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Passion for Italy

Courtesy Central Holidays

For the next three hours on a crisp September evening in Sordevolo, Italy, a re-creation of the life and death of Jesus unfolded. Approximately 400 actors, all village residents, put on “The Passion” in a massive outdoor amphitheater.

Life-sized sets and elaborate costuming drew me into the biblically accurate production. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Last Supper seemed to have jumped straight from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th-century mural, and Christ hung on a cross 35 feet above the hill where the three angels had introduced the first scene.

The play originated in Rome, where it had been performed in the Coliseum until 1530. Pope Paul III halted the production because of the animosity it created between Christians and Jews. Today, the residents of tiny Sordevolo — population 1,200 — join together every five years to put on the production, which runs from June to September. Planning and tryouts begin nine months in advance. Sordevolo’s local families build sets, make costumes and work backstage.

“We still use the same text, the same words, even now,” said Carol Pedrazzo, president of the Association for “The Passion” of Sordevolo. “Families have performed the same parts for generations.”

Although relatively unknown to travelers from the United States, Italy’s Piedmont region combines rich cultural offerings with culinary delights. The Christian and Catholic heritage is one of many reasons to visit Italy’s northwestern corner. The Alps create a stunning backdrop, providing opportunities to hike and mountain bike in summer and ski in winter. I visited Piedmont this past fall as a guest of Central Holidays, an American tour operator that offers trips to this part of Italy.

My visit started at the Oropa Sanctuary (Santuario di Oropa), known as the “sanctuary under the sky.” Located high in the foothills above Biella, the sanctuary was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Its claim to fame is the “Black Madonna,” a statue sculpted in the late 13th century that is now on display in the baroque-style church.

Thousands of years ago, this mountainside location offered a place of refuge and protection for travelers. Today, the solitude is tangible (except on weekends, when the townspeople come for the revered polenta and hot chocolate); pilgrims go there to think, meditate and leave their problems behind. As a visitor, I felt at peace in the place, too.

“It’s a place where the human and divine meet, not only in the churches here but in the accommodations where people can stay,” said Don Michele Berchi, priest and rector of Oropa. “For many centuries, that’s why people came — to find a religious dimension for daily life.”

The town of Biella has a reputation as being one of the world’s finest textile producers, and that means one thing — shopping. Factory shops, open to the public, sell suits and cashmere, linens and sporting goods. Household names such as Fila Sport can be found in the region.

With fewer than 10,000 residents and a minimal number of tourists, the Biella remains relatively untouched and Italian. Much of Biella’s charm lies in its walled, medieval-era village, which sits atop a hill, accessible to visitors via a funicular railroad. The Piazza Duomo, the city’s nucleus, dates to Roman times. The Fountain of Moses, sculpted in 1885, stands at its center. Beyond town, a winding road leads to the sanctuary, a 20-minute ascent to a 1,600-year-old spiritual retreat.

In nearby Graglia, the local church’s sanctuary dates to 1616. Dedicated to the Madonna of Loreto, it ranks second only to Oropa in importance and size. A one-meter-high replica of the “Black Madonna of Loreto,” which is located in southern Italy, stands in the chapel. From the chapel’s balcony, our group saw lovely views stretching from Graglia’s rooftops to Turin’s distant mountains.

The medieval Ricetto of Candelo (roughly translated to mean “storage area of Candelo”) stands as one of the best-preserved ricettos in Italy, dating to the 13th century. Built of river stones and brick, the pentagonal walls intersect with five towers at each of the fort’s corners.

Historically, grain was stored on the top floors of the ricetto and wine in the cellars. The fortress also provided shelter in times of danger or war. In peacetime, local residents gathered to press grapes at the ricetto, sharing the resultant wine with the entire community. Cobblestone streets are lined with buildings that sit several feet apart, just enough to allow for air circulation to preserve the wine. Today, many cellars have been converted into shops where local artisans work and sell their wares. The ricetto hosts a May flower festival and an October wine festival.

Beautiful Turin was settled in 3rd century B.C. when Celtic tribes traveled to the river Po looking for agricultural opportunities. The city reigned as Italy’s first capital and became home to the Savoy dynasty, whose royal residences still stand.

Now the country’s fourth-largest city and regional capitol of Piedmont, Turin played host to the 2006 Winter Olympics. With more than 80 museums, numerous royal palaces and a significant spiritual dimension, the city offers an abundance of opportunities for tourists. Architectural masterpieces range from gorgeous baroque buildings such as the Piazza San Carlo and Piazza Castrello to the elaborate Church of San Lorenzo and the Gothic Pinerolo cathedral.

Turin is known worldwide as the home of the Holy Shroud, the burial cloth said to have been wrapped around Christ’s body after his death. Before visiting the Cathedral of San Giovanni and its Chapel of the Holy Shroud, where the relic is kept behind glass in a coffinlike box protected from light, we visited the Holy Shroud Museum. Because the shroud is not on display, the museum is crucial to understanding this sacred cloth and gave me an opportunity to see photos and an exact replica of it. Fascinating research, much conducted by NASA, is recounted through images and exhibits, pointing to its absolute authenticity. Although the cloth isn’t on view (except on historic anniversaries), I was spiritually affected to be standing within feet of the shroud that in all probability covered the Lord Jesus in his grave.

Next, we visited the Cinema Museum, which is housed in a former Jewish synagogue that stands 167.5 meters high. Against a dramatic interior of red, black and white walls, the museum’s collection spans several levels and traces cinematic origins from the first experimentations with movement to modern films. Themed areas show movie clips and house memorabilia. Under the soaring atrium, we plopped down on contemporary red loungers, put our feet up and watched movies on gargantuan screens.

Another must-see, Turin’s Medieval Hamlet on the banks of the Po is a historical reconstruction of a typical Piedmontese medieval hamlet. Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1884 and slated for demolition afterward, its popularity led city leaders to keep it as a permanent fixture. The picturesque compound includes houses, workshops, a chapel and a prison.

Wine and chocolate — some of the best in Italy — originate from the Piedmont region. A ninth-century castle called Enotca Regional della Serra hosts tours and wine tastings. Located on the Hill of Sarah overlooking Verona Lake, the castle remains intact in its original condition and was lived in until the 1960s. Our tour included a sampling of local cheeses, wine and crisp regional cookies topped with a sugar called torcetti. The restaurant accommodates up to 150 people, and a lovely walled terrace for groups and receptions overlooks the lake.

Both hot chocolate and the chocolate candy bar were invented in Turin. Our hosts there urged us to sample Bicerin, a hot drink made with layers of coffee, hot chocolate and fresh mild cream. We sipped this concoction at Caffè al Bicerin’s sidewalk tables, where the drink has been served since the 18th century.

“First you have the bitter of the coffee and then the sweet of the chocolate,” said Laura Sgarlazzetta, our guide. “The lips are protected by the fresh milk.”

At Gobino, a renowned chocolatier, the front room’s cases tempt visitors with fragrant chocolates. Serious aficionados will find a chocolate-smelling area in another section of the shop, and the tasting room’s low leather couches and soft lighting create an inviting environment for indulgence.

Like an evening at the passion play or a visit to the Oropa Sanctuary, a visit to Gobino’s chocolate lounge affords an opportunity for peace and relaxation. Americans may not know much about this part of Italy, but those who make the journey will find the destination rich in rewards for the body and the spirit.

Central Holidays

For more on Italy:

Italy’s purest water
Italy’s “Black Madonna”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.