We came across it by chance. Driving alongside Lake Varano, a few kilometres from the town of Cagnano, we spotted an inconspicuous road sign pointing to the Grotta di San Michele. We hadn’t heard of it, and didn’t expect to find anything more than one of the many limestone caves that the Gargano Peninsula is famous for, but decided to take a look anyway. We were very glad that we did!
Grotta di San Michele
We drove along the deserted road for a while, stopping to admire the spring flowers that were growing everywhere, and stopped when we saw another small sign. We were on the side of a spectacular valley, but what really caught our attention was the large (empty) car park and the rows of amphitheatre style seating.
A pathway led down to a small garden and the cave entrance
We 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 we approached: clearly he was not expecting many visitors that day!
Entrance to the Grotta di San Michele
It was a surprisingly large cave, with three altars and a few faded frescoes. We walked behind the main altar and through the dripping limestone cavern (being careful not to slip on the wet rocks!). The water here is said to have healing properties, particularly for eyesight.
The main altar of the Grotta di San Michele
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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, which we had visited the previous day).
There are various legends associated with the Grotto at Cagnano. The cave was probably inhabited since paleolithic times but it later became a church, the story being that St Michael descended from heaven and entered the cave on a horse. This led to it becoming a place of pilgrimage and it is said that St Francis of Assisi made the journey here. We spotted an “ex voto” (a carving made by an ancient pilgrim) on the floor.
Ex voto (pilgrim carving) on the floor of the church
A Place of Pilgrimage
There is still a pilgrimage in May each year to commemorate the first appearance of the Archangel in Gargano. The row of seats and the car park made more sense now that we knew that the church would play host to large numbers of visitors. We 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.
There are rows of amphitheatre style seats outside the grotto
There is a spectacular view across the valley
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.