Italy can be such a walking cliche!
A Colosseum here, a gondola ride there. Wild hordes of tourists descend on this beautiful country each year in an eager rush to experience their one-in-a-lifetime Italian moment. Often though their spirits get somehow dampened by the relentless crowds of tourists and selfie-stick vendors all squeezed together under the white hot Italian sun.
Yet, Italy has so much more to offer, as long as you are willing to look beyond the stereotyped lists of ’10 Things You Should See There’ which always end up covering the same old tired ground.
Thoughts like this were swirling through my head as our little red car was making a good progress through the proud Dolomites back to our current hometown of Vicenza. The steep slopes of the Italian mountain range were rising on both sides of what once had been a Roman road known as Via Claudia Augusta. The car was expertly maneuvering down the several turns on the side of the mountain. The dusk was deepening quickly and soon the lights of the cars on the road were the only guide ahead.
Only an hour before we had been in the bosom of a beautiful and tranquil place – one of those little discoveries which makes living in Italy and exploring it off the beaten track so rewarding. A sanctuary, founded 9 centuries ago and still standing half way up a steep hill, offering a quiet moment in time and an opportunity to reconnect with your faith and spirituality, if you so wish.
In a country so besieged by tourists, so at length dissected in all sorts of guide books and magazines, it was quite wonderful to come across a simultaneously historical, cultural and religious place where you could hear your own thoughts.
Dedicated to St. St. Vittore and Corona, the sanctuary was founded in 1096 on Mount Miesna just outside of the quaint town of Feltre in the Veneto portion of the Italian Dolomites.
We had spent the day in Feltre roaming its sleepy streets and admiring its painted houses and large stone square. Late in the afternoon we knew it was time to leave as the journey back to Vicenza would take us about an hour and a half. Still, we were not quite ready to say good-bye to this enchanting place, so we walked into the local tourist information office in the relaxed search of something else to do and see.
It is funny, because I love these tourist offices spread all over Italy. I never fail to pop into the local one when visiting a place and relish picking up a copy of the many brochures and leaflets promoting local sights and arts. Then, I leaf through them at home, making extensive plans in my mind about the myriad of places we could go to and, finally, stash all of these materials in a special drawer for future reference, only, in most cases, never to take them out again.
So, on this occasion, obviously, I got my little fix of brochures and then, one of them caught our eyes. A sanctuary extensively painted with frescoes in the most vivid colours stood 4 kilometers outside of Feltre and seemed like the perfect place to end the day at.
After a short drive up some fittingly confusing Italian roads, we found ourselves facing a small cemetery. To our right stood a small chapel and then a few meters away started a wide stone staircase leading up the face of the hill all the way to the sanctuary.
Two stone figures flanked the steps. They represented St. Vittore and St. Corona. There are many different accounts as to their martyrdom, but, it seems, they all agree that St. Vittore (Victor in English) was a Christian soldier from Feltre who was tortured and killed in Syria, including having his eyes gouged out. St. Corona comforted him through his suffering and for this she was also killed by being tied up to two bent palm trees, which were then released tearing her apart in the process.
The bodies of the two martyrs were brought back to Feltre and are still in the same sanctuary erected by the Crusaders from the town after the First Crusade.
A beautiful view opened before our eyes the higher we went up the stone steps. Golden sunlight was bathing a vast valley surrounded by mighty peaks. In the middle of it all stood Feltre – a top of a tiny hill.
The foliage of the many trees had just started to change in celebration of autumn and rusty reds and bright yellows were bursting here and there through the lush green cover of the mountain.
The sanctuary with its basilica and added at a later stage adjacent monastery and bell tower stood in front of us in all its restrained beauty. We weren’t sure if it would be open this late in the afternoon, but the sign on a door left open wide indicated that visitors were welcome until 7.30 pm. We walked in.
A stone courtyard surrounded by arcaded corridors stood in front of us. It was all so peaceful and quiet. There was no-one around. Slowly and respectfully, trying not to make any noise, we looked around. A large well with wrought iron cover stood in the middle of the courtyard. Pots with blooming plants were dotted around at regular intervals. The stone floor of the courtyard was uneven and warped. The passage of the centuries had made the stones jut out and then gracefully cave in here and there, so I had to watch my step, as I explored around.
The most distinctive trait of the cloister though were the colourful frescoes at the top of the arched walls which surrounded it. Painted in the middle of the 18th century their colours are still vivid and fresh in their depiction of scenes of the history of the sanctuary and the town of Feltre. We spent some time admiring them.
One of the frescoes had been damaged and underneath it a much older depiction had been revealed. It was interesting to compare both in style and notice how painting techniques had evolved over the centuries that the sanctuary had existed.
Then, through a heavy wooden door we walked into the basilica. Its whole interior surfaces were covered with splendid frescoes painted between the 13th and the 16th century. It was all so beautiful, with the day’s last sun rays streaming lavishly through the high windows.
I was particularly intrigued by this depiction of the Last Supper from the 14th century (excuse the blurry shot, but I feel guilty every time I take a picture in a church, so my hands trembled quite a lot!). I noticed that the meal Jesus and his disciples shared included, curiously enough, crustaceans. In all the paintings and frescoes I have seen dedicated to the same theme, I had never noticed anything like this. Plus, geographically, we were quite far from the sea. My curiosity was really picked.
Later on, I read in this book that the depiction of dark and red lobster-like creatures on the table of the Last Supper is frequently encountered in several churches of the Italian Alps. Apparently, there are mixed interpretations of the symbolism with which these crustaceans are loaded. On one hand, the dark ones are oriented toward Judas, so they may be a symbol of evil or sin. On the other hand, the experts say that the red ones may carry a link to eternal life, as the change in colour of a crustacean when cooked is often associated with the Resurrection.
One final look at the frescoes in the cloister and it was time for us to leave. It was a fabulous day and getting to see the sanctuary of St. St. Vittore and Corona made it really special.
So, if you want to live your Italian dream, even if you only have a limited number of days to spend in this vast and amazing country, don’t be afraid to step out of the beaten track. Who knows what hidden treasures you will discover and how enriched and relaxed you will feel afterwards.
All this and without a selfie-stick seller in sight. It is definitely worth it. Take my word for it!