Down the Italian East Coast: Pesaro to Lucera
Part of: The Great European Road Trip
From Como we drove down the Autostrada (freeway) almost four hours to our stopover in Pesaro. We paid a somewhat hefty toll for the privilege, amounting to almost 20 euros total, but it is always worth it to us to pay tolls for the better roads and less traffic. We went past some interesting cities, including Ravenna, Parma, and Bologna, but we will try to visit some of those (especially Ravenna) on our way back up north.
I chose Pesaro mainly because it was halfway to our main destination in Puglia. The town is not terribly exciting and rather ugly in places, but it draws lots of English and German families in the summer because it has a long stretch of sandy beach on the Adriatic Sea. It was pretty quiet this time of year, but there were already some Italian families vacationing there.
Our hotel was located in an especially ugly building and our room was small and smelled funny. And the elevator was so rickety that I took the stairs every time. But on the bright side it was cheap, clean, and one of very few open in Pesaro this time of year. More importantly, it was only a block from the beach and we could see the ocean from the balcony of our fourth-floor room! We also got to park right out front, our handiest spot yet. Parking was free and wireless internet was free. So not a bad overnighter overall.
After getting unpacked we wandered into town to have a look around and find something to eat. Pesaro is actually quite an old city and once you leave the beachfront ugliness, it was rather nice. We actually had a really difficult time finding something to eat, though! Just about the whole city seemed closed down until summer. But just as it looked like we'd need to have gelato for lunch (worse things have happened), we discovered a nice piazza with a small cafe that was open. David had a salami sandwich and I had a small round bread with tomato sauce, and we shared a tiny cannoli (too rich!).
Thus refueled, we wandered the old town some more and visited the cathedral, which was a fantastic bonus! It wasn't super exciting in itself, but beneath the floor is an almost fully intact Byzantine mosaic floor! There were glass panels scattered throughout the interior allowing a glimpse of them in their original position, illuminated by a Euro coin put in a slot in the back of the church. I've never seen anything like it.
We wondered if we'd be able to find anywhere open for dinner, but happily our hotel receptionist informed us that the restaurant across the street (green building above) would open at 8:00! Hooray! It was one of the nicest looking places we'd seen, and it turned out to be absolutely delicious and wonderfully cheap. David had their house special pasta, which was long macaroni in tomato and cream sauce with paprika, and I had a very nice spaghetti bolognese.
One thing we really love about Italy is that you can reliably order simple, cheap things that sound so boring - like pizza margherita or spaghetti bolognese - and they are almost universally fantastic because the ingredients are of the highest quality and they cook everything just right. And it's a really nice change from all the meat and potatoes we had in Germany!
Sunday: The Holy House of Loreto
The next morning we set off for where we are now, Lucera. This was another four-hour drive and it was even more relaxing than the first stretch since we were away from most major cities. After about an hour, a huge dome and tower caught our attention from the freeway:
I had just begun to realize this might be Loreto, which I had pondered including on the itinerary a couple weeks ago but since had forgotten about, when an exit sign verified it and David took it! It was such a fun, unexpected break in our journey.
Loreto's huge basilica on the hill centers on a really unique Catholic shrine. Inside the church is said to be the very house in Nazareth where Jesus was raised by the Virgin Mary. It was said to have been carried to Italy from Nazareth by angels in the 1200s. Right! But it's a good site for my website and certainly sounds interesting, so we were glad to have a closer look.
Happily, we found a very safe-feeling parking lot just below the basilica, and it is free on Sundays! David backed the car up to the fence so the trunk wouldn't open, we carried all our camera gear and passports with us, and we set off up the hill for a quick visit.
Inside the church at the east end, this huge Renaissance marble enclosure shelters the Holy House of Loreto. It is a small space but the flow of pilgrims is fairly well organized, with a designated entrance and exit and some space to kneel at an altar inside.
Not wishing to disturb the faithful (though even some of them were using their cell phone cameras!), I took just one picture above their heads. The altar area in the front is from the 1500s or 1600s but the side walls are said be the very ones from 1st-century Nazareth. The stones indeed look very old, and there were traces of medieval murals on them. All very interesting.
This was possibly the most enjoyable Catholic shrine we've visited yet. There was actually a service going on when we visited and a sign said photos weren't allowed, yet there was a very friendly, welcoming, family-like atmosphere about it, and no one even gave us a second look when we snuck a couple discreet photos. This is quite different from the stern coldness and even glares we have experienced in some other Catholic shrines (notably Einsiedeln in Switzerland).
Here, while the priest said the Mass to a large congregation, other people were milling around the side aisles and area around the Holy House, talking quietly, attending to their kids in strollers, confessing their sins to monks, standing in a little line to get their keys blessed by a priest, taking photos, or filming the Holy House with a camcorder! What an interesting place. We're so glad we stopped.
On the way out David found me an English pamphlet about the church, and back on the freeway I was very interested to read that thorough archaeological testing indicates the Holy House is likely to be from Nazareth. The stone is not found locally and is cut in a way they only do in the Middle East, etc. Even more interesting is that there are written records of an Italian family called "di Angeli" bringing the stones of a house said to belong to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth back by boat in the 1200s, during the Crusades. So it was indeed brought to Loreto "by angels"!
Tonight is the last of three nights we have been based in Lucera, a nondescript town that is mostly pretty rundown and dusty. There are some charms to its cobblestoned old town, but one brief walk through it the evening we arrived was enough. There is a large and historic castle at the very top of the hill, but it is only open 9am-2pm and we haven't bothered to tour it.
Yesterday we did a long driving journey to three sights in northern Puglia, all of which were fantastic and will make excellent additions to my website. More on those soon! Tomorrow morning we leave for Ruvo di Puglia, where we will be based for five nights at the Hotel Pineta.