The sanctuary of Our Lady of Montallegro
One of the most characteristic churches on Italy’s Liguria coast is the sanctuary of Our Lady of Montallegro, nestled in woods in the hills overlooking Rapallo.
It sits on a ridge some 612m above sea level, one side offering a stunning view across the bay while the other looks over Fontanabuona valley.
It can be reached through an 11km road from Rapallo that continues until Coreglia, or on foot, following an ancient mule track that leads, after about an hour and a half, to the sanctuary.
Alternatively, it takes just seven scenic minutes by cable-car from the centre of Rapallo, a journey that offers splendid views over the Tigullio bay.
Folklore has it that the site was chosen because on 2 July 1557 the Virgin Mary appeared there to a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola.
She is said to have shown him an iconic religious painting, brought from Greece by angels, which was to remain on the mountainside as proof that she was watching over the townsfolk.
Nevertheless, young Giovanni tried to remove it on his own and when he couldn’t, he went down the mountain to summon help from locals. They returned to find a spring had miraculously appeared there.
However, after they hauled the painting down to Rapallo, it inexplicably vanished and reappeared back at the scene of the apparition. Suitably chastened, it was left there and the following year building work started on the church, which was opened in 1559.
Fifteen years later a group of Greek sailors shipwrecked in the Tigullio bay are said to have been awarded ownership of the painting by a judge and tried taking it back on their vessel – only for it to again miraculously vanish and reappear at the church. It has remained there ever since.
In the 19th century the building underwent a great degree of transformation. The apse was frescoed and the marble façade restructured in neo-gothic style under the supervision of architect Luigi Rovelli. And as recently as 1957 the bronze doors were repaired.
Our Lady of Montallegro attracts numerous pilgrims as well as non-religious visitors and is a favourite destination for hikers exploring this part of the Italian Riviera.
Its internal walls are covered in ex voto – little hearts in velvet-lined frames – that give thanks for various perceived acts of divine intervention. The oldest dates back to the 1574 shipwreck.
And of course there is its small and famous icon, painted on wood and taking pride of place above the sanctuary altar.