Italy Travelogue 2019
Thank you to so many
of you who asked about what made my most recent journey to Italy so special.
I'd like to share a little bit with you about what was "my best trip
yet." I am so grateful for your interest in my astrological and counseling
work, and in my Italy Travelogues too!
Three major themes emerged from this journey through Italia-spirituality,
water, and magnificent art, architecture, and history. I have divided the
travelogue into a series of vignettes in case you want to focus on only one
theme, or you may read only a few vignettes at a time. Or, feel free to scroll
down to see some magnificent photos if your time is limited. I
color-coded spiritual vignettes as purple, water
vignettes in blue, and the magnificent art, architecture, and
history in black. I saved the best vignette-the highlight of the trip-for last.
It is about a dip in holy water!
Before setting off on the journey with my
two Italian traveling companions, we had one ground rule. The rule: we could
only go to places where none of us had been before-except for our home base in
Florence and a few other holy spots that merited a second visit. It was tough
to find unvisited places by my two well-traveled Italian friends.
But we succeeded-and traveled extensively in the regions north of Florence and
south of the Italian Alps and in the hill towns near Assisi and Rome. Our main
goal was to find spiritually inspiring sites, but we did not plan to overlook
the other cultural, artistic, and gustatory features of the locales we were
We encountered endless surprises in our 18 days off the beaten path-at least
one delightful surprise every day. It was a joy to see the reactions of my
well-traveled Italian friends, who are like family to me. Rather than feeling
as if they were showing me their country (which Italians love to do), we all
experienced together the fascinating layers of Italian history, culture, and
spirituality. And happily, each of the off-the-beaten-path places we visited
was every bit as beautiful, inspiring, and memorable as the well-known
on-the-beaten-path places tourists tend to go.
As you embark upon reading this travelogue, you may want to have an online
map of Italy handy, as we covered a lot of heretofore unknown territory. I'll
explain where each place is located, and have provided a map (below). But you
may want to have your own map [https://maps.google.comor https://www.mapquest.com], to
give you more orientation. You may also want to have a cup of hot chocolate-or
your favorite beverage-on hand as you read the "2019 Italy Update-Off the
Beaten Path in Italy" (it's a little longer than previous newsletters).
This is a list of the places I will tell you about: (scroll down for photos
Sabbioneta is a walled medieval city north
of Florence and south of the Italian Alps. It is the home of one of Italy's few
remaining pre-World War II synagogues. Population of Sabbioneta: 4,216
Mantua is an ancient city from Neolithic times (excavations have unearthed
civilizations from the 5th-4th millennium B.C.). This city is south of the lake
region (Lake Como, Lake Garda), and is surrounded by 3 artificial lakes fed by
a tributary of the Po River. The 3 lakes were created in the 1100s as part of
the city's defense system. Mantua is the home of the sumptuous 500-room Gonzaga
palace. And Shakespeare's Romeo was exiled to Mantua in Romeo &
Juliet. Mantua also is the birthplace of the poet Virgil. Population
of Mantua: 49,308
Ferrara is a medieval city north of Bologna that features a castle with a
moat and a monastery where the body of a saint-the daughter of nobility during
the Middle Ages-exudes holy water annually on the day on which her life is
celebrated. (Incidentally, Ferrari's are not manufactured in Ferrara, but in a
town 50 miles away). Population of Ferrara: 132,009
Ravenna is a Byzantine-era city on the Adriatic Sea (east coast of Italy,
south of Venice & east of Bologna). It was once the western capital of the
Ostrogoth and Byzantine Empires. Ravenna features breathtakingly beautiful
mosaics lining the ceilings, walls, and floors of some of its basilicas,
baptisteries, and a few mausoleums of beneficent emperors and in one case, the
daughter of an emperor. (My great grandfather also is from this area!) Population
of Ravenna: 159,097
* SANTUARIO MADONNA DI BOCCADIRIO:
The Santuario Madonna di Boccadirio is
set set at the confluence of 2 rivers in the
Apennine Mountains south of Bologna in a hamlet called Castiglione dei Pepoli. The Virgin Mary
appeared to 2 shepherds at the site of Santuario
Madonna di Boccadirio in 1480. The young
shepherds went on to pursue religious lives after the apparition. The 2 rivers
that flow through the sanctuary are said to be sacred-and water that flows from
these rivers is responsible for numerous miraculous healings. Population
of Castiglione dei Pepoli,
home of Santuario Madonna di Boccadirio:
Orvieto, a mid-sized city settled by the
Etruscan people in the 7th Century B.C., is built on a high promontory of
volcanic rock southwest of Assisi & north of Rome. We visited an extensive
underground pre-Roman Etruscan city beneath modern-day Orvieto.
The Cathedral of Orvieto in the city's central piazza
also is the home of the "corporal of Bolsena." This
is a cloth upon which a consecrated eucharistic
wafer began bleeding during a mass in 1263, leaving the image of Christ on the
cloth. Beautiful mosaics also decorate the facade of this cathedral. Population
of Orvieto: 20,468
* CIVITa DI BAGNOREGIO:
This medieval hilltop town (connected to the main town of Bagnoregio via a bridge) was the birthplace of Saint
Bonaventure, who wrote about the life of St. Francis. Population of Bagnoregio: 3,615; Population of Civita
di Bagnoregio: 11
Collevalenza, just north of Rome, is known as the "Lourdes
of Italy." Just like Lourdes, miraculous healings have occurred for those who
drink or bathe in the holy water flowing at this shrine. Population of Collevalenza: 697
Florence is the
birthplace of the Renaissance (1300s-1600s). Valuable and well-preserved
Renaissance art can be seen literally on street corners in Florence-frescoed or
terra cotta biblical scenes on walls and the outside of buildings, marble
statues, inlaid marble church facades, and intricately carved stonework on civic
buildings and palaces. Because my visit to Florence centered on visiting
churches and their holy relics and sacred art, I've colored the Florentine
entries in spiritual purple. Population of Florence: 382,258
Our journey began in the medieval town of Sabbioneta,
about a half-hour drive south of Mantua in northern Italy. It was late at night
when we finally arrived at our hotel, a restored 1500s mansion. The air was
still and permeated by a marshy fragrance. I wondered whether we were staying
in the midst of marshlands. But there were no street lights so I wouldn't find
out until morning.
After 20 hours in airports and airplanes, I eagerly anticipated the
purifying effects of a hot shower. I was relieved to see that the converted
medieval mansion had a newly renovated marble bathroom (Not all Italian
accommodations are so luxurious). I turned on the water from the sink and
the tap exuded a very rusty smell. I expected to see
rust-colored water flowing from the tap. But the water was perfectly
clear, almost sparkly. I turned on the shower too and smelled the rust again.
Hmmm... I debated in my mind between skipping the shower or
having rust-colored hair. I opted for rust-colored hair.
To my surprise, when I got out of the shower, my hair and skin were silky
smooth. It was similar to the way I felt after swimming in the mineral-rich
lakes of the Sierra Nevada in California. And I hadn't turned rust-colored or
orange either. This was my 1st surprise of the trip. I learned in the morning
that Sabbioneta, and many of the cities north of
Florence-and south of the Alps, were built on mineral-rich aquifers. The "rust"
I smelled was actually the iron in the water. The mineral-rich but
sometimes-soggy soil in this region is excellent for agriculture, and is also
responsible for the sinking of various structures as well as some edifices
leaning in various directions. The water also flows through some of the
buildings in the region-but that is a story I will save for later. The
mineral-rich water is also credited for the delicious taste of Italian pizza
The next morning we headed for Mantua. There was an air of mystery around
Mantua as none of us had been to the ancient city before (or to Sabbioneta for that matter). In studying the region before
the trip, we learned that Mantua was ruled for more than 400 years by nobility,
by the Gonzaga family, from the 1300s to the 1700s. The Gonzaga family even
included a saint, Aloysius de Gonzaga.
One of the main attractions of Mantua was the 500-room Gonzaga Palace. It
covered more than 35,000 square meters, which is more than 114,000 square feet,
and is surrounded by a moat-in the middle of the city. The palace was more
lavishly decorated than many palaces in Italy's largest cities. It took us
almost the whole day to see it. It was a multi-sensory immersion in another
world. The Gonzaga Palace, officially called the Palazzo Ducale, is best known for the ceiling of its bridal
chamber, painted in the late 1400s by a Renaissance artist, Andrea Mantegna,
from Florence. (see photo below) Apparently the
Gonzaga family had enough money to house famous artists from Florence for long
periods of time to paint and sculpt breathtakingly beautiful artwork for the
palace-largely covered from floor to ceiling with frescoed walls, carved wood
ceilings, marble or polished stone floors, and rooms filled with remarkable
paintings, sculptures, and precious relics.
Bridal Chamber, Gonzaga Palace:
After the immersion in
the material abundance of the Gonzaga Palace, we sought grounding in "the real
world" at the Basilica di Sant'Andrea several
blocks from the castle. Most surprisingly, we discovered that several drops of
the blood of Jesus Christ were housed in this basilica. It is said that the
Roman soldier Longinus (called San Longino in Italy)
scooped up several drops of Jesus Christ's blood when Jesus was on the cross.
Longinus buried this blood in Mantua, where it was first discovered in 804 by
Charlemagne, who had it verified by Pope Leo III. The blood was rediscovered in
1049, when Pope Leo IX re-verified its authenticity. The blood is carried in a
procession through the streets of Mantua every year on Good Friday. It was only
the first day of the trip and we already felt both spiritually and materially
The 2nd day of exploring brought more surprises as we embarked on a
self-guided walking tour of Sabbioneta. To my
surprise, the Gonzaga family had built yet another castle in Sabbioneta, not quite as grand in scale as the Palazzo
Ducale of Mantua, but equally as
After visiting the palace, we proceeded through the cobble-stoned streets of
Sabbioneta and noticed a small marking on the map for
a "sinagoga" (synagogue). Unlike the lavish
churches that populate Italian cities, this tiny synagogue was well-hidden on
the 2nd floor above an unassuming storefront. A man walking nearby told us that
the sinagoga was no longer
active because, he said, "there were no more Jews in Sabbioneta.
They were all taken away during the war." I felt sad for all of the people
whose lives had been interrupted to be taken by trains to work camps-and death
camps- in Germany. We walked up a rickety set of stairs to the sinagoga. Only the creaking wood stairs broke the
reverent silence we felt.
To my surprise (again), the rickety staircase gave way to a perfectly
preserved synagogue, left just the way the Italian people had found it in the
1940s. Only the Torahs (sacred scrolls) had been
removed and sent to a synagogue in Jerusalem. I marveled that the Italian
people had taken such good care of this Jewish Temple for so many years,
despite the absence of worshippers. It demonstrated again to me the Italian
reverence for the life of Spirit.
We continued our
exploration on the 2nd day at the newly opened Museo
Ebraico (Jewish Museum) in Ferrara, about 60
miles to the east. Opened in 2016, the museum featured extensive displays
chronicling the history of the Jews of Italy-from Renaissance mathematicians
and artists to astronomers. There was a special exhibit on the late 19th
Century ghettoes and the deportations that occurred during World War II. While
the exhibit did not surprise me, my Italian friends' reactions did. They
knew nothing about the former Jewish presence in Italy. It
simply isn't talked about. This day was a revelation for them, and so
gratifying to me to see their interest in a new facet of their homeland's
The journey through
Ferrara next took us to the Monastero
di Sant'Antonio in Polesine. The remains of Santa
Beatrice d'Este are housed in this
monastery. Her body exudes holy water every year on January 19, the day her
life is celebrated. Many miracles have been attributed to this holy water. My
friends had called in advance to say we were coming, so even though it was not
January 19, a demure nun quietly gave us 2 small bottles of the holy water. Santa
Beatrice is a member of the Este family, a family of nobles from Ferrara.
A little daylight was
left so we thought we'd end the day visiting the castle where Santa
Beatrice's family, the Este family, had lived. Saint Beatrice was the
daughter of the Marquis of Ferrara. The Castello Estense
also was a scaled-down version of the sumptuous Gonzaga castle. It also was
surrounded by a moat in the middle of the city of Ferrara, but inside, white
tape held together ornately painted ceilings and walls-due to a combination of
an earthquake in 2012 and unstable land beneath the castle.
The next day, our 3rd day of travel, we headed for the Adriatic coast of
Italy to the east. We had heard about the lovely mosaics in Ravenna. But we
were overwhelmed beyond imagination by the artistry, intricacy, and vastness of
these Byzantine era artworks. Marvelous mosaics lined the walls, ceilings, and
even the floors of numerous grandiose edifices in Ravenna-basilicas,
baptisteries, and a few mausoleums of beneficent emperors and in one case, the
daughter of an emperor.
Words can barely describe the beauty and I daresay, glory, of these mosaics.
Created in the 400s and 500s, these vast mosaics were created from gold and
small pieces of stone, including alabaster, lapis lazuli, marble
of various colors, malachite, quartz, and other precious and semi-precious
stones. Ravenna had once been on the western edge of the Byzantine Empire,
which emanated from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The intricate
Byzantine artwork-featuring awe-inspiring mosaics of Jesus Christ, the
apostles, saints, angels, various bishops, scenes from the Old and New
Testaments, the Emperor Justinian and his co-regent,
Theodora, representations of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and many, many other
Byzantine rulers and Catholic ecclesiastics-is well-preserved to this day.
What impressed me most was the depth, perspective, and shadow these
Byzantine artisans were able to portray, when working with small pieces of
stone. Many of the images were so lifelike I initially wondered if they
had been paintings, but they were, in fact, mosaics! (see
Basilica di Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna:
Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna:
Basilica di San Vitale, Ravina:
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe:
Baptistery degli Ariani:
Mausoleum of Galla Placida, Ravenna:
Mausoleum of Galla Placida, Ravenna:
(This mosaic was to become the symbol of Ravenna, 2 doves drinking from the
water of spirit.)
I learned to turn my smartphone's camera on selfie mode and point it up to the
ceiling to avoid mounting neck pain from staring up at so many breathtakingly
beautiful mosaics on the ceilings of the holy edifices in Ravenna!)
As if these "stellar" mosaics were not enough to take our breath away, we
witnessed another surprise at the Basilica di San Francesco, which
probably should be classified as a miracle, but was hidden among the many
treasures of Ravenna.
While walking through the streets of Ravenna, we came across the
unassuming Basilica di San Francesco, built in the mid-400s. Our
reverence for Saint Francis drew us into this Roman era church, which also is
the church where the poet Dante's funeral was held in 1321. Dante's tomb is adjacent
to the Basilica di San Francesco.
Yet another wonder lay inside the church. The crypt below the main floor of the
1500-year-old basilica, now 10 feet below street level because of the soft
marshland beneath the floor, is filled with several feet of water. Fish and
ducks swim through the lower level of the church. It's been this way for
hundreds of years, and the water remains fresh and clear, never murky. They say
that underground water from a system of subterranean canals washes through the
church, keeping the water clean. But I guessed that Saint Francis, a lover of
nature and animals, had a hand in keeping the water clean for the fish and
ducks-not to mention the parishioners of the church.
Fish & Ducks Swimming Underneath
Basilica di San Francesco, Ravenna:
As we bid farewell to
Ravenna and headed for the Adriatic Sea on the east coast of Italy, the
colorful spectacle of Ravenna's mosaics were flashing through my mind like
multicolored fireworks. I learned as we were driving that Ravenna had once been
on the coast of the Adriatic, but centuries of sedimentation had now put 6
miles of land mass between Ravenna and the sea.
Living on the west
coast of California, I was accustomed to seeing the sun set over the ocean. It
was momentarily disorienting to think that we were arriving at the Adriatic Sea
an hour before sunset-and the sun would be setting behind us when facing the
Nonetheless, I was
transfixed as I stared out at the sea. I watched the tiny wavelets lapping at
the shore. And I thought-my great grandfather stared at this very same sea
before he set sail for America in the late 1800s. I wondered what he was
thinking and feeling as he embarked on the longest journey of his life-a
journey that was 1/8 responsible for me being born in the United States.
My great grandfather
had been born near our hotel on the Adriatic Coast. My friends said we could
drive to see his home-if I had an address. My great-grandfather left Italy in
the late 1800s. An address?? I wondered if they even had addresses in small
villages in those years. Sadly, I did not have an address, only the name of a
town, and a few scant details. I thought back to what I knew. My great
grandfather's name was Giovanni Severi. He left Italy
in his mid-20s with the merchant marine. When he disembarked at a port in
southern France, he met my great grandmother Matilde, who was in her early 20s,
and known for being beautiful, light-complexioned, and clairvoyant. The two
fell in love, eloped, and set sail for the United States. They entered at Ellis
Island in New York and eventually bought a farm in Pennsylvania, where they
raised their 13 children. My mother's mother was the 11th of 13 children.
When we reached the
Adriatic coast, I walked to the beach to watch the sun set. I sat
cross-legged on a secluded section of sand and thought about my ancestor who
may have been in this very same place. Next thing I knew, the veil was lifted
and I saw myself in a small cavelike stone home with
my great grandfather and his family. I scanned the room to see a small wooden
table and dark wood shelves on the walls, with scanty supplies. I had the impression
there was not much food to eat. My great grandfather's mother was seated at the
table, and I saw his father walk into the room. My great grandfather announced
his intentions to set sail for America.
An icy stillness
descended on the room. I could feel the shock, sadness, and pain of my great
grandfather's parents as they reacted to the pending separation from their
son-and his determination to carry out his vision. My great-great grandmother
screamed "no!" and fell to her knees, pleading with her oldest son to stay with
the family. My great-great grandfather went a bit farther. He yelled "no!" too.
But then threatened to lock my great grandfather in the cellar
if he tried to leave the house.
Several days later,
under the cover of night, my great grandfather stealthily left his home never
to return. He headed to the seaport and slept outside that night. In the
morning, he filled out some papers. In a few days, he set sail. Meanwhile,
morning dawned at his parents' home, and my great-great grandparents discovered
I deeply felt the
sorrow of my great-great grandmother at she discovered she had lost her eldest
son. My heart broke with the agony of her maternal pain. She knew she
would never hear from her son again. He was illiterate so would not be able to
write to her. And there were no telephones or internet. The pain was wrenching.
She burst into tears. I melted into tears too, right on the beach at the
Adriatic Sea. My great-great grandmother's sense of helplessness
overwhelmed her. I sympathized. My great-grandfather stood there in the scene,
arms crossed, in a blind rage. He was breathing heavily and pacing. He
sounded like a bull snorting. They didn't know what to do.
I felt pretty helpless
too, until I realized that I could speak to their souls. Both mother and son
appeared there (in the astral) with me. Bonded by our shared sympathy for the
suffering they had undergone, I explained to them that if they ever chose to
reincarnate on earth, the situation would be different. Circumstances would
enable them to communicate and travel to see each other if they ever were
parted again. Such a brutal separation would never recur. I could feel the love
and longing between mother and son. The feeling of their strong attachment
emanated from the heart of their souls, veiled by a mutual fear that they could
lose each other again.
The familiarity of
their feelings made me realize that this kind of experience and the
accompanying fear of abandonment probably had permeated my family line. Even
though I hadn't exactly personally experienced the deep and permanent
separation they did, I could feel as if I had. I told them they did not have to
hold on to the pain any longer. We could release this terrible trauma from our
electromagnetic fields. An astral wind blew through our reunion and then
dissipated. I felt a heaviness lift from my heart-and a lightness
Nearly an hour had
gone by during this emotional reunion. The sun was now setting-behind
me. I returned to the hotel to meet my friends for dinner-and they asked
me if I had gone in the water. (I had forgotten about my intention to go
swimming.) I said I would go in the morning instead. I did, and it was
refreshingly warm and peaceful. The memory of the evening's family therapy session,
while still alive, had faded into the present moment.
Back to dinner that
night, the waiter explained that this particular region was known for a special
kind of pasta, called palestrina.
It comes in a light broth rather than with sauce. That would be our dinner that
night. The palestrina was
delicious. I learned that palestrina was
made with wheat flour, eggs, and Parmesan cheese (Parma is about 100 miles
inland from the coast, but the use of the cheese produced there is pretty
widespread in Italy. Each region of Italy is fiercely proud of its local
specialties, but Parma and Ravenna are considered part of the same region
called Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna, halfway between Parma and
Bologna/Castiglione dei Pepoli/Santuario
Madonna di Boccadirio:
The next day, we left
the coast to return to our home base in Florence via Bologna. It was only
our 4th day on the road, even though it seemed like the 4th week!
Bologna is the home of
the oldest university in the world-the University of Bologna was founded in
1088. Bologna is also known for the verdant hills surrounding the terra
cotta tile-roofed city. We had been to Bologna several years ago, to visit the Basilica
di Santa Caterina, where the 1400s saint is still miraculously preserved
and seated on a throne since her death in 1463. She is occasionally known to
get up and bow before the cross before returning to her seat on the throne.
Several years ago, we also visited the hillside Santuario
della Madonna di San
Luca in Bologna, where a picture of the Madonna is said to have been
painted by the Apostle Luke.
On this trip to
Bologna, we visited the Santuario
Madonna di Boccadirio, a beautiful hillside
sanctuary set at the mouth of 2 rivers running through the Apennine Mountains
south of Bologna and north of Florence. This sanctuary was built on the spot
where the Virgin Mary appeared to 2 shepherds
in1480. One of the shepherds went on to become a monk, and the other, a nun.
Soon after miraculous healings began to occur to those who reverentially drank
from the rivers that flowed through this spot.
Santuario Madonna di Boccadirio:
You probably can guess
where this story is going. Our intention was to drink the holy water and to
gather some in bottles to bring back to Florence. You may remember a
similar experience I described several years ago, when we drank water from a
stream of holy water that flowed through the mountain village of Cetica (about 40 miles east of Florence) after the
spontaneous meeting of 3 saints at that location in the early 1000s. At
our visit to Cetica, I hesitated before drinking the
water running over a rocky promontory. Despite initial hesitation, I drank the
water, tasted its sweetness, and felt its power-and lived to tell the story.
So, here we were
again, at another stream running over rocks. Was this holy water safe too? I
watched my friends gulp down the water from their plastic water bottles. Not to
be anticlimactic, but I followed suit. Once again, the water was delicious and
filled with positive energy and life force. We filled our water bottles and the
water stayed fresh and delicious throughout the rest of the trip. What a
difference from the water we routinely drink!
Next, we attended the
evening mass at Santuario Madonna di Boccadirio. We walked around the ancient structure
while waiting for the service to begin. A man who I thought was the janitor was
sitting on a bench outside of the church. It turned out that he was the 80+
looked quizzically at us during the mass as he delivered a very
profound homily about faith. I figured he looked askance at us because somehow
he knew I had thought he was the janitor. (He looked a lot more
stately in his priestly vestments). After the service, the priest
approached us and asked if we were Polish. (What a strange question, I
thought!) I told him in Italian that my great grandparents (my father's side)
had emigrated to America from a town on the border of
Poland and Russia. Then he really looked puzzled! What were we doing in
this tiny town in the Apennines? Poland, Russia, America, and me speaking
Italian? We explained that we were on a spiritual pilgrimage. We told the
priest that one of my friend's names was the same as that of the young girl who
had seen the apparition of the Virgin Mary-and the name of the saint whose "onomastico" was celebrated on that day. (An onomastico is a festival day assigned to
a saint.) The priest warmed up with this new information. He seemed to accept
that our presence was in the divine flow. So, he took us to the sacristy of the
church to tell us more about the history of the church and he showed us some
After the mass and the
tour, we returned home to Florence, feeling as if we had truly experienced
a slice, or many slices, of Italian art, culture, and spirituality that few are
fortunate enough to experience. Mission accomplished. Truly another
We were back on
familiar turf now, and we spent much of the next week exploring ancient
churches in Florence. Despite all of the research I had done, there still were,
surprisingly, more surprises to be discovered on the Florentine leg of the
Another friend in
Florence wanted to go church-hopping with me on my first day back in Florence.
We decided to go to an area of Florence known as "Oltrarno,"
meaning the other side of the Arno River. The Arno River divides Florence
into a north and south side. The historic city center of Florence and the bulk of
Renaissance art and architecture are found on the north side of the Arno River.
The Oltrarno is a bit older and more residential, but
every bit as magical and historic as the north side. The Oltrarno
features the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. We also
discovered 2 more panoramic Renaissance-era Last Suppers painted on the walls
of monastic refectories on the Oltrarno to add to the
5 that I discovered on the north side of the Arno during last year's visit to
The biggest surprise
of this day, however, was in a church just across the river from the Oltrarno, next to the bridge that connects the two sides. I
had visited the church, Basilica di Santa Trinita,
many times before, and had enjoyed meditating there and seeing the Domenico
Ghirlandaio frescoes of the life of St. Francis.
But today, something
unexpected happened. As we walked reverently around the church, my friend
nudged me as if to ask, "Do you think this is real?" She pointed to a sign that
read: "Parte della S.Colonna Alla Quale Fu Flagellata Il N.S. Gesu
Cristo," which means "Part of the Column at which Jesus Christ was
Flagellated." I gasped. Could it be possible? I fixed my consciousness on
the artifact and suddenly felt the pain and suffering of Christ as he went to
the crucifixion. I sank to my knees as waves of sorrow and compassion washed
over me. It felt real. We both sat down cross-legged on the floor and meditated
by the artifact for a long time. No one asked us to get up. The Italians are
notorious for letting you do anything if it looks like you are having a
spiritual experience-which we were.
Piece of the pillar against which Jesus was
flagellated inside reliquary:
After we arose from a
deep meditation, I saw a book about the church. I bought it thinking it would have
more information about this precious artifact. But it said nothing.
I searched on the internet, and again, it said nothing about the column that
Jesus was flagellated against at the Basilica di Santa Trinita in Florence. All I found was a mention of
such an artifact at a church in Rome. The artifact in Rome looked very
similar-black stone with white veins. So I was convinced-between my reaction,
and its similarity to another piece of the stone pillar-this must be
I wondered why no one
knew of the existence of so many holy artifacts in Italy that one accidentally
(or maybe not so accidentally) stumbles upon. My friend had grown up very
close to the church, but had never known this holy relic existed. I hypothesized
that the Italian people don't want to be overrun by tourists gawking at their
holy artifacts. Apparently those who cared or who were meant to find them would
And the piece of the
post against which Jesus was flagellated was not the first of such
surprises. At the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is said to be
the oldest church in Florence, originally built in the 300s (that's not a typo
for 1300s, but 300s!), there was another hardly-known artifact from the
crucifixion-a thorn from Jesus' crown of thorns!
Members of the
illustrious Medici family were buried in the crypt of the Basilica di
San Lorenzo along with their riches-ornate
gold, bronze, and silver jeweled reliquaries were displayed near their lavishly
sculpted tombs. The extent of the wealth and opulence was dizzying. But I was
determined to pay my respects to each of the saints whose remains were housed
in the elaborate reliquaries. (It was customary during medieval times for
wealthy people to buy body parts of deceased saints, believing they carried
power-perhaps even miraculous powers. Perhaps they were correct as the power of
the Medici dynasty is still palpable in Florence today.)
As my eyes scanned the
reliquaries in their glass display cases, I did a double take. Did I just
read: "Reliquario della Santa Croce e della
Corona di Spine"????? This means: "Reliquary of the Holy Cross and the
Crown of Thorns"????? Not that I have read everything about
Florence, but I never read anything about this. I looked closely. The
piece of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was very similar to a piece
of the "holy cross" that I discovered in Florence's Basilica di
Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) last year. The thorn from the
Crown of Thorns looked longer than I imagined it to be (it was about an inch
long). It was pretty desiccated, but it looked authentic. (see
the photo below-my apologies for the impossible-to-avoid reflections on the
Reliquary of the Thorn
from the Crown of Thorns:
Wow, just another day
And the stories of the
miraculous continued. On another day in Florence, we decided to hike one of the
hills surrounding Florence where the church San Miniato
al Monte is located. I was particularly interested in this church
because there is a large marble zodiac carved into the church floor, originally
built in the early 1000s. While there, I read about San Miniato, the saint for whom the church is named. It
turns out that San Miniato was the first Christian
martyr in Florence in 250 A.D. When he would not renounce his faith, the
townspeople cut off his head in the main piazza in Florence. He proceeded to
pick up his own head and walk up the hill to his monastery at San Miniato al Monte, where he then left his body.
The days in Florence
passed quickly. With or without a destination, there is always something
interesting to experience in this historical Renaissance city. I was
continually fascinated by the spiritual and artistic history-and often
experienced glimpses of my own past lives in Florence-as a Florentine monastic
in the late 1500s and a not-very-good Renaissance painter in the 1600s. So much
seemed so familiar-the sound of my footsteps hitting the stone-paved streets,
the feeling of the breeze blowing off the Arno River, and the religious
carvings on the outside of the buildings.
I felt "at home"
during the days I spent in Florence, and spent several days at a convent (that
houses travelers) overlooking the majestic Florentine skyline and Duomo (domed
cathedral) in the central piazza. This was the 2nd time I stayed in this
convent in the northern part of the city. So, I requested the same room as I
had last year-because of its picture-perfect panoramic view of the Duomo, the
name of the domed cathedrals in the center of many Italian cities. But since the
theme of water seems to have pervaded the trip, I thought I would mention that
the dome of the Florentine cathedral was barely visible this time-it had
sunk into the damp soil just enough to change the view in the intervening year.
The softness of the Italian soil seemed to me to be a metaphor for the
tenderness and adaptability of the Italian heart.
Speaking of the
tenderness of the Italian heart, I visited friends who live in the Tuscan
countryside east of Florence-who had taken a pregnant African immigrant into
their home 3 years ago, and were teaching her and her 3-year-old daughter the
Italian language through a government-sponsored program. It was so
heart-warming to see the little girl who had grown up in Italy curling up in
the arms of all of the members of her Italian family-as if she had 3
mothers-her biological mother and both of my friends. They shared with me that
other African children had been born while staying at their home during the
past 5 years. Some of the children called all of them "Mamma"-the natural
mother and the Italian woman and the man!
We visited several
holy places in the Tuscan countryside during these days, including the Abbazia di Vallombrosa (Abbey
of Vallombrosa) and the Madonna del Sasso, where the Virgin
Mary appeared in 1484.
The Abbey of Vallombrosa was founded by Saint Giovanni Gualberto in 1036. A miraculous event was ascribed to Gualberto. Born into a noble family, he one day set off on
a Good Friday to avenge the killing of his brother. Upon meeting with the murderer,
he had a spiritual experience and forgave the man. As the light descended upon
him, he went to his local church to bow before the crucifix. Miraculously, the
crucifix bowed back! This crucifix is stored in the Basilica di Santa Trinita, where
the piece of the pillar at which Jesus was flagellated is kept.
Crucifix that bowed to
San Giovanni Gualberto, founder of the Vallombrosan Order (behind the piece of the pillar at which
Jesus Christ was flagellated), Basilica di Santa Trinita, Florence:
These are just some of
the many wonders of Florence. Once could spend a year there and not see it
all-as I once did in 2000-2001!
It was time now to head south of Florence toward Assisi. I was to attend the
wedding of a friend's daughter in the hill town of Todi.
The wedding was held at the Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The altar
of the church houses a miraculous icon of the Madonna. Legend tells that a
worker, who was blind in one eye, cleaned the icon with a cloth. When he
rubbed the eye with the cloth, his sight in the blind eye was restored.
The wedding reception followed at the Hotel Bramante, a former hilltop
monastery built in the 1300s. The best way I can describe this magical event
is: love + food.
The day after the wedding, we headed for the ancient city of Orvieto. An artistically rich cathedral (Duomo) whose
facade is decorated by biblical scenes in mosaic dominates the center of town.
A miraculous story about the Duomo di Orvieto tells
that the cathedral is the home of the "corporal of Bolsena,"
a cloth upon which a consecrated eucharist
(wafer) began bleeding during a mass in 1263, leaving the image of Christ on
the cloth. The spiritual devotion of the Italian people sure has attracted the
attention of the divine!
Around the corner from the Duomo, a rich underground world also
underlies Orvieto. Ancient volcanoes preceded the
settlement of Orvieto in the 7th Century B.C. by the
pre-Roman Etruscan people. The Etruscans built a vast underground network of
caves, wells, olive presses, and tunnels into the volcanic rock. The city now
sits atop a high promontory of volcanic "tuff."
I've always been fascinated by volcanoes and by what life might lie beneath
our feet. I got an answer to that question as we descended beneath the main
piazza in Orvieto to see extensive "homes" under the
earth, with visible remnants of everyday life-ways to get water, ways to cook,
store food, and even a "columbarium," where pigeons lived along with the human
inhabitants. I won't get too graphic about the columbarium, except to say the
pigeons often found their way to the dinner plates of the ancient underground
Underground Orvieto, Formed by Volcanic Rock:
Olive Press, Underground Orvieto:
Columbarium, for Pigeons, Underground Orvieto:
Civita di Bagnoregio:
Civita di Bagnoregio
was founded by the ancient Etruscan people more than 2,500 years ago. The
hilltop town (population: 11) also was the birthplace of St. Bonaventure, who
wrote about the life of St. Francis. Very few people are able to live in this
village (only 11 do)-because the volcanic rock and clay upon which the
village is built have been crumbling for more than 300 years due
to earthquakes and natural forces. No cars are allowed. We reached the
small town via a bridge from the main town of Bagnoregio-in
the rain. (The weather was beautiful throughout the trip-except for the day of
The scene of the medieval town shrouded in low-hanging clouds may make you
feel you are viewing an alternate reality-or dimension.
Civita di Bagnoregio:
And just remember, none of us had ever even heard of Civita di Bagnoregioprior
before this trip! Still I would highly recommend Civita
di Bagnoregio if you're ever in the
neighborhood of Assisi or Rome.
You may recognize the
name of Collevalenza from an article I wrote about
following the footsteps of Saint Francis several years ago. While we were in
the vicinity of Collevalenza, known as the
"Lourdes of Italy" for the wedding, we decided to stay there.
The small enclave of Collevalenza is located northeast of Rome and southwest of
Assisi. A saintly nun and stigmatist, Madre Speranza, founded the convent of Collevalenza
in the late 1950s. Known as the "Sanctuary of Merciful Love," workers came to
dig a well in 1960 at the spot the saint instructed. Unlike the flat plains in
northern Italy where underground water is plentiful, water is more difficult to
find in this hilly region. The workers dug 80 meters into the earth and
pronounced impossible the discovery of water. Madre Speranza encouraged
them to dig deeper. Finally, after many unsuccessful attempts, abundant water
began to flow at 122 meters depth. The sacred water has been flowing ever
since. Numerous miraculous cures have been reported by those who drank or
bathed in the water.
You may remember I
splashed the holy water of Collevalenza on my face at
our first visit in 2017. I noted at the time that it did not eliminate the
growing laugh lines around my eyes. Still, it's important to have faith!
My friends told me
about the sacred baths that are held in the holy water at Collevalenza.
The baths are only held two times a week, and we missed them the last time. We
would be there on the day of the baths this visit. My friends explained the way
the holy baths work. They said you take off all of your clothes and lift your
arms-and 2 nuns "dip" you in the water.
"No thanks," I said.
"You go ahead. I'll wait for you." The specter of being dangled naked by my
arms by 2 nuns into what was probably freezing cold water did not sound
They kept pressing me.
And I kept saying, "no thank you." But Italians always
win when it comes to making you eat-and taking "dips" in holy water.
"Okay, okay," I
finally said. I gave in.
We attended a preparatory ritual for the holy
water prior to entering the sacred baths. A priest urged a group of more than
100 of us to tune in to the healing vibrations of God. The congregation then
rose en masse to walk in a
procession to the baths, all voices chanting in unison Ave Maria. I
was overwhelmed by the power of united devotion. Tears welled in my eyes as I
chanted. I felt we were being blessed by invisible hands. But the best was yet
We were each handed
linen cloths and ushered into changing rooms where we were to wrap the white
linen cloths around ourselves. We were then told to wait until a nun arrived to
escort us to the bath. I had suspended attachment to the outcome at this point
and immersed myself in the experience.
When my turn came, a
polite nun took me by the arm and escorted me to the baths. She instructed me
to read a prayer in Italian before I entered the water. The prayer asked God to
help me stay open to the possibility that miraculous healing could occur that
was beyond the explanation of medical science. I prayed to accept whatever
results God wanted me to experience.
Then the nuns held a
white cloth over my head so they could not see me and asked me to unwrap the
linen cloth heretofore around me. They asked to hold my hands on each side as
I walked into the warm holy water. There was
no dipping involved. I later learned that the Italian word for
"dip" also means to be immersed. So there I was, immersed in my own private
little holy water bath.
What happened next I did
not expect. A tornado of light descended upon me, and whisked away any
heaviness of the world that had been on me, or in me. A flood of divine love
enwrapped me. Minutes later, the nuns tugged at my hands and gently guided me
out of the bath. By this time, the tears that started welling up during Ave
Maria were streaming down my face. The joy and awe I was experiencing
rendered me uncharacteristically speechless. I felt purified. And I knew the
person who walked into the holy water was not the same as the person who walked
out. The feeling has not left me to this day.
Soon after, it was time to go to the airport to return home. We rose at 3 am
to leave for my 6 am flight back to California. How was I ever going to explain
all of this to friends and family back home? (In a book-length newsletter, of
course!) And it's not that I don't already live in a holy place, next to the
Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Encinitas, California, permeated by the
sacred vibrations of my Guru Paramahansa Yogananda. I felt his presence at every step along my path
through Italy and felt the deepest gratitude for the plethora of spiritual
experiences the pilgrimage had supplied.
On the way to the airport, my friends took bets on whether I would cry when
we said good-bye. I had a history of crying when it came time to get on an
airplane to leave Italy. They coached me on how not to cry. They said I should
think about how I was going to come back soon. After all, I had been there 4
times in the last 5 years.
Sooner than I wanted, I was in the security line at the airport. I turned to
say good-bye to my friends. They looked ready to pull out kleenex and give me hugs if I was about to cry. I
took a deep breath and thought about how God transcends space and time. He would
be with me on the airplane and back home, just as he had been with me every
step of the way in Italy. I smiled and waved, motioning that I was okay. My
friends gave me the thumbs-up from the other side of the security line-and
headed to their home for another day "under the Tuscan sun."
As I took the mundane step of removing my laptop from my bag to place it on
the conveyor belt for the security check, I felt like I was coming down from a
high mountain back to another reality.
But the story doesn't end there. Before leaving me at the security line, my
friends made me promise to telephone when I got home. It would be after
midnight in Italy by the time I got to San Diego and they hadn't gotten much
sleep the night before, but they insisted that I wake them. I called them via
WhatsApp as soon as I landed in San Diego. They had been up waiting. And they
greeted me with the news that they had found more places to go next year-this
time it would be meditation caves where Archangel Michael had appeared in Abruzzo,
on the south central Adriatic coast, near Padre Pio's
hermitage. I concluded that Italy's layers of history and spirituality are
endless. It will never be possible to see them all in one lifetime. But it sure
is enriching to give it a try!
- OM -