I came across it by chance, driving alongside Lake Varano, a few kilometres from the old town of Cagnano Varano in Puglia. The Grotto Church of San Michele (also known as Grotta di San Michele, or Saint Michael’s Cave) doesn’t feature in any guidebooks, and could easily be overlooked. But it turned out to be one of the highlights of my visit to the Gargano Peninsula.
Grotta di San Michele at Cagnano Varano
The road was deserted, and spring flowers were growing everywhere. The church was on the side of a spectacular valley, but what really caught my attention was the large (empty) car park and the rows of amphitheatre style seating. I walked through a gate topped by a statue of St Michael and down the path into a small garden with a well. The custodian of the church was sitting on a seat at the entrance to a large cave. He woke with a start as I approached: clearly he was not expecting many visitors that day!
The grotto is surprisingly large, one of the many limestone caverns for which the Gargano Peninsula is famous. Despite the altar and other church fittings you are always aware that you are in a cave. Moss competes with the faded frescoes on the walls, and water is dripping everywhere (be careful not to slip on the wet rocks). There is a natural fountain behind the alter, and the water is said to have healing properties, particularly for eyesight.
The Cult of Saint Michael
The church, and the main altar, are dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The cult of St Michael spread across the Gargano Peninsula in the 5th century, and several churches in the region were founded in his name (most famously the Sanctuary at Monte Sant’Angelo).
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There are various legends associated with the Grotto at Cagnano. The cave was probably inhabited since paleolithic times and it was later used by pagan cults. The story is that St Michael descended from heaven and ordered the founding of a church on this site. It became a place of pilgrimage and it is said that St Francis of Assisi made the journey here. I spotted an “ex voto” (a carving made by an ancient pilgrim) on the floor.
Festa di San Michele
The Festa di San Michele takes place in Cagnano Varano in May each year to commemorate the appearance of the Archangel. The festival includes a pilgrimage from the town to the Grotto Church, as well as other activities and religious celebrations. This makes sense of the rows of seats and the car park: the church obviously plays host to large numbers of visitors in May
I climbed to the top of the seating area and found a kiosk (now closed) and a number of picnic benches, presumably to cater for hungry pilgrims. Standing there, and looking across the valley, I started to imagine what it would be like to be here at the time of the pilgrimage, to sit among the worshippers and gaze at the spectacular view. St Michael surely chose an inspiring location for his church.