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Hidden gems of Italy

CHEAP flights have resulted in a revolution of sorts, and nowhere more so than in Ireland. Irish people who for years had consigned themselves to the occasional foray to a European city are now doing so with abandon, with Rome, naturally, the most popular destination.

For Catholics, the Eternal City, the heart and centre of Christendom, will always have a special appeal, but if, like me, you have a sense of adventure and prefer smaller cities to the larger variety, then my advice is to take in some of Italy's other, not so well known, gems.

Travel throughout Italy is made easy by the frequent and inexpensive rail service, so trot down to Stazione Termini in Rome, decide whether you want to travel north or south, and then take your pick of a myriad of cities and towns which abound in historical significance for Catholics. If you are on a budget, simply remember that south means cheaper - food, lodgings, clothing, presents - and friendlier, more hospitable, people.

I invariably go south, but principally because my first target is San Giovanni Rotondo, a small town on the Gargano Peninsula on the east coast. There are two ways to get there from Rome. You can either take a train across to Pescara and then down to Foggia, or you can travel down to Napoli and from there across to Foggia. From Foggia, it's a one-hour bus ride to San Giovanni.

The bus journey is fascinating in its own way. Once out of Foggia, you cross a flat plain, initially on a road parallel to San Giovanni so that you can look to your left and pick out on the mountain the hospital Padre Pio founded. Soon you will also be able to pick out the Basilica that is being completed beside the original monastery.

The road then takes a 90 degree turn via an underpass and heads straight up the Gargano. As the climb gets steeper the hairpin bends take over so that at times you wonder how the bus makes the turns without the occasional collision with something coming down around the next bend. While the driver is earning his keep you are more likely to be looking back down in awe at the beautiful view, and wondering how you climbed so high so soon.

Eventually there is an end to the hairpins and you proceed on a narrow road into the old town. For a town which must have had more than its share of emigration and poverty due to its remoteness, there is now a positive air of prosperity about San Giovanni, with new buildings going up where it seemed there was room for no more.

The highlight of any visit to San Giovanni is taking part in the Mass in the church graced for so many years by the recently canonised stigmatist, Padre Pio. Unlike St Peter's in Rome where the gawking tourists and the sheer size of the edifice are severe handicaps, you are never in any doubt that you are in a holy place in the Church of S Maria delle Grazie.

The only frustrating thing for the non-Italian speaking pilgrim is that the beautiful sermons preached by the monks remain a mystery. Catching the odd reference to Padre Pio, you regret your lack of knowledge of the local dialect, for they are surely passing on some of the wisdom inherited from their resident saint.

Padre Pio, because of his intimacy with God through his daily suffering, was a wise and holy man. There are many famous sayings attributed to him, but one which I find particularly apt in the light of recent events relates to the visit of an international political figure to San Giovanni. "How the world has changed since I was young," commented the holy monk. "In those days the police were to be found at the heels of thieves and robbers. Now they go before them on motor-cycles to clear the way!"

After Mass, a short tour brings you to Padre Pio's crypt, his cell, and the crucifix before which he was praying when he was given the task of sharing, literally, in Christ's sufferings. This tour brings you past many photos from his life, but it is disappointing that the explanatory notes are only available in Italian. Surely, now that he is a saint, these notes should be printed in all the major languages?

If you have a day to spare, make a trip to Monte St Angelo, a short bus ride across the mountain from San Giovanni. Here there is the most celebrated shrine to St Michael the Archangel, who appeared to a local man in 490, and whose footprint is still venerated in the cave in which he appeared.

Italians have a great love for this saint who many Irish people will know only from the prayers that used to be said after Mass - "be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil..." Descending into the cave-shrine is an experience that will bring this neglected saint closer to your thoughts - and, thanks to the generosity of an Austrian gentleman, there is an English translation, available at the shrine, of the story and the prayers to St Michael and the Angels.

Moving down the Adriatic coast, the pilgrim can drop in to Bari, where St Nicholas - the original Santa Claus - is patron, but I chose to move on to Taranto, where the patron is an Irish saint, Cataldus (possibly Cathal).

The second most important naval port in Italy, Taranto is not on many tourist itineraries, but it has its own charm. From the train station, you cross one bridge to get to the old town, and then another bridge to cross to the new town.

It is in the Cathedral of St Cataldus in the old town that you will find the crypt where his remains are venerated to this day. He arrived in Taranto in the seventh century, found it steeped in sinful ways, and stayed to reform the populace, working many miracles in the process. Exactly whereabouts in Ireland he hailed from is not clear, but his brother, St Donatus (possibly Donagh), is a similar hit with the people of Lecce, where he is the patron saint. Lecce is about 90 minutes by train from Taranto.

Moving to the new city, I visited the Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Piazza John XXIII, and discovered another Christian treasure. The parish priest, who had good English from a five-year spell in Britain, was pleased to show us the special shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is so famous that Pope John Paul II visited it in 1989.

The church also has a side altar dedicated to St Peter, and in a niche in the wall there is a column taken from the Roman road, on which it is said that Peter first set foot on arrival in Italy, and celebrated Mass.

There is also a famous confraternity attached to this church. They are noted for their 14-hour procession (spread over two days and taking in the old and the new city) on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

The influence of the Church is everywhere in Taranto, with one of the loveliest piazzas that dedicated to Maria Immaculata.

Attending Mass the following morning in the Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, the celebrant was a young priest who is secretary to the Bishop of Taranto, and`he granted the congregation the privilege of receiving the Sacred Host under both species.

It's worth noting that the Museo Nazionale in Piazza Garibaldi is one of the most important in Italy. At the time of my visit it was in the process of being refurbished along very impressive lines.

The journey from Taranto back to Rome is a long one, so it is advisable to factor in a break. This could be Salerno, which is a gateway to the Amalfi Coast, or it could be Napoli, which has Pompeii and Herculaneum on its doorstep.

By train or by bus you will pass close to Matera, the town Mel Gibson chose as his location for The Passion of the Christ, saying it didn't need a facelift to make it look like Israel at the time of Christ. It is in the poorest region of Italy, Basilicata, and even the view from bus or train shows how easy it was to portray this as 'the hill country around Judea'.

Basilicata is also the earthquake zone of Italy, but the road and rail network is a credit to the genius of Italian engineering. The roads march across the mountain valleys on stilts to disappear into tunnels and re-appear to march across more stilts. Not only a touch of genius, you surmise, but an act of faith also.

Faith, of course, looms large in any visit to Italy. One of the country's attractions for any Catholic is the ease at which you can find a church to attend Mass. And once inside the church, the wealth of paintings and frescoes are apt to take the breath away. Down through the ages, the Italians have tried to out-do each other in their expressions of devotion to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. The fruits of these rivalries are to be seen in churches big and small. St Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums may be the principal beneficiaries, but you will be missing a lot more if you don't spread your net further.

© Seán Ryan, 2005

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