In the morning I left my room in Milan and boarded the train to Biella, northwest of Milan, back into the foothills of the Alps. When I arrived in Biella, about 1:30 pm or so (13:30 European time), I found that since it wasn't a festival season, the next bus to Oropa wouldn't leave for about 4 hours. So I had to find a way to pass some time in Biella. Fortunately, it wasn't so difficult; the hardest part is that I arrived in town during that long, 3-4 hour lunch break, and so most shops were closed. I wandered the town, dragging my luggage (why didn't I remember about leaving my luggage, for a small fee, at the train station? What was I thinking?), and found a clean little town with lots of cobblestones (and yet not seeming so very medieval), and a grocery store where I could purchase some fruit for lunch and a bottle of wine. I did so love trying the different regional wines!
This is a view in front of the train station at Biella, where I would also catch my bus: a pretty fountain, benches to sit on -- but all, unfortunately, in the sun, and the sun was still hot and burning on my poor, sensitive skin. But next door to the station (on the side opposite my camera angle) was a park, with grass, benches, and peace and quiet.
This stop was an important lesson in Italian travel and my need to adjust my timetable and itinerary. If I had been willing to arise early, I could have caught an 8 am train to Biella, and there would have been several buses before noon that went to Oropa. I could have had the four hours I spent wandering aimlessly in Biella to view and pray with the black madonna at the Sanctuary. But it was a real dilemma: I was on vacation, as well as a study trip, and really wasn't willing to arise at 6 am to catch an 8 am train. So I was already beginning to guess that this transportation schedule might be typical of the smaller towns I would be visiting, and that I would have to lower my expectations. I simply was not going to be able to see 35-40 black madonnas in 21 days.
Once I was on the bus, and we traveled through the city of Biella, which was actually quite large and attractive (I had only seen a tiny radius during my walks from the station), we began our ascent to the Sanctuary: up, up, up. I could never have walked there, and certainly not have bicycled. It was a very steep trip up the mountain, through a couple of very small and charming villages, and finally to the large monastery complex near the top of the mountain. The monastery complex itself was far too large to photograph in one shot, but here's a small piece of it:
This shows the old church or chapel, where the black madonna was housed, on a gloomy mountain morning. The cloister area at the left was a gallery on the 2nd floor, accessible, yes, by a lift, but also by sets of stone steps. My own room was in an identical section in front of the old church, blocked by the church itself. I could come down the steps near my room and be right next to the old church.
I didn't have a reservation; it was a Friday night, and it was made clear to me that groups of pilgrims were coming in tomorrow, and I could have my room for only one night. I would like to have stayed longer here. If you go, make a reservation. I did get to see the madonna that evening, before they actually closed up her little reliquary. I know that's not the right word for the small box-type enclosure in which she stood; but I can't think of the correct term just now. In any event, the doors to the enclosure operated by turning a small wheel near the floor, and I watched one woman turn this wheel and block the madonna from sight until the next morning. I did not get photos of the madonna that I can show you without extensive editing; if you Google, you can see her, but not, I think, in her little enclosure.
This is one wall. The furniture was pretty old. I'll post another view, including my bed and a very old pre-dieu, below. I was enchanted. I'm also going to show you the stunning view outside my shuttered windows (did I tell you that screens "just aren't done" in Italy?). My window opened out onto the most stunning scene.
I even had my own bath in the room. Lovely. A nice bath, at that -- probably the largest I had throughout my whole trip. I could actually stand, turn around, and take several steps from the toilet to the sink. Amazing. Quite luxurious, actually. BUT....
But there was just one problem with this absolutely charming room: the bed. This bed was absolutely lovely, antique, the bedside light assisted my bedtime reading. I loved it. But it was the hardest damn bed I've ever slept on. It was literally like sleeping directly on the floor. I don't know why I didn't think of taking ibuprofin, both to assist sleep and to kill the pain of the hard bed -- but I didn't give it a thought. Or maybe I did, and even the ibuprofin didn't kill the pain of this bed. So all night I tossed and turned, hips and back aching from such a terrible surface. Later in my trip, I learned about the ibuprofin. But not yet, I don't think. I suppose I was a little bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed when I faced the new day.
But before that new day there was one more experience for me. I had already begun to recognize the gifts that were granted to me each day during this adventure: the hotel desk clerk in Milan, and the lady (with not one word of English) who helped me find and read the bus schedule in Biella. There was the helpful desk clerk in Oropa, who helped me with my luggage and had to show me my room (I'd never have found it on my own!). And now, at 7 pm (the earliest possible minute to get a dinner in Italy), I had a dinner that reminded me of some of the other reasons that I loved Italy.
Before I forget, here is only one shot of the breathtaking view from my window: Is this lovely, or what? How did I ever get so lucky? Another gift.
So, the dinner. You know, it takes a certain amount of energy for a single woman to go into a restaurant, sit down alone, and prepare to have a dinner all by herself. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but it's not always easy, especially when couples, families, and groups of friends are seated all around me. Even though I'm an introvert, I prefer to share meals with others. That's why it's so easy at home to eat alone in front of the television, I think -- at least I don't feel completely alone. And the dogs begging at my knee at home just aren't the same, somehow, as a human dinner companion. But I needed to eat, and this was the only remaining restaurant open. Boy, was I lucky! I'm only sorry that I forgot to take pictures for you. First I had a small salad, then a small serving of ravioli. I'm not sure what was inside that ravioli, but I just held the food in my mouth to savor it. That became my catchphrase for a good meal: "You just want to hold the food in your mouth and cry." This was my first meal like that. Then I had something (not sure what it was called in Italian) that was sauerbraten. Oh, my, it was lovely. Oh. Another gift at the end of the day. The waiter was so gracious (as they usually are in Italy), and I felt so very special. Perhaps I had a glass of wine; I don't even remember. The food overshadowed whatever beverage I consumed. I remember Rick Steves said that in the mountains it wasn't about "German" or "Swiss" or "Austrian" or "Italian" food, but it was mountain food. I had always thought of that marinated, very tender, rather vinegary meat as "German," but here I was, in the mountains of Italy. It was superb. Then I had a regional dessert, a "bonnet," they called them, that was essentially an individual custard, turned out on a plate, with a caramel top (a bit like an upside down cake), with a powdered sugar frost on top. Oh, it was lovely, too. In the US, creme caramel is my favorite dessert, and this was similar, though the top was not seared to a crispy crust. The flavors were the same, though. Yum yum. This was my first sit-down meal in Italy, and couldn't have been a better welcome for me. I went to bed a happy woman.
The next morning I got up, checked out (did remember to leave my rolling knapsack in an anteroom of the office), spent a short time in the chapel with Our Lady, and did a little shopping for a figurine, postcards, and booklets. Even though I knew everything I bought would be edited and approved by the Roman Catholic Church, I wanted to gather all the local material that I could. The next time I visit, I'd love to be fluent enough in Italian to ask some of the pilgrims and employees what they think about this particular madonna, and what legends and stories they know about her.
Who has ever heard of Oropa -- especially if you're not Italian? Who besides the Swiss have ever heard of Einsiedeln? These sites are not widely known to the world, but they are very popular in their particular locations. When I left on Saturday morning, I counted (unless I mis-remember) 13 tour buses parked in the lower lot of the sanctuary, all carrying pilgrims to this site. Amazing. Very fierce devotion, it seemed, whether the church or the world acknowledges it, or not.
I decided I would go to Genoa, and possibly get better information about and directions to the black madonna at Crea, which was almost directly south of Oropa, but not easily accessible. More about that another day.