Welcome to the last instalment of our Gargano adventure. We’ve told you about discovering the wilderness of Foresta Umbra, learning the secrets of organic farming and wandering the streets of lovely Vico del Gargano. Now, follow us in the exploration of a mystical place; St Michael’s sanctuary in Monte Sant’Angelo.
Where is Monte Sant’Angelo?
Monte Sant’Angelo is a Gargano hilltop town, perched over a view of hills and forests and the Adriatic Sea. At first glance, it looks like just another town. It’s bigger than Vico del Gargano, and it has touristy feeling, with souvenir shops and tourist menus.
It’s lovely to wander around its streets for a little, wander the alleyways with the characteristc lined-up white houses, sit at one of many lookouts, taking in the view. However, this isn’t the reason why people come to Monte Sant’Angelo.
The Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo
The Sanctuary is the main reason to visit. St Michael’s Sanctuary, an underground cave church housing a footprint of the Archangel Saint, is the destination of about 2 million pilgrims a year. The Church has a history that spans back fifteen centuries, from the days of the fall of the Roman Empire.
The legend says that the place was chosen by the Archangel Michael, who appeared several times during the year 490 AD to a local bishop near a cave. The Archangel asked that cave be dedicated to him, and promised to protect the Lombard-ruled area from pagan invaders. Indeed, two centuries later, the Archangel appeared with a flaming sword in hand, allowing the Lombards to repel a Greek invasion.
Over the centuries, a sanctuary has been built around the cave-church. Christians and pagans, Swabians and Normans, Byzantines and Lombards have prayed in the church, have made pilgrimage to the cave, walking thousands of kilometers to pay homage to the Archangel Saint. This is the South Eastern stretch of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim’s path that joined Rome to Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela, and continued southwards to the Apulian post of Santa Maria di Leuca, where ships would set sail, bound for the Holy Land.
Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary
If walls could talk, is often said. Here it is indeed true. The walls are engraved with the names, handprints and footprints of centuries of pilgrims. I have been a pilgrim to Santiago, and felt, for an instant, a sense of belongingness. The sense of joy, the intense elation at having reached your destination. I cried with happiness when I set foot into Praça do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, after 45 days on the Camino.
When we visited, the church was packed with pilgrims, many of them old and unsteady on their legs, some of whom had come from far away. The sanctuary is full of ex voto, silver engravings and paintings offered to St Michael as thanks for having been saved from an illness or an accident.
Visiting the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo doesn’t take long. If you speak Italian and fancy knowing more about the legend of the place, I highly recommend taking a guided tour with Enrico, the resident guide. The tour costs €3 and includes a visit to the crypts.
Enrico came from Genova, and his life was changed during a pilgrimage to Monte Sant’Angelo. This is where he felt he belonged, and decided to move there. Showing us runic script engravings on the church wall, he told us of the relation between St Michael and Odin, the main Northern god. The Lombards modelled the identity of St Michael on Odin, who welcomed the dead to Valhalla; St Michael ferried souls to Heaven.
We learnt of the ley lines, streams of underground energy along which many of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals as well as Pagan places of worship were built. The St Michael ley line joins all the main Michaelic churches and sanctuary, from Ireland to Cornwall to Brittany, to the Alps, Gargano and finishing in the Holy Land.
One may not believe in God, or in the Church. I have been debating that myself for decades now. Energy will reveal itself to those who want to listen and feel. Monte Sant’Angelo is a place unlike many others. It is a place where the lives and hopes of many have crossed. Where some were changed, others – like Enrico – received a calling. If you listen to the walls, perhaps they will tell you a story.
Note: We decided to respect the privacy of pilgrims and the Sanctuary guidelines by not taking pictures inside.
Linked to Sunday Traveler