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Traveling in Style : THE LITTLE SHRINES OF ITALY : Walks Among the Saints : An Englishman in Verona Finds That You Can't Take Your Kids on an Italian Country Walk Without Discussing Martyrs and Miracles

March 05, 1995|Tim Parks | Tim Parks is the author of several novels and translations. His best-selling book describing life in Montorio, "Italian Neighbors," will be followed in June by "An Italian Education," (both by Grove Atlantic) from which this excerpt was adapted.

One of the many misconceptions about Italy is that it gets more mysterious as you go south, while the north is as secular and wearily prosaic as the rest of Western Europe, no more than a safe departure point, foreigners often feel, for sallies into the more traditional and obscurely Catholic Mezzogiorno. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have lived in the village of Montorio for 13 years. It lies five miles to the east of Verona, a town whose apparently careless composition of stone, stucco and terra-cotta, its frescoed Renaissance facades, huge Roman amphitheater and generous array of ruins various, is itself a sort of conspiracy of the picturesque. Sweeping down from the Valpolicella valley, the river takes two sharp turns through a bristle of campanili, as if to offer the best possible selection of bridge-top views, while narrow streets and modest museums assemble a manageable compendium of 2,000 years of art history, all refreshingly free from the guided-tour crush that dogs Rome and Florence.

As for Montorio, tourists never make it out here. Half village and half satellite town, it has exactly the right mix of poetry past and prose present to make it at once beautiful and livable. And like Verona, it straddles two distinct and powerful landscapes: to the south the great North Italian Plain with its winter fogs, summer heat hazes, its thick stands of corn and tobacco; to the north the steeply rising hills of Lessinia, a patchwork of olive grove and vineyard framed on the horizon by the shattered white porcelain of the Alps.

As far as the inhabitants are concerned, it's an area famed, or notorious, for its provincial vocation and cultural immobility. Indeed, the intellectuals and enlightened folk of Milan and Rome like to refer to it ironically as il profondo nord , the deep north. Before the collapse of the Christian Democratic Party two years ago, it boasted the highest and most entrenched Catholic vote in the whole of Italy, Sicily included.

But it's not until you're bringing up kids that you really appreciate how deeply ingrained traditions are here. Son of an evangelical minister myself, agnostic in my habits, I decided (no, my wife and I agreed) to have our kids opt out of the strictly vocational "Hour of Religion" at school. But I soon discovered that gestures of this kind wouldn't stop them from becoming Catholic somehow, if not formally, then at least in terms of attitude. The truth is, the very countryside, the soil itself, is Catholic in this part of the world. Every time you poke your nose out of the house, be it no more than for a Sunday afternoon stroll or a quick trip to the supermarket, you find your way strewn with roadside gods, reminders, religious images. You can hardly take an inquisitive 6-year-old, never mind an observant 8-year-old, out for a walk without discussing death, the devil, martyrdom and miracles.

The children probably got their first smell of the sacred on the most local path of all, the one that leads south from our house between stream and irrigation ditch across the plain to the small village of Ferrazze. It's a walk of long, wet grass full of croaking frogs, of sluices raised or lowered on either side of you, of channels fanning out across the fields. And if you sit on one of the occasional concrete slabs that bridge the irrigation ditch, you can dangle your feet just above the water and at evening time watch swallows dive into the water and fling the lily leaves straight at you. Here they come--look!--fast and low, flapping madly. At the last moment they shear off above our heads. My boy, Michele, makes the appropriate noises of lasering them down.

Just a little farther on, my daughter, Stefi, spies a small colored card attached to a branch with a piece of wire and begs me to bend the branch down so she can see. It's a little print showing San Bernardino di Siena. He is bending down to hold a lantern by a locked door. The children ask what the saint did. Why is the picture hung on the tree? What can it mean? I don't know. And I don't know who Sant'Eurosia is either when we find a tiny shrine dedicated to her with an ash tree growing out of the middle. But I can explain the bunch of fresh flowers by the curb where the path comes out onto the street again at Ferrazze. That's to mark where a young man died when he fell off his moped some years ago. Above the flowers, in wobbly handwriting on fading board, someone belatedly wrote the words, Maria proteggici! Mary, protect us!

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