When my friend, Franca, told me that there was an upcoming four-day bus trip from Cianciana to San Giovanni Rotondo in Puglia, in honour of Padre Pio, and that she wanted someone to go with, myself and another friend looked at each other and said, okay, we’ll go. When is it? 17-20 October. Perfect.
Originally there would have been four of us but one declined, leaving just three: myself, Franca and an American woman called Nancy. While not having much knowledge about Padre Pio at all, but having heard his name once or twice, I was aware that he had a small cult following in Ireland, but apart from that he is not known nor spoken about. However, before going on the trip I decided to get a little more background on this man who is extremely popular in Italy and has a massive following of devotees.
Briefly put, he was born on May 25, 1887 (Gemini), in Pietrelcina, Campania, and died on September 23, 1968 in San Giovanni Rotondo, Puglia. He was a friar, priest, stigmatist and mystic of the Roman Catholic Church. Nancy was given a book about him by a Rev. Charles Mortimer Carty (published in Rockford, Illinois), and the funny thing about it is that both Cianciana and Ribera are mentioned in the case of two different cures by the Padre.
So, with little information and a lack of language skills (except for Franca), we boarded the Pullman at 5:00am on the morning of 17 October, in the dark, next to the large statue of Padre Pio here in Cianciana. We were six people at that point. Others had to be collected along the way, adding an extra hour to what was already going to be a long journey. Finally the bus was full and we got going. The boss of the tour was Antonella, a force to be reckoned with, and pretty soon I realised this was not going to be a piece of cake. No, Sir, it was going to be like a stint in the army.
It’s hard to go into all the gory details of what it’s like travelling many hours on a bus with 42 Sicilians. Being the first day, people were excited, especially the teenagers at the back who seemed to love to sing (hymns, of course), at the top of their lungs. The grown ups weren’t much better. They have conversations across your head at top volume and your presence is completely ignored. But when they began using the microphone it became really dreadful and gave me a pain in my ears.
We had to suffer a variety of entertainment, all with a religious element of course, and this was initiated by a young boy who was sitting in front of me in the company of an older woman, whom I presumed was his mother. He wore a black jacket with the headpiece of Padre Pio emblazoned on the back and in front he wore a large crucifix along with a pouch of some sort, both similarly dedicated. He took the microphone, walked to the front of the bus and suggested a few prayers. I had a great opportunity to study him and wondered what the hell was going on here.
A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys later, the boss rummages through her papers and pulls out a sheet. She’s sitting near me too and I can see what she’s doing. I think, oh good, we’re going to get some information at last, but no. This sheet contains a list of jokes and she’s going to read them out loud, over the microphone. Nancy and I cannot get the joke of course and sit there dumbfounded while everybody rocks with laughter. Franca is able to sleep. She could sleep through the Blitz!
I just live for the next stop at a service station and we don’t get a lot of those. When we do, it’s under instruction: ‘You have 20 minutes.’ And that’s the biggest joke of all. Forty-five people want a coffee, a toilet, a cigarette. Guess how long that takes in Italy, given that you have to queue twice for a coffee. Once to pay your money and collect your ticket, then to another counter to order it.
It takes us seven hours to reach Messina for the ferry to Reggio di Calabria. I’ve never done this before so I’m happy to see it all. I enjoyed seeing Taormina down below from the coach and I enjoyed seeing a quiet Mount Etna on the opposite side. The ferry ride is very quick, twenty minutes, then we’re back on the bus again. We plod on for more hours until a lunch break in Pizzo. We have to keep going and it’s still a long way. The monotony is broken by a decade of the rosary which sends me into a state of despair. What I thought was a ten hour journey is turning into fifteen and a half hours. This is penance.
Finally, at 8:30pm, we arrive at the Albergo Blu in San Giovanni Rotondo. We must hurry to supper. We three find ourselves sitting with a group from Alessandria della Rocca making a table of eight. I’m now sitting beside the young boy from the bus, the enthusiastic wannabe priest, Michele. I’m about to tuck in to some nice pasta when the kid announces; ‘Let’s say grace.’ I want to slap him but I’m hungry so I agree. This kid both annoys and intrigues me and I’m definitely going to have a word with him.
Despite the fatigue of the day, Franca and I decide to wander into the centre of San Giovanni after dinner with a few others. Nancy’s had it and retires to bed. The town is lovely, pretty, clean. It’s dark and everything is closed. We buy a nice ice cream and enjoy that while we stroll around for a bit. That’s the only chance we ever had at free time. Every other moment was regimented, rushed, dictated.
We three girls ran the tightest ship in the shipping business for those four days. We had a very early start every day, without one minute’s peace to ourselves. It would take forever to describe our expected daily drill, but believe me the entire trip was based on sales. The whole region runs on Padre Pio’s name and he would turn over in his grave if he could see it. At the Santuario, his body lies in what they call the ‘Gold Room’ but in my view, this looked like it belonged in Las Vegas. I was disappointed that there was absolutely nothing to buy or look at in this area except Padre Pio paraphernalia. The only thing of note was the huge magnificent hospital, a working hospital which apparently Padre Pio started, and which today would be the envy of many a city. I even managed to get my bleeding heel bandaged in there, with kindness, enabling me to walk for the rest of the trip.
While we were taken to some nice places over the few days, each and every one of them was a sales trap. I enjoyed the trip to Monte San Michele, it was slightly more authentic. The really boring part was that each and every one of these places sold exactly the same tat, acres and acres of it. Padre Pio is certainly is a money-spinner for the area.
One morning, I happened to catch the budding priest, Michele in front of the hotel and told him I wanted to ask a few questions, that I was writing an article. He agreed. Franca acted as translator.
Q: How old are you?
A: 15 years old.
Q: Why are you here? Why do you want to be a priest?
A: To serve the people. To help the poor people. With the support of the Bible.
Q: What’s your education?
A: Studying for diploma in Theology.
Q: Who are you here with?
A: I’m here on my own.
Q: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
A: No. I’m an only son.
Q: Are your parents proud of you?
A: Yes, always.
Q: What astrological sign are you?
Q: You’re only 15, don’t you think you could change your mind?
A: Yes, I could.
Q: What do you think of the trip?
A: An extraordinary experience.
There was something about this boy, his confident swagger maybe, that didn’t quite add up and I began to think of Jim Jones, another Scorpio, who led his followers to drink that lovely juice in the jungle… I felt a sense of power-hunger, of desired leadership in him. I hope he does change his mind.
On Sunday morning, our last day in San Giovanni, I am dragged kicking and screaming to the Hotel Cotonou for a ‘demonstration of items for sale,’ not Padre Pio related, I might add, but rather, a collection of pots and pans and beds and pillows and other items I have no desire to buy. Apparently, this sales pitch will last for hours but I have already planned my escape.
The demonstration takes place in a windowless basement room at the hotel while the sun beams outside on our last day here. Rosario, the salesman, gets up and starts his pitch. The audience seems to love it, exchanging jokes and comments with the salesman. He’s wrapping them around nicely, prepping them to fondle their wallets. They see it as a kind of reality-TV programme, willing to jump up and participate in trying things out, proving that the salesman is right. I’ll be lucky if I can last until 10am, coffee break. I’m told he doesn’t want anybody to leave the room. Really? This turns out to be true when I slip out for a cigarette and the boss asks me where I’m going. We have a shouting match on the stairs. She and the salesman are in cahoots and it’s her job to keep us locked in the basement. I have a smoke and return to the room waiting for the coffee break to get away.
It’s 10:23 and not a sign of him shutting up. Busy trying to flog a memory-foam mattress to his captive audience. If I had the language skills, I’d tell him what I think of those! Instead, he calls out ‘Silenzio’ when under pressure to quieten the crowd.
Finally, the coffee break and after much negotiation I’m allowed not to return to the basement, but not before being told by the boss that while it is not obligatory to buy anything, it is obligatory for me to listen to him, since this trip was organised by his company and subsidised by him. I correct her on this point and insist that it is not obligatory for me to listen to anybody and besides, I’ve got Padre Pio on my side, someone they appear to have forgotten all about this morning.
The fight was worth it though. Now I’m sitting in the courtyard of the Cotonou Hotel under blue skies and magnificent sunshine enjoying an Americano café and wondering why there are so many gullible sheep in the world. Time for a stroll on this beautiful Sunday morning.
When I return to the hotel, all hell has broken loose and it seems Rosario has overstepped his boundaries. There’s been a mass walkout. He’s finally insulted them for not spending enough money nor buying enough. I’m delighted. It’s then I begin to meet the interesting people. They know I’m a rebel, so the rebellious come forth! I meet Carmelo, the awful singer on the bus, but a darling deep down. I meet Enzo, his cousin, a sweetheart, and since word has gone out that I’m a ‘journalist,’ they all come flocking. I tell Carmelo and Enzo I’ll interview them later.
Despite the salesman’s disaster, there’s more duties lined up for us and figuring I should make up for my sins of the morning, I decide to join something I don’t understand. It’s called ‘Via Crucis.’ I soon find out. It’s the Stations of the Cross. Now, from childhood, I remember that there are twelve of these ‘stations’ so this is going to take some time. The only reason I agree to stay is because I find myself in a magical wood, with a winding path, along which the beautifully sculpted stations are placed some yards apart. I was a bit surprised to see that Carmelo was about to make this walk in his bare feet! The truly devoted took turns carrying three separate wooden crosses along the way.
I struggle on and count each one as we go by. But, of course, in typical Italian fashion, there are not 12 stations, but 15. They always have to have more, because more is better, right. I disappear again, catching a cab for €8 back to the centre of San Giovanni to take a photograph which I know I will not have the opportunity to do again.
I catch Enzo and Carmelo on the bus the next day. I speak to Enzo first:
Q: Why are you here?
A: To keep a promise I made to my mother.
Q: Are you here with anybody?
A: No, I’m here alone.
Q: Do you work, what do you do?
A: I’m a Drag Queen, I have shows in Milano, 5 to 6 shows a month.
Q: Do you make enough to survive?
A: Yes, enough to survive.
Q: Do your parents know what you do?
A: No, they don’t know. They have no idea.
Q: Do I have permission to say this?
A: Yes, you do.
He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of himself on stage in his flowing boas and feathers. I ask him to send me the photo. On stage, she is Helena.
Next up is Carmelo, or Carme, as they like to shout at him on the bus. Carme is very camp, a little pudgy, and obviously loved by many:
Q: Why are you here?
A: Here because my mother is sick. We are very poor. We have to ask for everything. I’m here with my whole family. This is my first visit to Padre Pio. I pray to him for help.
Q: Do you work?
A: No. My father doesn’t work either. We are poor. I do everything in the house because my mother is sick.
Carmelo is very popular with everyone, even the young teenagers at the back of the bus! He’s sweet.
Last, but not least was a visit to Pietrelcina, the birthplace of Padre Pio. Incredible town. Beautiful. His house, albeit a museum now, was the only true old stone building I had been in. The place itself is beyondananda, in terms of location and atmosphere. Of course it’s all dollied up now, because he was born there, but with or without him, it remains a lovely place.
It’s a 5:00am alarm call on the morning of departure day. I’m happy to be going home but I also realise the hours of torture ahead on the bus. I just wish we were heading home straight away, but oh, no, we are being hauled off to the Santurario della Madonna dell’Incoronata and this idea just gets on my nerves. We’re thrown out of the bus at the place in the cool morning air, and told that we have half an hour. (That’s longer than we get at the rest stops!) Frankly I’ll never understand why. There’s nothing there worth seeing. I guess it’s because Pope John Paul visited the place once. I saw lots of photographs of that.
Some of us have agreed to go to a restaurant for lunch at €15 per head. Apart from some decent pasta to start and a bottle of wine on the table (few drinkers here), the rest is awful and I collect as much tough meat as I can to bring home to the dog and cat. Back on the bus for hours and hours and hours. A stop or two.
To make a long story short, we finally approached Cianciana and I was truly relieved. We were on that bus for the best part of 19 hours and I was completely exhausted. Then, suddenly, the bus veered towards Alessandria instead… That’s when I lost it. I stood up, hurled a ton of abuse at the boss lady and freaked everyone out. Franca and Nancy tried to pretend they didn’t know me. I simply could not forgive adding another 16km to the journey when I could practically see my house from the bus. I was ignored and off we went to Alessandria. I was left fuming.
I put my key in the door at 2:20am and was never so happy to do so. The cat and the dog were delighted to see me and relished their supply of meat. I regretted my final act of disobedience, but hey, everything is meant to be. I asked for it and I got it. Never again.