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Maestine, the name given to wayside shrines in this part of the world, provide an excellent place to halt when one is walking in our mountains and can also give shelter in the summer thunderstorms which suddenly rise up here. Even if one is not a believer they are beautiful places to stop at and contemplate one’s route so far, consult the map and admire the views around.

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But what about if one is driving? We’re always told to have suitable breaks in our car-journey to stretch our legs and avoid somnolescence in the driver. In Italy pit-stops abound: the Autostrada have service areas with their “auto-grills” (sound like they serve car parts on toast!). In provincial roads there are suitable lay-bys and roadside bars. In addition, there may be little chapels dedicated to the “Madonna of the road” – yes, the Virgin can even protect you on your journey in a Hyundai or on a Piaggio.

There are many shrines for road-users in Italy. One of the finest is at the intersection of the Autostrada del sole and the Autostrada del mare just outside Florence. The “Chiesa dell’autostrada”, designed by that great modernist Michelucci and dedicated to all those workers who died in building Italy’s greatest post-war engineering feat – the motorway that runs from north to south of the peninsula, stands in all its semi-brutalist glory for drivers to see as they get onto the wrong lane and finish up in Bologna instead of Viareggio. It’s a pioneer building which one day I actually hope to stop and visit when I get the gist of all those road signs.

Chiesa dell'Autostrada del Sole (chiesa di San Giovanni Battista)

A much more modest and approachable chapel is that on the main road between Castelvecchio Pascoli and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. Opened as recently as the 1960’s, it’s again dedicated to the Madonna della strada and is a lovely place to stop and collect one’s bearings before continuing the journey. On one occasion it actually saved my hands from completely freezing over as I rode over this stretch, which goes through a narrow gorge of the Serchio and is not particularly well lit, in darkest winter while returning from teaching an evening class at Castelnuovo’s CTP on my trusty scooter.

There is a nice fresco on the facade which also depicts a typical 1960’s car:

07272013 018It is so terribly sad that the Madonna was not there to protect the victims of one of Italy’s worst-ever road accidents involving a bus. Thirty-eight victims, including children, plunged thirty metres into a gorge and their deaths on the Naples-Bari Autostrada. Or perhaps She was in those children who were indeed saved.

But, as investigations proceed, there’s nothing like a completely legal revisione (MOT) to help prevent such horrific calamities which, in this case, seems to have been caused by brake failure, previously botched repairs and under-the-counter MOTs. (Which reminds me that my scooter brakes failed once near San Pellegrinetto – but that’s another story).

Check your brakes more often in Italy – it is a very mountainous country – I run through at least one set of brake blocks per year.

Today are the funerals of those bus passengers – it is a day of national mourning in Italy and the President will be at the Requiem Mass. Our thoughts shall be with their families.

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