High on a hill in Puglia’s Gargano National Park, 800m above sea level, the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. Today it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a recognition of its artistic and historic importance.
In a way, it is still a place of pilgrimage. Not just for those who come to worship at the Sanctuary, but for the tourists who flock to the town, attracted by the Sanctuary, the Castle and the narrow streets of the old hill town, and for walkers and cyclists on the old pilgrimage trail.
Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo
All across southern Europe there are churches dedicated to the Archangel Michael, and a medieval pilgrim route (which you can still walk today) ran between Monte Sant’Angelo and Mont St Michel in France, passing through Rome. The story is that in the 5th century the Archangel appeared to a bishop who had taken shelter in an underground cave, and requested that the cave should be turned into a place of Christian worship.
The grotto church has been altered and extended over the centuries, but it is still based around the cave, and you have to descend a long flight of steps to reach it. Despite its popularity with tourists it is primarily a place of worship; most of the time we were there services were taking place or people were queuing to kneel at a side chapel.
The entrance to the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo
A long flight of stairs leads down to the grotto
But there was plenty to see. St Michael left his footprint in the cave wall after his first visit, and it seems to be customary to place your hand in the footprint to access the archangel’s healing power. Look out, too, for graffiti carved on the wall by the earliest pilgrims. Nearby was a smaller cave, with confessional boxes. We were the only people here, and we could imagine how the Sanctuary must have felt in the early days of the church, both mysterious and atmospheric. Further on, we stopped to read information panels about the history of the Sanctuary and learnt that the Archangel had visited the town several times after the first sighting.
A statue of the Archangel high up on the cave wall
Exploring the Town
Outside the Sanctuary we made a brief detour into the 12thcentury Baptistery, built on the site of a much earlier church. Then we set off to explore the town. Like many of the towns in the Gargano Peninsula, Monte Sant’Angelo is a maze of tiny streets and old staircases. We were looking around, unsure which way to go next, when an old woman stopped us. “Vista,” she said, pointing up the hill. We followed her direction and there it was, a magnificent panorama looking down over terraced allotment gardens towards the sea.
Intricate carvings on the wall of the old Baptistery
A hidden corner of the old town
On the way back we stopped for lunch at Le Clarisse, a simple but excellent and friendly restaurant built around a medieval oven. There was a small shrine in one corner – the whole place was archetypally southern Italian!
A Norman Castle
Our last stop was at the castle at the top of the town. It was built over a period of centuries, but the castle is mostly Norman, and has been used variously as a watchtower, a prison and a home for the mistress of Emperor Frederick II. It is easy to see why this site was chosen: it commands panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and any advancing armies would have been spotted long before they attempted the steep climb up to the town.
Looking down from the top of the castle
Walking along the castle wall
Later, as we drove away, we looked back at Monte Sant’Angelo. A tall hill, topped with fortifications. It would have been a fitting end to a medieval pilgrimage.