At the turn of the century, San Giovanni Rotondo was a tiny village in the rugged Gargano mountains of Puglia, the province which forms the heel and spur of the Italian boot. Even forty years ago it was linked to Manfredonia, the nearby port, only by a mule track which zigzagged down through olive trees to the Adriatic. Now, though, San Giovanni Rotondo welcomes more than six million visitors a year, and has overtaken Lourdes as Europe’s most popular destination for Catholic pilgrims. It has more than a hundred alberghi and hotels, and will soon have a massive new cathedral designed by Renzo Piano. There is also an imposing new hospital, one of Italy’s largest and most modern.
Behind all this is San Giovanni’s most revered son, and one of the best known Italians of the 20th century: Padre Pio. His beatification on 2 May has been an epic feat of organisation, with most of the country immersed in preparation for the big event (and even the Serie A game between Roma and Inter postponed to the following day). Pope John Paul II is to celebrate a televised mass in St Peter’s, and then travel down to San Giovanni Rotondo to celebrate Mass there. The millions of pellegrini in attendance are to be transported by more than five thousand coaches (100 from Poland alone) and 19 special trains. A thousand chemical toilets have been set up in the village and big CCTV screens surround the two squares.
Long before San Giovanni Rotondo became famous, another nearby village, Monte Sant’ Angelo, was a place of pilgrimage: the village formed the end of the medieval ‘Route of the Angel’, which wound its way from Normandy to Rome and beyond. The reason for its fame is a mixture of local lore and millennial angst. The story goes that, in 490 AD, a local man went up into the mountains, searching for his prize bull. He found it at the entrance to a cave, way up on the most precarious promontory. The bull was reluctant to move, so the man shot an arrow at it: the arrow turned in the wind and embedded itself in the man’s forehead. The Bishop of Siponto was called on for advice, and when he arrived at the grotto he received a visitation from the Archangel Michael, who ordered him to consecrate a Christian altar on the site. It’s not known what happened to the man with the arrow in his forehead, but the result of his misadventure was the famous Santuario di San Michele. In 999 AD, the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary, and prayed that the apocalypse prophesied at the end of the first millennium wouldn’t happen. A thousand years later the same worries, together with the beatification of Padre Pio, have prompted a sudden risveglio, or reawakening, of religious piety and pilgrimage.
I am met off the train at Manfredonia – Nato action has closed the nearest airport – by Giovanni Granatiero, a friend whose family lives in the town. It’s almost midnight, and he drives me to my hotel. By the reception desk there’s a cabinet of Padre Pio mementos – letter-racks, mirrors, diaries, plates, each one bearing his by now familiar image: a high forehead, grey beard and bushy eyebrows, deep-set eyes above a slightly bulbous nose. The set of his mouth makes him look as if he is wincing. He seems kindly but austere: one hand is always raised in benediction, and a sleeve or more usually a fingerless glove covers up the reason for his fame – his stigmata. Giovanni says it’s a farsa, a ‘farce’: ‘this used to be one of the poorest parts of Italy, but it has suddenly become very wealthy, simply because of Padre Pio.’