When I hear people talk about vacations in Italy, they always name-drop with cities: Rome, Venice, Florence… the list goes on. But sometimes the most extraordinary things aren’t mentioned in a travel brochure. I mean, the travel brochures are great, but they miss stuff.
Early Sunday morning, I meet Arianna for breakfast at the house. After munching on some biscotti, the two of us get in the car and begin driving to Loreto, the hometown of the Basilica della Santa Casa, or Shrine of the Holy House. I first learned about the cathedral when I arrived here. Vito had pointed it out as we passed it on the highway, and he told me that it was a popular pilgrimage site and that I would be able to visit it sometime during my trip. That day is today.
As we enter the basilica, Arianna points to a sign just outside of the entrance. According to the sign, no photography or videotaping is allowed inside, and tank tops and short skirts are also prohibited. We take our seats just in time for the mass to start. This is my first time at a Catholic mass, but it’s in Italian, so I don’t understand very much. As I listen to the organ, I gaze upward at the arches, the stained glass, the various chapels lining the walls. Once the mass is finished, Arianna and I walk around the basilica and look more closely at the chapels and the artwork. Before going outside to the piazza, we walk through a little chapel in the center of the basilica that’s enclosed in a marble structure. The name of this chapel is the Holy House, and it was constructed to be symbolic of where Christ, Mary, and Joseph lived while in Nazareth. In fact, the stones lining the walls of this chapel are from Nazareth. The chapel has a sense of reverence and respect, and most people stand there peacefully while gazing at the ornate display at the front of the chapel, where a statue of the black Madonna sits above the altar. Apparently, the black Madonna wasn’t always black. Initially, she was painted on wood, which was eventually replaced with a wooden statue, and the wood gradually became dark because of the smoke from all of the lamps and the candles. When a fire in 1921 destroyed the wooden statue, a new statue was made and the sculptor used a black tint in the coloring. By this point, everyone was so used to seeing a black Madonna that no one noticed. (I wish I could say I knew all of that beforehand, but I actually get the information from an English pamphlet I pick up towards the entrance.)
Arianna and I leave the cathedral and walk outside to the Piazza della Madonna. Little shops line either side of the piazza, and Arianna looks for a candle to bring home while I walk around and snap some photos of the basilica and the fountain.
Later in the week, we drive an hour and a half to the Grotte di Frasassi, or the Frasassi Caves. We buy our tickets and wait at for the bus that will take us to the entrance. The change in scenery reminds me of vacationing in the Berkshires or driving through a canyon in Utah.
You know those little headphones you see at museums for people who speak a different language? Yeah, I get one of those. Honestly, I feel kind of cool carrying it around, but that’s probably because it’s temporary. A few minutes into the tour, Bianca decides she doesn’t love the caves very much and wants to leave. Vito volunteers to take her outside, since his shoes are soaked through, and Arianna and I finish the tour. It’s pretty cool inside (figuratively and literally), but pictures are prohibited, so I get a couple outside.
Finally, Vito tells me that we’re going to dinner at Montelupone, a small town in the mountains. There’s a popular restaurant in the center of town that serves you authentic Neapolitan pizza as you sit in the piazza. We arrive around 8:30 and sit at our table. It’s a pretty relaxed and informal atmosphere–tables are pushed close together, everyone is sitting in green, plastic lawn chairs, and the tables are covered with poster paper for an easy clean-up. Our waitress tells us that it will be a while before our pizzas are ready, so Vito, Arianna, and I take turns walking with Bianca around the piazza.
About an hour later, the pizza arrives. We each have our own 8″ pizza, and at first I wonder if they have to-go boxes here. I glance at nearby tables and notice that everyone has their own pizzas and no one is leaving leftovers. I can handle this. Ready, set, go.
A few blissful minutes later, there are two slices remaining on my plate. I’m slowing working on one of the pieces and eyeing the last one when Vito spots me.
“Is it too much?” he asks.
“Err… maybe. We’ll have to see how this goes.”
“Don’t worry. If you don’t finish it, I will.”
Let’s think about this for a second. I’m in Italy, sitting in a piazza at ten o’clock at night eating authentic Neapolitan pizza, and I’m not going to finish it? Pshh. Who am I kidding? A minute later, my plate is empty. When in doubt, eat the pizza.