Well, in two days, the weather has gone from this:
...sunny, lovely, warm enough to go out and play on my front porch, rearranging and adding toys -- though the odd-looking white thing on the right is actually an "ice bowl" from a pot I left outside...
And this little guy:
...buried up to his catunkus in Christmas ornaments (the hanging ones are so much fun -- they sway and sparkle in the slightest breeze), looks like this, this morning:
"Glub, glub, help, save me!" Yes, we have not only snow here, but ice. It looks like a silver-gray fairyland out there (no sunshine to make it twinkle, though). Thank God we still have power and are warm and dry in here, with another day off (my third in a row, oh, happy day!) ahead of me. But you can see why I'm going to heartlessly leave this poor little guy to thaw out on his own, and go back to my sunny Italian pilgrimage.
Sunny, yes. It didn't rain a single day of my 3-week trip. Here I will inject a travel tip: If you are a heavy person, prone to overheating and uncomfortable sweating in temperatures that others find "comfortable," or even "a little cool," don't take a lot of easy-wash, easy-dry nylon/spandex clothing with you. It's lovely to carry fewer clothes, and clothes that don't wrinkle, and that can be washed out and dried overnight in your hotel room. It was so very convenient. But I was so damned hot all the time! Had I been demurely sitting and sketching, like a refined 19th century madamoiselle on her Grand Tour, I would have been fine. But hiking up hills and running after trains, hauling a rolling knapsack over cobblestones and wearing a heavy backpack with journals, tripods, and travel guides -- next time I'll take light cotton, and seek out laundromats.
So here I am in Livorno, pretty miserable with a cold, ensconced at the Hotel Citta. I'm planning to head back north and east, to Bologna, Padua, and Venice. I'm seriously re-examining my itinerary. It's Tuesday, September 29, the 8th day of my trip, and I'm realizing that I simply can't see and do all I'd intended. The more northerly locations could easily consume another week of my trip. It's clear that if I stick to my original plan, I'll probably not get anywhere south of Rome, and certainly not to Sicily. I'm determined to get to Sicily! So it's here in Livorno that I start slicing and dicing my itinerary. I'd love to return to Venezia; I'd love to visit Santa Maria Salute. But it's clear that everything is taking longer than I thought. And that's fine. This is a pilgrimage and a study trip, but it's also a vacation after a long period of illness, and right now I'm still sick. I'm not willing to haul myself out of bed at the crack of dawn in order to race to see three madonnas before lunch (well, that's an exaggeration, but still). As it is, I'm having great adventures, seeing lots of beautiful sights that I didn't see in 2005, and getting lots of writing and reflection done. I have no one to speak to, so I find myself speaking a lot to myself, on the pages of my journal. I'm already halfway through the small journal that I brought with me!
So I decide to travel across the width of the country and go to Loreto, because I certainly don't want to miss that -- probably the most famous religious shrine in Italy. So off I go. I changed trains in Florence, and even in the station, you could feel the atmosphere of that beautiful city. I actually heard other people speaking English! It felt warm and gracious and honeyed, and I longed to stay, but pushed on -- I didn't even have enough time to walk out onto the streets. I didn't even take any pictures. No, I continued on, bound for Loreto.
Getting off the train in Loreto, I find myself in a pretty little town, but I'm still miles from the shrine itself. It's about 2:00, and the bus driver (who's sitting there on his bus) tells me he's not going anywhere till 4:00 (16:00 in Italy). So I walk around a bit, find a grocery store, buy myself some lunch and a bottle of red wine, and wander a bit more. Eventually the bus takes me to the shrine: up, up, up the mountain. Funny, after two millennia of Christianity, we're still "worshipping in the high places." In the Old Testament, God doesn't seem to like that very much -- but we humans just keep striving to get a little closer to heaven, I guess.
When I get to the shrine, I find another whole little town, built up around the church itself. There are lots of hotels for pilgrims in all price ranges, souvenir shops, groceries, and the usual pharmacias and tobacco stands (that sell everything from postcards to playing cards, and especially bus tickets). I find a suitable hotel, right next door to the tourist office. The hotelkeepers are rude, but I don't care. I get a room with 3 twin beds, and go exploring.
You know, I told you last night that this photo was Montenero. I don't know what happened to all my photos (at least the ones I thought I took) of Montenero. I may have them on a flash drive somewhere. But I thought this looked like Loreto, and now in the light of day, yes, it is Loreto. See the pretty shops along the right, including a sidewalk cafe. And directly ahead is the Loreto shrine itself, which fully contains a small structure that is, legend has it, the house of the Virgin Mary, transported by angels from the Holy Land at the end of the Crusades. Modern scholarship confirms that the stone structure is identical in composition and workmanship to the grotto that remains in Nazareth, that is also reputed to be the home of the Virgin Mary. Modern scholarship also found a deed of transfer for the structure, made out to someone named "Angelis," thus the confusion with the angels.
Anyway, within that structure is the little black madonna that is Our Lady of Loreto, probably one of the most famous black madonnas in the world. I do not have photographs of her, since I was able to buy reproductions in the souvenir shops. But here is a picture that I took in Rome, in a shrine dedicated to her there:
I truly am sorry about the blurriness. I promise that the next time I go I will take better equipment and use it more professionally. The rough brick wall at the left of this photo is reminiscent of the rough stone of the actual shrine in Loreto. I did learn that the actual statue of Our Lady was carved after a fire destroyed the original in 1921. That was a great disappointment. My next quest is to try to find photos of the original statue. Without her dalmatic (the liturgical clothing in which she is dressed), the newer statue really has an art-deco look about her -- I wonder what the earlier one looked like?
The thing that struck me about the shrines I visited was the devotion of the pilgrims. In Loreto there were people of all colors, kneeling devoutly on the stone steps inside the shrine. There were people at lots of levels of physical ability, of course -- because the Loreto shrine is renowned for its healing properties. Despite the commercialism, despite the hype, these shrines all feel like very holy places. Someone told me Thursday that the prayers and devotion of every pilgrim who ever visits a shrine remains there, and I believe it.
So I bought some prosciutto, fruit, bread and cheese for my dinner, and retired to my room. I was just recovering from my cold, and so I needed my rest. I ate, I drank half my wine, and I retired early. The street outside my room was very noisy, and it was only the antihistamine and ibuprofin that allowed me to sleep. The next morning I was off to Rome. I met a very nice German man who spoke excellent English, and so we had a nice conversation while we waited for the bus back to the train station. Rome will have to await another entry. But thanks for the chance to revisit warmth and light and adventure.