When you live in the beautiful hills of Southern Italy, any excuse for a drive on a beautiful day is a good excuse. I was looking in my journal and found my notes from this particular drive on a beautiful day. I think was the excuse was I didn’t want to wash the breakfast dishes. My adventuresome niece Alex was visiting us. It is even more fun to go explore new places when you have great company – or in this case a “you can do it” cheerleader. The sun was shining, the clouds were floating over the rolling hilltops and there was gas in the car. This crisp clear wonderful day also happened to be the second Sunday in September, the one day a year they hold a mass in the little church in the mountains, Santa Maria degli Angeli. Alex and I were in the car, deciding if we should go left or right out of the driveway, looked at each other and both said the church in the hills – al’ avventura! We went to find that 16th Century Church and as many unplanned excursions are – it was the beginning of an incredible adventure.
Here is a little back story about the church. Many Pontelandolfesi, including my ancestors, were contadini,- farmers and more often than not share croppers farming the mountains for a piece of the vegetable pie. Others were shepherds, alone high in the hills, minding the flocks of cows, sheep and goats. Stone rifugi, shelters that were little more than huts were and still are scattered in the hills. One dark night from the doorway of a rifugi, the face of a single shepherd, staring out at his flock, was suddenly filled with fear. The air around him began to twirl and spin, spin and twirl until he was sucked up into the vortex of a giant tornado. His flock of sheep whirled around him. Panicked he did the only thing he knew might save him. He prayed to the Madonna. Pledging to build a church in her honor wherever he landed, he prayed to be put down safely. He prayed and prayed and prayed. Until Vroomp bang, he hit the ground. Dazed but committed to the Madonna, he looked around to memorize the spot. It took a few years but he made sure that the chapel got built.
Photo by Nephew Nick of the Chapel – through a window
That is the tale that I have been told by many of the folks in my village. Being a skeptic, I’ve done a little research and discovered other versions of the creation of the chapel – something about the Brotherhood, Pope Orsini, earthquakes, priests, nuns and well stuff that a Dan Brown novel are made of. However, the Wizard of Oz-esq legend suits my sense of drama.
The church was used a lot in the 17th and 18th centuries. The contadini, working and living in the mountains, made it their religious home. Times change, and people moved on to bigger houses of worship. Now, the charming little space is only open one day a year, this was that day and Alex and I were going to find it.
Have I ever mentioned the irony of living in a Southern Italian Mountain village and hating roads that were based on goat and donkey trails? Narrow roads without guardrails that, like that tornado, whirl up the mountain, twisting and turning, scare the hell out of me. When Jack drives, I clutch the old lady hand grabber, scream, moan and refuse to look at the beautiful valley hundreds of feet below that is calling me to a sure death in a twisted heap of metal. The views are incredible! So, I’m told.
Was I going to admit my phobia to a young niece that has toured the world alone, decided to go to university in a foreign country and has been fearless since birth? Alex and I got directions to the church from pal Nicola and started driving up a mountain.
Gulp, I wasn’t kidding about the whirling and twirling narrow roads. Shit, I had to keep smiling while what seemed like a cow path was taking us up higher and higher. We followed the directions – I swear we did – but somehow were climbing closer to our celestial forbearers than I was super comfortable with. Alex was the force that kept me going. I was scared shitless to be wending my way up and up to certain death by careening around a curve and off a cliff. She kept saying “I feel it – we are almost there – this is right”. We kept peering left – Nicola said we couldn’t miss it – on the left just past the old fountain. Which old fountain – we passed a ton of old fountains.
Stop the car. Stop the car. Alex shouted. I see horses. Maybe some people role-play contadini and ride their horses up here.
What a great and charming idea. Then I noticed that further up there was a line of parked cars. We must be Here! Remembering that Nicola said to flip the car around and park pointed down the hill, I held my breath, closed my eyes and managed to turn around without falling off the cliff.
We walked up the mountain closer to the tethered horses. Lots of people were gathering around and heading up towards a tent. Aunt Midge you said it was a cute church, said Alex, this looks like a revival tent. Maybe they put a tent up for overflow? I opined.
Then we saw the cows – lots of cows. Big giant white cows festooned with bells were mooing and eating. Suddenly it hit us – it was a pagan cow worshipping ritual, or a country cow show and sale. Actually, it was more like a cow beauty pageant and I must admit the announcers were better than the one who annually appears in Pontelandolfo for the Miss Mondo competition. The set up reminded us of a horse show. The show ring was near an announcer’s platform. There were ribbons and trophies everywhere. These giant white cows, I’m thinking they were the ones that graze in the mountains, were brushed and dressed for success. The owners, or trainers, moved them along like champions. Sadly, we were so enamored with our find that I didn’t pull out my handy pad and take important notes – like who sponsored it and where were we.
Alex scrambled up and sat on a fence to get closer to the action. I wandered around and could feel the sense of community. This whirling road may have landed us where that lonely shepherd had started his air borne journey. We were definitely in grazing country. These farm families were proud of what they do, and this event was an opportunity to share that pride together. My language skills weren’t quite sufficient to ask a lot of dairy questions. I have no idea what kind of cattle – white – they were big and white. It is amazing what you can find when you aren’t looking! Who would imagine that high in the Sannio Hills a festival celebrating bovine would occur. Did I just say that? This is cow country – what better place to celebrate them. Gaily festooned stalls had been created along a path. People were wandering and admiring le mucche. The back drop was this incredible mountain vista. With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I took the time to enjoy the mountain views. Walking further around, I realized that we were just above a valley sprinkled with medieval villages. Wow!
We never did find that church but this – this was an impromptu experience I won’t forget. After we watched the action for a while, cheering as loudly as everyone else, I did ask if there was an easier way down the mountain. Oh yeah there was. We were close to Cerreto and could follow a road down to Telese and the highway. I knew that road! It was a road for sane people. Whew, I didn’t mention to Alex how happy I was there was an alternative route. I did tell her we would get to see new vistas, new cities and continue our adventure on the road.