Great hospitality at the Abazzia di Sant’Albino

(This post is from the evening of September 4th)

I arrived at the Abbazia about 20 minutes after leaving from the train station.  It was raining harder now, and a few men sitting under an awning at a café shouted nasty things at me as I passed.  The Abbey is just on the other side of the highway on the eastern end of Mortara.  On my way here, I walked past some rice paddies on a poorly kept road that also led by some abandoned fields, as well as unused farm and construction equipment, symbolizing Italy’s currently depressed economic state.  It was like walking through an old factory town in the Northeast of the United States, only worse.  It wasn’t just old people living here.  It seemed that there were a bunch of young hoodlums and the graffiti I saw at the train station stretched all through the town.  This all serves as evidence for an article I read in one of the Trenitalia magazines while on a train that claimed that in Italy, 20% of young people from 15-29 neither work nor go to school and end up putting a huge strain on the economy.

The Abbazia was also in a bit of a sorry state, although I’d chalk that up to its great age rather than prevailing economic conditions.  This is the site of one of the first churches in the region, built in the 5th Century, and has been important to Christian pilgrims ever since.  In 773, Charlemagne fought and defeated the Longobard King Desiderius here in a bloody battle, giving the town its ghoulish name.  During the combat, two Frankish paladins were slain and it was decided that they should each be buried in separate chapels near the battlefield.  The two knights were dearest friends however, and on the morning they were to be buried, the two corpses were found together in the same chapel, a different one from either of the planned burial sites.  It was here that a monastery was founded and inhabited by French monks to honor the paladins.  It was decided to dedicate the Abbacy to Saint Alban and it remained active into the 18th Century.  Today, there is no monastery, just the remains of the chapel and old buildings, being restored by the Lombardy government and a few historical societies.  It seems as if the Abbazia today is dedicated solely to housing pilgrims on the Via Francigena.

I was greeted at the door by Gigi and a woman I presumed to be his wife.  After his curtness on the phone, I did not expect such a warm welcome, but they were by far the friendliest people I have met so far on the Via Francigena.  They brought me inside and bade me take off my wet clothes.  They showed me to a cot inside a hall beside the chapel and pointed me to the bathroom and shower facilities.  There were hangers where the woman said I could put clothes I needed to have cleaned—a very welcome and thoughtful service.  They asked if I was hungry and brought me water and apples and said there would be dinner later.  Next, I was shown two books.  One had the names of everyone who had stayed at the Abbazia in the past year, along with their nationality.  It was full of Italians, French, Dutch, Germans, Brits, and even a few New Zealanders, but I was the first American.   The other book was full of comments from pilgrims, starting around 2002.  It was amazing to look back and read a little about the experiences of people from all over the world who had done the same thing I was doing.  There was a similar national makeup to the first book, and I noted that I would be only the fourth American to write in it.  I saw in it twice, the names of the authors of my guide book; in one entry, they noted their intention to write the book so that they might encourage English speaking people to take the pilgrimage.  Each entry glowed about the hospitality provided at the Abbazia and I looked forward to enjoying the same treatment from Gigi and his wife.

I was sorry to see Gigi set the table in the hall for only one person..  He soon brought out the first dish—pasta ragú—and another plate with a fried piece of either chicken or veal and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes.  While I was finishing the salad, I heard the door open and a loud “Buona sera, Padre,” from the other side of the building.  As I completed my meal, I could hear the lively conversation that Gigi, his wife, and the priest were having.  I picked up my plates and brought them over into what I discovered was Gigi and his wife’s home.  A living room with a TV playing opened onto a kitchen with a table, around which the two were sitting, chatting with the priest.  The priest was an older man, with thinning white hair and a beard.  He was wearing a plusher version of a typical vicar’s shirt without a collar and had on a pair of large leather sandals.  They had me sit down and we went through the usual interview of “getting-to-know-you.”  It was clear that the couple was good friends with the padre.  After they had finished with me they turned their conversation to other subjects and I suddenly felt like I was back in Siena, two summers ago, listening to my host family’s friends converse or argue with each other loudly.  I soon understood why Sant’Albino was such a well established stopping point for pilgrims on the Via Francigena.  The priest and couple who lived here loved the history of the pilgrimage route, but more than that, they adored the opportunity to meet the people passing by and talk about the interesting ones once they had left.  Through the years, the Via Francigena has provided much to the communities it passes through.  In Siena, in helped bring about the creation of banks and made the city one of the most prosperous in Europe.  Here at Sant’Albino today, it brought something that Italians value more than anything—something to gossip about.

I heard all about the Dutchman from a few days ago who sang for hours in the chapel, being that the acoustics were so nice.  I know what he sang—the Credo—and in what language he sang it in—Spanish.  They talked about the girl who asked for a hairdryer and started using it to dry her clothes.  I learned about the couple who argued in front of the chapel because the man wanted to keep going and the wife refused by saying that he would have to carry her if they were to go further that day.  I listened incredulously as they discussed the man from nearby who couldn’t stand his wife’s cooking, heard about the pilgrimage stop here offering dinner, and posed as a pilgrim to get a better meal.  I also listened—a little creeped out—when Gigi said he had once predicted the names of pilgrims who stopped at the Abbazia because he had read their forum posts on one of the Via Francigena interest sites and had been reading their blog.  (Ciao, Gigi! If you’re reading this…)

The priest then asked for me to go get my pilgrimage credential so he could stamp it.  He looked at it curiously and said he had never seen one of them like that before—“Most are in Latin.”  He took great care in making the stamp perfect and signed above his work.  When I told him that I used to study Latin, his eyes lit up and he said he was going to go out to his car and come back with a gift for me.  Gigi spoiled the surprise by telling me that it would be a pilgrimage credential written in Latin.  He was right, and the padre presented me with a credential from the Associazione Ecclesiale Italiana della Via Francigena e delle Antiche Vie di Pellegrinaggio.  We talked about how the Camino in Spain is much more popular than the Via Francigena—“That makes no sense,” says the padre; “James is only an Apostle and Rome has Peter”—and Gigi made me try his wife’s pastry—he called it una schifezza—which was good, and kiwi juice, which was not.  The padre looked at me and said I seemed tired and suggested I go off to sleep.  I felt he was politely moving me off to bed so that he and the couple could continue to chat and, I was actually grateful, because I know that Italian conversations can go on long into the night.

I came back to the hall and started to write this post when the priest, Gigi, and three men I had not seen before walked in.  “Excuse us,” they said, “we’re just going to look at the chapel.”  Gigi’s wife followed in soon after and whispered to me, “Would you like to see it too?”  I nodded my head ‘yes,’ grabbed my camera and ran off after them.  The chapel is modestly sized and mostly plain.  The apse behind the altar is brick, but there are what look to be recently refurbished frescoes higher up.  To one side are three by Giovanni di Milano, done in the year 1410.  Under these, you can see the names of pilgrims and the years of their pilgrimages scrawled into the bricks.  More than the books with people’s names in the room next door, these really sent home the idea that I was part of a continuing tradition of pilgrimage that has lasted for centuries and will for centuries more.  The padre makes a point about the importance of the pilgrimage and monasteries to the development of the Western world, saying that, “The politicians won’t admit it, but Europe is built on Christianity.  Hospitals, universities, libraries—all built upon the services of monasteries and the knowledge held within them.  Europe is founded on Christianity.”

The fresco that covers the central portion, behind the altar, the priest explained, “Is unimportant technically because the painter is no one well-known, but important theologically.  This is meant to depict the trinity, and there is God in the center, and the Holy Spirit below him as a dove.  But Jesus is missing.”  His eye twinkled as he came to his point.  “No, he is not missing,” he continued.  “Jesus is the verbum incarnatum—the word made flesh, and you see here we have the four Gospels in the corners of the work.  Obviously, there is Mark—the lion, then the eagle is St. John.  The bull here is Matthew and the angel, Luke.”  I smiled as he explained the whole thing—my Religious Studies major senses still tingling at the neat theological point—and the padre must have noticed.  As we were leaving the chapel he asked me if I was a Catholic.  “No,” I said, almost apologetically, “quasi Catolico, I’m an Anglican.”  “That’s ok,” the man replied.  “You’re right—almost Catholic and turning even more Catholic today.  And that’s why you need to understand history.” Then, he told me another anecdote: “Once, there was a young pilgrim like you who came here and I asked him the same question.  He wasn’t Catholic either, but very far away, like a Calvinist or something.  But you know what he told me?  He said, ‘You Catholics are lucky.  You have one guy,’” indicating the photo of Pope Benedict on the wall, “‘who tells you what to do.  A center.’”  “That’s true,” I said, sheepishly.  “It is true,” the man replied before saying ‘goodnight’ and heading off to talk with the others.


~ by pminnig on September 12, 2011.

One Response to “Great hospitality at the Abazzia di Sant’Albino”

  1. […] then he brought out the first course.  First I had pasta ragù, almost just as I had eaten at the Abbazia di Sant’Albino.  This was a bit higher quality, though, and I quickly devoured it, mopping up the remains of […]

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