An unexpected Lenten trip


Our group descending from our hostel in Claviere, Italy, about an hour west of Torino

Last weekend I finally made it to those mountains I keep looking at from a distance on clear Torino days. I went with a group of friends, other volunteers from the afternoon program I work with at Sant’Antonio da Padova. And I decided to go only at the last minute.

Claviere is a ski resort, so that was the ostensible purpose of our trip. I thought about skiing, but when I saw how steep the slopes were, I had visions of being stranded on some black trail and thought it might be better to first make sure that I could find a way down. And unlike the small mountain where I learned to ski in Pennsylvania, there were clearly other things to do, with hiking trails intersecting (and sometimes coinciding with) the ski slopes. In fact, among our group of about 15, only three people skied. So I went hiking.

We stayed in a traditional hostel-type house that was halfway up the first slope, accessible only by walking or (for baggage) by snowmobile. Lunch, at a communal table with a red-checked tablecloth where everyone talked loudly at once, was of the typical leisurely Italian type with a pasta, a meat and vegetable, fruit, and red wine throughout. Then we’d go across the path to the other building for coffee and grappa (for those who take a caffè corretto for digestion). After all this lunch, you were either going to burn off energy or sleep. Some threatened sleep, but usually we walked to France instead.

Montegenèvre, France is the next resort over, about 30 minutes’ walk from Claviere–no border patrol to be seen. People in our group went to buy things from the pharmacy, because they said the same brands cost half as much there as they did in Italy. One fellow, whose part in our group’s play includes trying to hide his wedding announcement by swiping and balling up every copy of Le Figaro he sees, said he was going to stockpile French newspapers. What we all ended up doing was buying pastries.

While in Montegenèvre, we discovered that we were walking along the traditional pilgrimage road to Sant’Iago di Compostela in Spain (named for St. James the Lesser). The estimated remaining distance of 2000 km brought nods of appreciation.

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Tiny sugar animals at a French patîsserie and a roadside chapel along the route to Sant’Iago de Compostela, Spain.

On Sunday morning, about seven of us decided to hike about an hour up the mountain to a coffee bar. Two people wore snowshoes, but the rest of us just wore snow boots and ski pants. The weather was warm and the day fine. We had to slow down a bit when the trail became narrow and slippery, and a couple of people had trouble keeping up, but I’m so used to hiking with people who are faster than me that it was delightful to finally have time to take photos, admire whipped-cream snowdrifts, and find a lovely, almost fluorescent-green lichen.

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 Hiking up to the coffee bar, a pretty lichen, and the lawn chairs we commandeered upon arrival

When we got to the coffee bar, we took several commemorative group pictures, and then most of us ordered apple cider and sat outside to drink it. After cider, with some jokes about how Italians know how to enjoy life better than anyone else, we commandeered the row of deck chairs in front of the bar and soaked up the sun for about 30 minutes while the Germans, English and French exerted themselves on the slopes. We were back to the hostel in time for lunch.

I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a particularly Lenten trip, but for me, it was a reprieve from the usual routine, and a chance to appreciate other people for who they were. As we women went to sleep in one room on Saturday night, we could hear two of the men in the other room laughing so hard that they couldn’t take full breaths. At four a.m., I was awakened by more stifled laughter from the other room. But in many ways, it was quiet, and far from my usual concerns. Very early, I got up, read my Bible, and took a walk outside where I watched the rising sun shine golden on top of the facing mountain and listened to tiny flocks of birds feeding in the firs above. In the walks, in the meals, in nature, in the generous hospitality of the group, in the perspective that comes from being away, there I found a gift from the Lord.

10406810_10205536591688096_3295644587190713416_n Someone else in our group took this photo of the church in Claviere at dusk. I took the same shot, but this one came out with less “noise.”


A very small country and some art tourism

The apse mosaic at the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna

I finally got my driver’s license in early December, and I’m very much enjoying the ability to drive. I love my little manual transmission Fiat Punto and have already been on a few road trips in it. But most of them didn’t lend themselves to blog posts.

Last weekend Sarie needed to travel to San Marino to take a course for her job (she teaches English to children). If you’ve ever played geography games, you may know that San Marino is one of those tiny European countries like Luxembourg, Monaco and Vatican City (which is really another thing altogether). At the last minute (I had been in the US until late Thursday), I decided to go along too. I was curious about seeing a new country, and besides San Marino was close to Ravenna, which I have wanted to revisit since 1984.

I had always imagined San Marino as some sort of elegant enclave. It’s supposed to be the oldest sovereign state and republic in the world, with its origins in a Pre-Constantinian monastery. What I found, when we got there, was a very clean, walled city with lots of jewellery and weapons shops, perched on a steep cliff and surrounded by hilly, modern suburbs. The San Marinese have a sense of pride at not being Italian (even though they speak Italian and are culturally similar), a lot of police checkpoints, and the ability to navigate steep hairpin turns at great speed. They are supposedly free of a lot of the problems that plague the surrounding Italian state, such as national debt and unemployment. In all the grocery stores and gas stations, I noticed signs accepting a clever credit/discount card that allows citizens to pay less than tourists.

Unfortunately a badly-timed 24 hour bug ate Sarie’s course and a most of my sightseeing time. But we did make it up the mountain to see the fortress capital of San Marino, and we saw two of the famous mosaic churches of Ravenna on the way home.


 Street scenes and a view of the countryside,  from the fortress capital of the country of San Marino 

The mosaics of Ravenna have been favourite artworks of mine since I noticed the portrait of the Byzantine Empress Theodora in an art book as a teen. I was delighted when my first ever trip to Italy in 1984 included a short stop in Ravenna and I found myself in front of this very mosaic in the church of San Vitale. More recently, I’ve taken an interest in the mosaic floors that seem to lie somewhere beneath every early Christian church in Italy. And Ravenna has no less than eight UNESCO world heritage sites, all but one of which feature fabulous early Christian mosaics. This was why I offered to drive Sarie to San Marino!

As we started our drive home through Ravenna on Sunday morning, with very little time and a still-weak Sarie, we chose just two of those sites, Sant’Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale. Sarie sat and I wandered.

First we drove to Sant’Apollinare in Classe, just outside the city. I had recently done a presentation that included the apse mosaic there. It features the first archbishop of Ravenna (Classe is a suburb of Ravenna) standing in a field of green, surrounded by stylised trees and sheep. Three of the sheep are Peter, James and John. Floating above them is a jewelled cross with the face of Christ at its intersection and encircled by in a blue orb, a hand coming out of the gold clouds above, and other figures in the sky who are labelled as Moses and Elijah. Recognise the scene? It’s the Transfiguration. The Christians of Ravenna were preaching through artwork against the then-common heresy of Arianism, which denied the divine nature of Christ. Depicting Jesus in a symbolic cross form in a gold sky emphasised his divinity.

The whole scene lends itself perfectly to mosaic tile. The mosaics seem to be freshly restored, and the gold glittered from various angles as I walked around the basilica. Sant’Apollinare is an active church, so there was a mass going on in one of the side chapels. And we were there on none other than the feast of the Transfiguration.


The apse mosaics of San Vitale with one of the hemispheric side chapels, a floor mosaic composed of earlier pieces, and the exterior of the octagonal church

It was a little harder to remain calm at San Vitale. Once I entered the city, I realised that I was completely surrounded by splendid mosaics in a great walking city, which I had come back to see in detail after 30 years and now couldn’t (also, you have to buy a ticket to four sites at once). But I could also relate to how weak Sarie must feel after a stomach virus, and was also thinking it might be hard to get home if I came down with the virus during the remaining four-hour drive. So I controlled my sightseeing ambitions and enjoyed what was right in front of me.

Even the octagonal form of San Vitale is exquisite. It’s not a basilica form. The apse (where the mosaics are) is encircled by seven hemispherical domes with galleries behind. Joining all the side chapels is a large dome with what looks like a Baroque ceiling painting. Some of the chapel fresco decorations have been restored, seemingly to give an idea of what it must have looked like in the past. Otherwise only traces of paint are visible.

Despite the stomach virus, missing the course, and limited opportunities for sightseeing, Sarie and I enjoyed the drive. She’s increasingly independent, which is right at her age, and being in the car together gave us time to talk about a variety of things, not least of which was the insanity of Italian driving. We saw a lot of regional landscape as we crossed the country, and gaped at a train station that looked like a pleated paper IKEA lampshade, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We never saw the Adriatic, and never got to eat in any of the cozy restaurants along the way, but we were happy to see what we did.

Disclaimer: It has been a long time since I took art history, so I’m not 100% sure I have all my architectural terms right. Also, in order to travel light, I took these photos with my old iPhone, so they’re not the greatest. And finally, yes, I know my spellcheck is stuck on British English!