The Grotta Di San Michele Arcangelo is the site of an annual pilgrimage that takes place in Montoro Inferiore every Easter Monday, a place where ancient pagan and Christian religious rites swirl together into a special blend of worship.
The grotto consists of two natural caves. From the trail, we entered the largest. At one time, this place had been a hermitage for ancient monks. Byzantine frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries still decorate the rock walls, although their depictions of the angel San Michele and various Christian martyrs are now faded.
Walking farther inside, we noticed a stone altar towards the back, its focal point a statue of the Arcangel San Michele himself. Rustic benches hewn from small rounded logs sat in rows facing the altar. Off to the right was the second cave, the inner grotto…the one with magical properties.
Before sending us up the hill towards the grotto, Don Donato had urged us to be sure to circle through this inner grotto three times. This, he explained, would magically ensure protection against any stomach problems and would provide a trouble-free pregnancy for women.
Our host family led the way. Dutifully, we stepped cautiously onto the uneven stones, ducking our heads away from the rocky protrusions in the roof. This could be tricky in heels; I was glad to be wearing sandals. Around we went, three times into the dark chasm, groping our way along the wall and squinting to adjust our eyes in the dim light. It was cool and smelled moist.
Halfway through, Kris felt something holding him back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the little girl hanging onto his shirt tail, grasping for the security of an adult before braving the rest of the way through the darkness.
After we had completed our three circuits, our new friends activated speakers which blared tinny, distorted music through the air. The two children pulled on a rope, clanging a large bell that hung from a stone parapet high overhead. It was a cacophony created in our honor.
After exploring the caves, we headed back down the trail at a leisurely pace. I walked next to the woman and we chatted in Italian while we walked. She had just picked a large handful of arugula for that night’s salad. I imagined her life and envied the peaceful look in her eyes.
It is said that to ensure the protection of St. Michael, dragon slayer, you must at least once in your life visit this grotto and make those three circles while the bell tolls. We were glad to know that now we were under the guardianship of the saint. Dragons can appear in many guises.