One of the many misconceptions about Italy is that it gets more mysterious as you go south, while the north is as secular and wearily prosaic as the rest of Western Europe, no more than a safe departure point, foreigners often feel, for sallies into the more traditional and obscurely Catholic Mezzogiorno. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have lived in the village of Montorio for 13 years. It lies five miles to the east of Verona, a town whose apparently careless composition of stone, stucco and terra-cotta, its frescoed Renaissance facades, huge Roman amphitheater and generous array of ruins various, is itself a sort of conspiracy of the picturesque. Sweeping down from the Valpolicella valley, the river takes two sharp turns through a bristle of campanili, as if to offer the best possible selection of bridge-top views, while narrow streets and modest museums assemble a manageable compendium of 2,000 years of art history, all refreshingly free from the guided-tour crush that dogs Rome and Florence.
As for Montorio, tourists never make it out here. Half village and half satellite town, it has exactly the right mix of poetry past and prose present to make it at once beautiful and livable. And like Verona, it straddles two distinct and powerful landscapes: to the south the great North Italian Plain with its winter fogs, summer heat hazes, its thick stands of corn and tobacco; to the north the steeply rising hills of Lessinia, a patchwork of olive grove and vineyard framed on the horizon by the shattered white porcelain of the Alps.
As far as the inhabitants are concerned, it's an area famed, or notorious, for its provincial vocation and cultural immobility. Indeed, the intellectuals and enlightened folk of Milan and Rome like to refer to it ironically as il profondo nord , the deep north. Before the collapse of the Christian Democratic Party two years ago, it boasted the highest and most entrenched Catholic vote in the whole of Italy, Sicily included.
But it's not until you're bringing up kids that you really appreciate how deeply ingrained traditions are here. Son of an evangelical minister myself, agnostic in my habits, I decided (no, my wife and I agreed) to have our kids opt out of the strictly vocational "Hour of Religion" at school. But I soon discovered that gestures of this kind wouldn't stop them from becoming Catholic somehow, if not formally, then at least in terms of attitude. The truth is, the very countryside, the soil itself, is Catholic in this part of the world. Every time you poke your nose out of the house, be it no more than for a Sunday afternoon stroll or a quick trip to the supermarket, you find your way strewn with roadside gods, reminders, religious images. You can hardly take an inquisitive 6-year-old, never mind an observant 8-year-old, out for a walk without discussing death, the devil, martyrdom and miracles.
The children probably got their first smell of the sacred on the most local path of all, the one that leads south from our house between stream and irrigation ditch across the plain to the small village of Ferrazze. It's a walk of long, wet grass full of croaking frogs, of sluices raised or lowered on either side of you, of channels fanning out across the fields. And if you sit on one of the occasional concrete slabs that bridge the irrigation ditch, you can dangle your feet just above the water and at evening time watch swallows dive into the water and fling the lily leaves straight at you. Here they come--look!--fast and low, flapping madly. At the last moment they shear off above our heads. My boy, Michele, makes the appropriate noises of lasering them down.
Just a little farther on, my daughter, Stefi, spies a small colored card attached to a branch with a piece of wire and begs me to bend the branch down so she can see. It's a little print showing San Bernardino di Siena. He is bending down to hold a lantern by a locked door. The children ask what the saint did. Why is the picture hung on the tree? What can it mean? I don't know. And I don't know who Sant'Eurosia is either when we find a tiny shrine dedicated to her with an ash tree growing out of the middle. But I can explain the bunch of fresh flowers by the curb where the path comes out onto the street again at Ferrazze. That's to mark where a young man died when he fell off his moped some years ago. Above the flowers, in wobbly handwriting on fading board, someone belatedly wrote the words, Maria proteggici! Mary, protect us!
Coming back from Ferrazze, if you're feeling adventurous, you can scale a fence and strike up through a wooded gulch above the town of San Martino Buon Albergo, which lies on the main highway just east of Verona. At the top, in the old, dry stone wall that marks off the once aristocratic domain of a large farm, now a nature reserve, hunters have set hare traps at regular intervals. Michele (pronounced Me-KAY-lay) likes to dismantle all these traps with a very severe look on his face, as if he were Christ turning over the tables in the temple, or some classical hero from the storybooks we've been reading, hacking at a monster's scales.
"How many hares do you think we have saved?" he asks breathlessly, already looking for the next snare. Like all little boys, he is obsessed by measurements. How many kilometers have we walked? How far away is the sun? How many meters have we climbed? How much does the mountain weigh? How long have we been walking? How many saints are there altogether? How many sandwiches have we brought? As if by answering these questions something might be explained. Stefi, on the other hand, gathers flowers, though she leaves the wild cyclamens because Mama has told her they're rare. She never asks how many flowers there are in the wood.
On the other side of the reserve, if we have the courage to climb over the wall, there is a little shrine, or capitello , with the Madonna and her child, the latter braving all weathers in just his swaddling clothes. Prega per noi (pray for us), the stonemason has chipped, and then: Anno Mariano 1989 . So they're still at it, you realize. It's not just another lost tradition. They're still making these things.
If you take the path up the ridge northward, there's a shrine to Sant'Antonio, a local saint. For just as Italy is full of local newspapers and local TV stations, and just as many a small town still believes (no, knows) that its campanile is the exact center of the world, so there are local saints. You wouldn't want to pray to the same saint in Verona as they do in Rome or Naples, would you now?
"How many miracles did Sant'Antonio do?" Michele wants to know. "And why San Rocco?" he demands farther down the road in front of another man in a stuccoed tunic. "Isn't he a southern saint? Why San Giuseppe, Papa? In this niche in the rock? Why San Zeno, on this card tied to this branch? Why San Francesco? Why San Giorgio?" Perhaps it's time to ask him how long a piece of string is.
On Sundays we sometimes spend the day walking along the ridge that leads north from Montorio to a place with the beautiful name of Santa Maria in Stelle--Saint Mary in the Stars. Here, on the precipitous path that plunges down to our lunchtime trattoria , a full-size Jesus stands with his back to crumbling rock, arm raised in stony blessing above a pond not more than a couple of yards across, where farmers soak the prunings they have cut so that they can use them later as ties for vines. Inevitably--because this is the sort of walk you take in the spring--frogs croak, crickets whir, swallows flit across the chalk-white path. "How ugly he is!" Stefi says of the haggard Christ.
When summer comes, you can't walk around Montorio. The temperature hits the 100 mark and a suffocating humidity descends on the plain. No, in summer you have to drive up to the village of Velo, half an hour away to the north and 3,000 feet higher. There, the air is fresher and you find Jesus and Mary huddling under birdhouse roofs of wood and flaky stone, instead of stucco and marble, usually to commemorate someone lost in a blizzard or crushed by an avalanche. One stone cross beneath a tree marks the place where a woman was struck by lightning. Gesu proteggici! the stonemason carved. I love it when they put the exclamation mark.
"A hundred days of indulgence," announces a small shrine five miles above Velo, "for a prayer to Maria." You'd think such strict afterlife accountancy went back to the Middle Ages, but no, the date is 1894. And what wonderful confidence it must have taken to sit down and work out the bargaining terms with the divine. In thick woods at 4,950 exhausting feet (Stefi on my back at this point), an overgrown stone cross suggests: "Take one step back with your right foot in honor of Jesus, who here resides."
Wherever we walk, we find these things, shrines and crosses and fluttering bits of paper in the trees. And the children always stop and look. They always want to read about the disaster or the miracle (the one invites the other). Or the hopes of indulgence. Why not count the images? It's not a bad game. Twenty-seven one day in a walk above the isolated mountain village of Giazza, a few miles above Velo. The people here are descendants of the ancient northern race of the Cimbri and still speak a bizarre Germanic dialect, though strangely all the religious images have Italian engravings, from the big chapel to San Francesco at the bottom to the tiny Madonna behind a rusty grating high up on the cliff face at 5,000 feet. A rosary is wound around one iron bar.
Michele remarks that one of his friends has an electronic rosary with a liquid crystal display. Technology and ritual have a lot in common after all: set procedures, a reassuring way of getting from A to B. Losing our way up here one evening, we were still walking after nightfall when a huge neon cross flickered to life, harsh and white on the hilltop, to lead us back to our car.
The children ask about obscure saints. They repeat things written in stone, amassing thousands of years of indulgences. And of course it makes no difference whether they're Christian or not, whether they attend the ora di religione or not. Either way, they can see the countryside is full of spirits. And it occurs to me that somehow or other they will fit in with this Italian vision. They will be more polytheistic than their father, less likely to make a god of just one thing, or to deny all gods at all. They'll know there's a saint for every condition, every twist in the path, a moment to turn this way, a moment to turn that. No absolute.
North of Velo, where stone gives way to wood, there are more crucifixes, fewer Madonnas, first inklings of the Teutonic in the tortured contortions of the body. And there are more picnickers too, almost always in big groups of extended families, or established friends, or whole condominiums. The backs of their cars are open to unpack all the barbecue equipment, their chairs are set up in the stony beds of dry streams. Like us, they've come north for the day to escape the heat.
How many degrees cooler is it up here, Papa? And why does it get cooler if you're nearer the sun? Shouldn't it get hotter? Wasn't that why Icarus fell? And why do you get more indulgence praying in front of one image rather than another? These walks are such a mix of science and mysticism. It almost seems done on purpose to illustrate the two paths to knowledge.
But quite how deeply the sacred has penetrated the natural environment here I didn't realize until one afternoon in August. We had made the mistake of taking a local walk on the hill right above our village. The heat was blistering and there was no shade. Eventually we found a place where the jet from a farmer's huge water cannon strayed out onto the road. We stood beside a fence and at intervals of two to three minutes, a stiff shower swept across our faces. Everybody laughed.
In low evening sunshine, the pumping water was white and very bright against the dusty blue grass and scrub of the hillside beyond. In between sprays, there came a whistle, sudden and sharp. I whistled back. The whistle came again with a slightly different modulation. On the other side of the road, just visible through a chink in a cypress hedge, the children found a myna bird in a cage no bigger than Sant'Eurosia's shrine.
"Like Zia Natalina's Checcha!" Stefi cried. Zia Natalina is the kids' baby-sitter and Checcha is the raven she has taught to say " ciao ." But this bird was far more skilled.
"Try some words on it," I said.
" Ciao ," the children shouted. The myna bird said " ciao ." It didn't seem interested and launched into a most complicated whistle.
" Pronto ," Michele said.
" Pronto ciao ," the bird said. " Pronto ciao ," as some Italians will say when they answer the phone.
"Try some other words," I said. So they ran through the following:
"Hello." No reply.
" Santa Patata! " (Zia Natalina's favorite exclamation.) No reply.
" Buon giorno ." " Buon giorno ," said the bird.
" O la miseria !" No reply.
" Porca vacca !" No reply.
" Pizza ." No reply.
Clearly this is a conservative, sensibly fed, well-educated bird, I thought. Then in perfect imitation of Zia Natalina, Stefi sang out: " O la Madonna !"
" O la Madonna! " the bird came back. As if to say, "How long it took you!"
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GUIDEBOOK / Where the Spirit Leads
Paths of Knowledge
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Italy is 39. The city code for Verona is 45. All prices are approximate and are computed at a rate of 1,611 lire to the dollar. Hotel rates are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: Alitalia flies nonstop daily from Los Angeles to Milan's Malpensa airport. American and TWA offer connecting flights via Chicago and New York, respectively. Delta and United have connecting flights to Milan and Verona, via Paris. From Milan, take the two-hour train to Verona that leaves approximately every hour; $25 one way for first class. A convenient bus connects the airport and Milan's train station, one hour away ($8-$9). Driver/guides can be hired for $100 per day in Verona. Buses leave from central Verona to all villages mentioned, except Ferrazze, an easy walk from Montorio.
Where to stay: The Due Torri, 4 Piazza S. Anastasia, Verona, telephone 595-044, fax 800-4130. The most extravagant hotel in the area and furnished with antiques, the Due Torri is right out of ancient Verona. In the middle of the Piazza Arabe; the famous Sant'Anastasia cathedral is nearby. Rates: $205-$304. Antica Porta Leona, 3 Corticella Leoni, Verona, tel. 595-499. A charmer just a stone's throw from "Juliet's balcony" and the Piazza Arabe. Rates: $66-$108.
Where to eat: In Verona, I Dodici Apostoli, Corticella San Marco 3, tel. 596-999. Expensive but good traditional Veronese food--boiled meats, polentas, small game birds; $100. Da L'Amelia, 32 Lungadige Rubele, tel. 800-5526. An excellent all-around restaurant; $70-$80. Caval de Oro, 1 Via Ponte Florio, tel. 558-542, a tiny trattoria at Ponte Florio on the road to Montorio; $40-$80.
For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; (310) 820-0098.