The Trail of the Pilgrims
Tuesday, September 25
With a good solid day of restfulness behind us, Elvira and I were now ready to tackle something a little more adventurous. I wanted to keep things local, and I wasn't particularly looking for anything super-hard or long. The obvious choice was something on the big mountain that loomed over Aunt Rosetta's house - Monte Vergine.
I had managed to get my digital hands on a fairly detailed PDF map of the Partenio National Park in the leadup to our trip (The Partenio are a range of 1400-ish meter wooded peaks to the west of Avellino). Poring over the map revealed a fairly extensive network of trails (Montevergine is within the boundaries of this park). I saw that there were several trails that climbed up from the base of the mountain, and one in particular led from the town of Mercogliano. Called the Sentiero dei Pellegrini, or Pilgrim's Trail, it had been long used by those making religious pilgrimages to the Sanctuary of Montevergine, perched just a few hundred metres below the summit. It is also an officially-marked Italian alpine club hiking trail.
If you recall from yesterday's narrative, Mercogliano, the town where this trail starts, also holds significance in the history of the mother's side of my family. In fact, my mother had told stories of climbing up with her sisters on a trail on Montevergine many times when she was a young girl. Quite likely, the Sentiero dei Pellegrini was the trail she took. So, this was going to be more than just a pretty walk up a mountain; there'd be a historical family context as well.
Starting off from Mercogliano
Having scouted out the trailhead and parking area the day before, Elvira and I were parked and ready to start our hike within twenty minutes of leaving my Aunt's house. The trail is un-prominently signed on a concrete road abutment on one of the upper streets of Mercogliano.
Starting our climb
We followed the little red-and-white paint blazes, walking up a steep little side street for a few minutes, before reaching the end of driveable terrain. Here was a more proper trail sign, along with a small religious shrine (colloquially known as a madonnina). The way from this point on was slightly un-obvious, and Elvira and I walked up a steep dirt path a ways before realzing that we had gone the wrong way, and had blundered into a farmer's chestnut grove. We re-traced our footsteps back to the trailhead sign and started walking the correct way - up a wide, shallowly-stepped cobblestone path.
Now on the correct path, we continued at a leisurely pace, climbing up through some very pleasant orchards and farmed land. Looking back downhill gave us a very quaint view of the upper part of the town of Mercogliano, spilling down the steep slopes of the nearby forested hills.
Continuing on, we very soon passed through a section of pretty forest, then underneath the track of the Montevergine funicolare (a steep mountain railway connecting Mercogliano with the sanctuary), and then into the beginnings of a burn area. Some of the lower slopes of Montevergine had been recently subjected to some forest fires, apparently exacerbated by some unusually hot and dry conditions.
Immediately after the burn area, we arrived at the base of a huge, curved stone wall. This was one of the hairpins of the Montevergine highway - a feature we were to become very acquainted with during the next part of our hike.
I was disappointed to see a large amount of garbage strewn about near the hairpin. Apart from ruining the nice natural ambiance of the area, it reflected poorly on the local populace and road maintenance workers.
The trail now turned more directly uphill, and the next hour was spent crossing and re-crossing the Montevergine highway. We continued mostly in the trees otherwise, passing through a few more burn areas along the way. Strangely enough, the tread was in some places a well-maintained, carefully graded and cobblestone way, and in others, more narrow and overgrown. I occasionally thought about my mother and aunt trudging up over these very stones nearly eighty years ago.
Although it was a fairly warm day, with temperatures in the valley approaching 30C, a combination of rising elevation and a thin cloud cover kept our temperatures more reasonable. It was still sweaty work, though, and when we started to climb through a few open patches above the 1000-metre (3300 ft) mark, we were glad for the accompanying cool breeze.
After countless crossings of the Montevergine highway, we came to a few especially nice sections, where the trees finally relinquished their hold on the crest of the ridge we were climbing. Up above, we could see the white buildings of the Sanctuary.
After stopping for a quick lunch break, where we ate some simple round panini sandwiches with butter, sharp cheese and prociutto, we continued on, coming to several superb open overlooks. To the north and east were views of the broad Avellino valley, now far below us; The southern and western-facing views showed the hilltown of Mercogliano directly below and further off in the distance, the outline of the famous volcano of Vesuvius (which, as you may recall, destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii in 79 A.D.).
Excellent Avellino Lookout
Our section of open ridge views was short-lived, for the trail plunged back into a very dark, shady stretch of forest. The path was steep but especially wide here, and soon, we came upon the start of an installation of the Stations of the Cross - a catholic artistic telling, in twelve panels, of the crucifixion of Jesus. Strangely, though, each of the stations had a simple line-graphic on a piece of paper. It seemed as if the usual ornate paintings or sculptures had been removed for some reason - perhaps for renovation? (later I found out that some person or persons had actually stolen the installations. Yes, I know - pretty low behavior, to steal something that has such personal importance to many people).
The final bit of distance along the trail could easily be estimated by counting down the stations, and soon, a short stairway led up to the road just a few metres below the small plaza at the Sanctuary. We had climbed the 550 metres (about 1800 feet) from Mercogliano in about two hours and forty minutes. Decent.
From the upper end of the trail, we walked the short distance over to the sanctuary itself, passing by roadside vendors hawking trinkets and various foodstuffs. They weren't doing much business, though - there was hardly anyone around.
As we walked into the courtyard of the Sanctuary, the theme of non-business continued: only a few other people wandered around on the grounds. The last time I was here (in 2001, I believe), the place was quite crowded, and I found this day's peace and quiet much more appealing and inviting. We decided to have a more detailed look around the sanctuary.
Santuario di Montevergine
Main Courtyard, S. Montevergine
The origins of the Sanctuary of Montevergine go way back to the 1100s, when a Benedectine Monk founded an order and was involved in building and consecrating the first church on this site. The monestary grew and became the parent monestary to many others in the area. Many expansions over the years (some in the 1200s to 1400s, and others as recently as the 1960s) give us the multi-buildinged, multi-church complex that is the Sanctuary today.
Our first stop was the Crypt of Saint Guglielmo. It was surprisingly un-ornate in its design and furnishings. Along each side wall, behind yellowed glass and metalwork, were a series of urns and boxes containing various holy relics (bones and other artifacts). A bit creepy, but interesting.
From the crypt, we next visited the "Votive" room, where the walls were plastered with hundreds of crudely hand-drawn or painted scenes of sickness, accidents, or other misfortune. Montevergine became well-known as a place where one could make votive offerings to the madonna, in the hopes of receiving a cure for whatever malady was depicted. Certainly interesting.
Next up, we visited the various churches and chapels in the sanctuary, starting with the large and modern 1961 basilica, and working backwards in time to the beautiful Capella della Madonna. Long and narrow and dimly-lit, it exuded an air of antiquity - especially the byzantine-like depiction of the madonna at the head of the chapel - apparently dating from the late 1200s. This chapel, in my opinion, is the artistic highlight of the entire sanctuary.
We headed back outside into the bright sunlight, taking a few moments to gaze down in the direction of Aunt Rosetta's house. On a whim, I called her on my newly-activated TIM cellphone plan, and had her step out onto her balcony. Even at maximum magnification, it was hard to see her, but if you compare the two zoomed-in shots of her house closely, you can see the white dot that is her.
View down to Porcelli Residence
Zia Rosetta on the Balcony