Almost to Heaven

by Donna on March 26, 2012





Maps are very clear—the northwest of Italy, the Piedmonte, borders on Switzerland.  Looking at a map and experiencing the grandeur are very different.  My first taste was the previous evening’s late afternoon funicular ride from the center of Biella up to the Palazzo la Marmora.  Once a palatial residence, the Palazzo with its sculptured gardens overlooking Biella and the mountains behind, is showing age and some neglect, a grand lady past her prime but still commanding, with old world manners and hospitality.   After our tour through the many rooms we are treated to an elegant repast of champagne and hors d’oeuvres on a lovely terrace watching the sunset.

The real flavor of an Italian Switzerland is the next morning, when we head to the Oropo Sanctuary.  Home of the legendary Black Madonna (at least one of them), the complex is set with a spectacular backdrop of peaks leading into Switzerland.   In fact, a pilgrimage held every few years is a 12-hour walk over the mountain during the night with only candles to guide the faithful.   The procession can be up to 3000 strong, as they travel through the darkness to the largest sanctuary in the Alps.

There probably isn’t room for all 3000 faithful, but for modern day skiers and lucky tourists, the reward of intense hot chocolate at the historic Deiro café is worth the climb into thin air.  Various buildings of the sanctuary, long a place of pilgrimage, date from the 13th century.  The library has books dating from the 1500’s, including many old bibles and ancient maps.  The museum has vestments and paintings from the 18th century, and a 14th century ivory staff.  Considered the protector of people, there are corridors of locally commissioned depictions of how the Madonna saved or rescued the ill, or those in danger.  With the backdrop of the Swiss Alps, it is all very impressive, only slightly diminished by the kitschy stuff in a little shop.  Someone should update the inventory to match the location.  Or at least sell photographs that capture the spirit of a special place.

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