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Nature, religion make for a holy hike in Italy’s Piedmont region

Hikers walk around grounds Oropsanctuary hidden foothills Alps. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

Hikers walk around the grounds of the Oropa sanctuary, hidden in the foothills of the Alps. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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Visit the websites and and e-mail Biella’s tourism office at for help planning your hiking route.

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Updated: November 2, 2011 5:25AM

BIELLA, Italy — Think of an Italian vacation and what comes to mind?

Sightseeing in Rome or Venice? Perfecting your tan on the Amalfi Coast? Trekking between the seaside towns of Cinque Terre?

Excellent options, all of them. Problem is, everyone under the Tuscan Sun knows it.

To venture off the well-trodden tourist track, head to the top left corner of Italy’s boot. That’s where you’ll find the Piedmont region, tucked in the shadow of Switzerland and France in the foothills of the Alps.

You’ve probably heard of Piedmont, but I’ll bet the last piece of prosciutto you haven’t heard of Biella, the smallest of Piedmont’s eight provinces. It’s home to spectacular alpine scenery and equally spectacular Roman Catholic worship sites, like the Sacred Mountain of Oropa, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Biella area’s two main tourist draws — nature and religion — can be rolled into one for an Italian getaway that’s anything but typical. We’ll call it a holy hike, and you don’t need to be in top physical or spiritual shape to do it.

Here’s the gist: Trek for a few hours a day along easy-to-moderate trails, making your way between a trio of Catholic sanctuaries called Graglia, Oropa and San Giovanni. Spend the night in these complexes of worship and refuge, just like pilgrims have been doing for centuries.

Spoiled alert: These sanctuaries aren’t five-star hotels. My twin bed in Oropa was as firm as a phone book, and the shower was as tight as a phone booth. But the rooms are clean, and the surroundings are exceptional.

The sanctuaries also have surprisingly good restaurants — and bars. As the rector at Oropa put it, “When you visit your best friend, you expect to eat, drink and sleep well.”

But these places are more than just somewhere to grab a meal and bed down. They’re fascinating spots to poke around, even for non-Catholics like me.

The best of the bunch is the sprawling Oropa sanctuary, an imposing architectural gem hidden high in the wilderness, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level.

People have been coming here for hundreds of years to see Oropa’s black madonna, a statue of the Virgin Mary with skin the color of dark chocolate. Some 700 of these black madonnas are scattered across Europe, but Oropa’s is among the most ancient and famous.

Experts can’t agree on the origin of these ebony-hued images of Mary. One prevailing theory is that the wooden statues became discolored from candle soot and subsequent copies of those sculptures were painted black to make them look more venerable.

Oropa’s version stands in a glass case on the altar of its 17th century basilica, a peaceful place to kill a few hours when your jet-lagged body refuses to sleep. I wandered in early one morning from my spartan bedroom — the sanctuary has more than 300 of them — and was greeted with a sweet buon giorno by an elderly nun with the face of an apple doll.

You can find more Marys at Oropa’s Sacro Monte, or Sacred Mountain, one of nine devotional spots in northern Italy that collectively became a UNESCO site in 2003. Oropa’s Sacro Monte consists of a winding path punctuated by a dozen chapels that tell the story of Mary’s life through frescoes and painted terracotta figurines.

The black madonna, Sacro Monte — it’s all interesting stuff. But what captivated my attention more than any of that was the sanctuary’s collection of “ex votos,” or tokens of thanks for prayers answered. Long hallways were filled with these ex votos: photographs of car wrecks, a pair of baby shoes, sports jerseys. My favorite were the rows of paintings — amateur paintings — depicting people in various quandaries, like being run over by a horse, drowning in a lake or getting shot at in the trenches in World War I. The artwork almost always included a tiny image of the black madonna tucked in the corner, watching over the distressed subject.

Out of all of these scenes of mayhem, I didn’t see any ex votos of someone being gored by goats. I considered that a good sign when my hiking companion and I encountered about 30 of these horned animals along the sanctuary trail.

“Do goats charge people?” she asked, as the small army advanced toward us.

We were about to find out.

The goats inched close enough for us to see the eerily rectangular pupils in their eyes, but they didn’t do anything more menacing than let out a few gentle bleats.

Turns out they were just curious. Unlike other parts of Italy, visitors are still a novelty here.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Central Holidays and Piedmont Tourism.

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