. In other words, life was tough.
It was during this period that a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola of Canevale, claimed that the Virgin Mary had come to him while he was tending his goats in the hills above Rapallo, and told him to build a church on that site. To make a long story short, 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.
Just because the pirates weren’t attacking the town any more didn’t mean that they were not lying in wait in 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 violent storms at sea and what that meant to fragile fishing boats and sailing ships out on the open sea.
And if they survived, even 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 had sailed home from. From its position high above the town, and closer to heaven, 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.
But I’m not a sailor or a merchant or even a farmer, I’m not even a believer but there is something truly spiritual about being in Montallegro that brings me peace. I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting out under the trees at the Il Pellegrino hotel/restaurant, looking out over the sea, thinking about things and enjoying that feeling of renewal that I get when I’m there. It’s no wonder the Italians don’t talk about this place. They probably want to keep it all to themselves, and I don’t blame them.