Pilgrims have been visiting Monte Sant’Angelo, a hill town on the edge of the Gargano National Park in Puglia, for centuries. It is still a place of pilgrimage today. Not just for those who come to worship at the Sanctuary of St Michael, but also for the tourists who flock to the town, attracted by the Sanctuary, the Castle and the narrow streets of the old town.
Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo
The major attraction of the town is the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, an ancient church in a cave. The story is that in the 5th century the Archangel Michael 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.
Monte Sant’Angelo is one of many churches across southern Europe dedicated to St Michael. It was one of the earliest pilgrim destinations and later became part of a medieval pilgrim trail (the Via Francigena) that began at Mont St Michel in France and passed through Rome on the way to the Holy Land. You can still walk this route today.
The Sanctuary is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power – on account of its historic and artistic importance.
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Visiting the Grotto Church
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 I was there services were taking place or people were queuing to kneel at a side chapel.
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. In between the services there were few people about, and I could imagine how the Sanctuary must have felt in the early days of the church, both mysterious and atmospheric. Further on, I 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.
The Sanctuary complex also includes the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Tumba and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The Baptistery dates from the 12th century but is on the site of a much earlier structure, possibly a necropolis or an individual tomb.
The Old Town of Monte Sant’Angelo
The town itself was built by the Normans in the 11th century. Like many of the towns in the Gargano Peninsula, Monte Sant’Angelo is a maze of tiny streets and old staircases. As I explored an old woman stopped me. “Vista,” she said, pointing up the hill. I followed her direction and there it was, a magnificent panorama looking down over terraced allotment gardens towards the sea.
I watched the walkers and cyclists who were following the pilgrimage trail into the town (good for a day hike if you don’t want to do the whole thing). But my thoughts turned to 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!
The Norman Castle of Monte Sant’Angelo
My last stop was at the castle at the top of the town. Pre-dating the town, the castle was built over a period of centuries, but it is mostly Norman. It has been used variously as a watchtower, a prison and a home for the mistress of Emperor Frederick II and is now an exhibition area. 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.
Later, driving away from Monte Sant’Angelo, I looked back at the town. A tall hill, topped with fortifications. It would have been a fitting end to a medieval pilgrimage.