If one wants to get above situations in life then there’s no better place to reach for than San Pellegrino in Alpe which I visited yesterday and which boasts the record of being the highest village in the entire Italian Apennines, at a height of 1524 metres. That’s exactly 5000 feet, which means that if, in the UK, San Pellegrino would be floating, Laputa-style, almost 600 feet above Ben Nevis!
But it’s not just its height which makes this delectable place so exceptional.
San Pellegrino lies on the old pilgrim route to Rome connecting Modena to Lucca. On the border between Emilia and Tuscany monks built a sanctuary and hospice to shelter pilgrims on the most difficult part of their journey to the Holy See. Indeed, the old road runs right through the hospice which now houses a fascinating museum illustrating traditional crafts and old farm implements, saved through the foresight of Don Luigi Pellegrini who, with a band of young people, scouted around the entire area collecting material objects made redundant by the rapid urbanisation of Italy’s nineteen-sixties economic “miracle”.
At the centre of the pilgrims’ guest house is the sanctuary with the wonderful Matteo Civitali reliquary housing the mummified remains of San Bianco and San Pellegrino whose facial features are still discernible and who are sleeping the sleep of the blessed in most attractive bed-clothes within the golden glass coffin.
The oldest historical document that confirms the presence of a church and hospice at San Pellegrino in Alpe dates back to 1110 and is preserved in the Bishop of Lucca’s archives.
However, it is generally agreed that a hospice was present well before that date. San Pellegrino (who descended from a Scottish king, it is said), during Lombard rule in the seventh century, gave hospitality to pilgrims and his good work was continued by San Bianco.
After their death various donations helped to improve the facilities of the place and even popes and emperors did not fail to provide funds and privileges: Henry I in 1187, Frederick II in 1239, and Pope Alexander VI in 1255. The ancient hospice probably reached its economic and ritual apogee between the 11th and the 15th centuries when Lionello de ‘Nobili, was able to reconstruct the church and the hospice of San Pellegrino.
His grandson commissioned the great Luccan sculptor Matthew Civitali to create the beautiful reliquary than now houses saints Pellegrino and Bianco.
If you are so inclined you can write your prayer request to the saints on a piece of paper and deposit it by their side. No marks for guessing what my request was.
All saints have their legends and it is said of san San Pellegrino that, tempted by the Devil and losing patience, he gave the horned fiend a big slap in the face, causing him to fly across the whole Serchio valley, until he bumped into a mountain. The impact of the devil with the rock face was so intense that it made a hole through the mountain thus creating the Monte Forato arch. See https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/crossing-the-monte-forato/ for pictures of this great natural arch 150 meters long and 120 metres high.
What else can I add about this place: that the counter of the local bar is divided between two regions: that of Tuscany and that of Emilia, that one of my students lives here and helps her parents with the restaurant when she is not descending four thousand feet daily (total ascent-descent eight thousand feet) to work in a bank at Pieve Fosciandora, that if you feel yourself particularly sinful you can carry a stone suited to the weight of your wrong-.doings to a famous circle littered with penance stones carried by pilgrims through fourteen centuries, that in late summer and September you can pick myrtles to your heart’s content, that snow lies here until well into May, that Shelley walked all the way from Pisa to here and was so inspired by the views that he composed that transcendent poem “The Witch of Atlas”, that………. Well, I think I’ll let you discover the rest yourself when you visit this totally wonderful and unworldly place.