The Well in Pollone Chapter Three
On the first Sunday morning of my stay in Pollone, I was sitting on the stairs, basking in the sunshine, when a heard a voice.
“Buongiorno,” I looked down to see Olga standing, just inside the great door. She was wearing a light skirt and blouse; her fair Northern Italian hair shining in the morning sunshine. Under her arm, her leather bag, securely wedged. Olga, a middle aged lady with all the vitality and drive of a woman half her age.
“Buongiorno, Olga,” I replied. I had just dressed and was ready for whatever the day had in store.
“Mangiare,” she said.
By sign language and one or two words which I understood, she conveyed to me that we were going to have lunch and that we were going there and then.
We left the small courtyard to find, parked outside, and taking up almost the width of the lane, an enormous, pale grey Mercedes Benz motor car.
“La mia macchina,” she said simply and indicated that I should sit in the passenger seat. Like Anna, she negotiated the narrow lane so expertly and soon we were driving past Burcina, the park outside Pollone. We had been driving for at least ten minutes when I heard a noise from the back seat and turned to see a rather suave gentleman and a very large girl, aged about eighteen.
“Olga turned her head to look into the back of the car, as if seeing the other passengers for the first time; said simply: “Vladimiro…” and then, almost as an afterthought, “Marie”.
The gentleman leant forward and spoke in perfect Queen’s English:
“Good morning. I am Vladimiro”. He shook my hand.
The large girl bellowed something in Italian or French; I wasn’t quite sure which, to which Olga responded; “Marie!” and then turned to me and said, conspiratorially, and in French, “Sauvage!”
Marie bellowed once more, and this time I heard the word, “Mama”. So Marie was Olga’s daughter, I supposed. And the elegant Vladimiro? I later discovered I had assumed correctly: Her husband.
“Mama!” bellowed Marie, again.
“Stai! Zitta!” (Stop! Hush!), said Olga. I seldom heard Olga address Marie in any other way. Although she would refer to her as “Scimmia” (Monkey), or “Cattiva” (Naughty girl).
Il Parco della Burcina
As we travelled I realised that we were going higher into the foothills of the Alps, towards Mount Mucrone. My ears were popping with the change in altitude.
Olga drove through lush pastureland with low roofed houses, nestled in between cypresses and brightly leaved deciduous tree; and here and there, huge outcrops of granite stone. The road became more uneven and appeared to be cut out of the natural rock for great stretches. Then, rounding a massive outcrop, on the left there appeared a large group of what appeared to be religious buildings. Driving a little further, we pulled up in front of the stone stairs to the most wonderfully elegant ristorante overlooking the valley through which we had driven.
‘Ristorante Croce Bianca - Via Santuario d'Oropa’.
It murmured discreetly of its own pure elegance; its understated sophistication, its class, and I began to feel more than a little conspicuous; entering dressed in simple holiday clothes. Yet everywhere, people were dressed in all manner of clothing. The most elegant and beautiful people; diners who looked like supermodels and bankers; a small family group taking an elderly matriarch out for a celebratory meal; her white damask napkin tucked into the neck of her black dress.
A young couple who sat at a small table with spectacular scenery spread beside them; yet they had eyes only for each other.
There, an elegant lady, sitting by herself, severely dressed in mourning white; beautiful as only the Italians can be, yet with the most hauntingly sad face; her chin cupped in her gloved left hand; the fingers of her right toying with the spoon of her coffee cup.
Two American ladies, sumptuously dressed, poking antipasti around on their plates with their forks and gazing at the door every time it opened to admit a new party; hoping for a celebrity, perhaps.
We were shown to our table.
Everywhere: white linen, sparkling crystal glasses competing with crystal chandeliers, silverware, waiters in jet black trousers and ice-white shirts, full length white aprons down to their black shoes; waiters so handsome they looked as if they had been chosen from the catwalks at a Milanese fashion show.
Choreographed, efficient, but not hurried. We ordered. They brought the antipasti. Then gnocchi, a risotto, the like of which I have never tasted before, or since: pesce, vino, and on and on…
A tall slim lady at the next table; exquisitely dressed in a black sheath dress with a Chanel jacket in coral pink and a tiny pill-box hat in precisely the same coral shade with a matching veil. Drinking champagne and lifting the veil from her lips to do so. Laughing so beautifully as her partner, a much older gentleman, attempted to hold her hand from across the table.
And the food came to our table and the empty plates were whisked away and the new plates arrived and different wines.
Marie bellowed and dropped her napkin and then her fork; bellowed again.
“Stai. Sotto. Sotto voce,” from Olga.
Vladimiro hardly ate anything. A small German gentleman drew his chair up to our table and started an intense conversation with him. Vladimiro seemed to speak German equally as well as he did English.
After lunch we left the restaurant and walked up to the Sanctuary at Oropa. The Santuario di Oropa is a stunning collection of cloisters, twelve chapels and the Cathedral. This Sanctuary is placed in a gloriously dramatic setting. Absolutely and divinely symmetrical in every detail.
Up the broad stone steps; we made our way to the Sanctuary; a long flight of stone steps in the same stone as the buildings themselves. Colonnades; a building, the Cathedral at the end; symmetrical to the last detail. The brass cupola weathered to a rich, dark turquoise; columns on columns, and in what perhaps had been monks’ cells on the left of that dramatic sweep up to the Cathedral: small boutiques selling the usual religious medals of the Virgin and liquors made by the monks; strange ingredients, arcane aromas; some tasting so lovely; so rich, so deliciously pungent; others with tastes that proclaimed: “I must be beneficial for you; why else would I taste so disgusting?”.
The Cathedral nestled comfortably in the lap of the great mountain rising behind it. We entered one of the twelve chapels, and then the church. In the last, we were met by a wave of heat, and the archaic smell of incense and expensive scents and candle wax and heat and noise.
There in the Lady Chapel, on a gilt column, gazing serenely into the space before her, stood the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child in loving arms. The Virgin was black, as was her Child. No pasty faced Northern European Madonna with flaxen hair, but a Black Madonna; her black marble face gazing benignly and calmly; seeming to say:
“Yes, this is the way it is. Behold and take Him as He is”.
The atmosphere in the church was stupefyingly different from any church I had visited in England or anywhere else. In a country where the Opera and beautiful singing is legendary, I was presented with the strident voices of the congregation at the Eucharist; the cacophony of the responses from the participants of the Mass. The noise of tourists and worshippers intermingling was disconcerting at first, but I seemed to be drawn into the stream of it so quickly. Everywhere was movement and colour; the sound of bells jangling; a crying child; the voice of the elderly priest; more bells.
I saw the old lady who had sat at the nearby table in the restaurant with her little family; she had exchanged the white damask table napkin from her neck and now wore a length of black lace over her white hair. She had settled herself on a bench beside several other elderly ladies, waiting patiently in turn to make her confession, while her family fretted at the end of the pew.
Another diner from the ristorante, the tall lady in the black dress with the coral pink Chanel jacket, stood at the side, with her back against a stone pillar. She bowed her head when the silver bell stridently rang during the Eucharist. Her carmine lips moved almost imperceptibly. Her gentleman friend appeared at the door momentarily, but as he started towards her, an expensively dressed middle-aged lady moved up to his side; laid her hand on his arm.
His former luncheon partner looked up briefly, he turned and then moved hastily towards the great door leading to the area outside the church; taking the middle-aged lady’s arm through his.
Beside the Lady Chapel; a heavy cloth hanging from a curtain pole across a doorway; a young priest, as beautiful as any of the waiters in the restaurant, moved the heavy fabric aside, quickly entered, and as quickly returned.
When he had moved on, curiosity took hold of me; I also drew the curtain aside and looked within. A wave of heat, like that of an oven door opening, hit my face; my eyes watered. Behind the curtain was a room completely full of votive candles; on racks, on the floor, on the windowsills; each one fiercely burning and emitting so much heat and light. I dropped the curtain back in place.
We left the Cathedral, Oropa and the Sacred Mountain, returning to Pollone; my ears popping on the return drive.
Oropa - Santuario
'The Well in Pollone' has five chapters... brave you. Only two more. The links are below.
- The Well in Pollone Chapter One
In northern Italy there is a province known to the world as Piedmont. It is an area that for centuries has been invaded by Romans, Burgundians and Goths. It has been annexed and reinvaded by Byzantines, Lombards and Franks. Magyars and the Saracens c
- The Well in Pollone: Chapter Two
Eventually we reached Pollone, and I was not disappointed. It was a charming village, and everything nice that Umberto had said about it had fulfilled all my expectations. We drove at speed through the little lanes and along the wider roads and then
- The Well in Pollone Chapter Three
On the first Sunday morning of my stay in Pollone, I was sitting on the stairs; basking in the sunshine when a heard a voice. Buongiorno, I looked down to see Olga standing, just inside the great door. She was wearing a light skirt and blouse; her
- The Well in Pollone Chapter Four
Not all meals were in expensive restaurants. One evening, Olga drove us to a village on the edge of Lago Maggiore. We entered a piazza in the centre of the village. The piazza was surrounded on four sides by four or five storied houses and apartments
- The Well in Pollone Chapter Five
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Days stretched into almost two weeks, and I had to return to London far too soon. I had enjoyed myself enormously. On the day before I was due to leave, I was about to take one of my last breakfa