If by chance you happen to visit the Ligurian coast on 30 April, turn the wheel of your car off the motorway at Varazze and drive down the hill onto the ancient Via Aurelia. Along this Roman road, which in the past connected Rome to the Gallic territories, there are some of the most beautiful shore-side towns of the Ponente Ligure area such as Varazze, Celle and Albisola.
If once in Varazze you find a long line of cars parked nose to tail on both sides of the promenade Europa, dont despair. This is normal on the last weekend in April, when the inhabitants commemorate St Catherine of Siena, whose feast-day actually falls on 29 April but which is celebrated on the last weekend of the month.
The first event in this little mediaeval Ligurian town is the procession. Starting at 10.00, after Mass, it entails a two-hour parade from Holy Trinity church, along the narrow streets to the parish of S. Ambrogio. All the inhabitants of the village rehearse this event for weeks. The highlight of the procession is the viewing of the statue of St Catherine, an excellent wooden baroque sculpture by Anton Maria Maragliano (1664-1739), which is painstakingly covered with a thick forest of long-stem white flowers. It is not the only artistic work on display: the crucifixes of the Christian confraternities of S. Bartolomeo, S. Giovanni Battista and S. Giuseppe lead the procession.
In the past, one of the brotherhoods main tasks was to raise money to pay the ransom for the liberation of the Christian hostages taken away in shackles by the Saracens during their frequent incursions into Liguria. However, today the confraternities only care about their crucifixes. Each one of them has its own gigantic cross. On average four metres high and weighing at least 100 kilos, it is embellished by exquisite sprigs and crowns of silver laurels. Most of them were made in the 15th or 16th centuries and are wonderful examples of Ligurian silversmiths handicraft.
To parade the crucifix is a very complicated matter that requires experience and skill. But the question seems to have been resolved at Albisola, a town known for its gorgeous ceramics, 10 km from Varazze, where S. Nicolos confraternity has opened a course for the bearers, or the cristezzanti as they are called. The purpose is to enable the young generation to help keep alive the best traditions of the past. The newcomers are taught how to wear the special padded leather belt, how to keep the right balance and most important of all, when to hand the crucifix over to the next person in the team.
When the procession reaches S. Ambrogios church, the crossholders stand guard for the passing statue of St Catherine. The city band then strikes up the song dedicated to the Dominican saint and the bearers enter the church and put the statue to rest in the left-hand nave.
At the end of the procession its time for a well-earned break in one of the village restaurants before the next stage of the festivities the outdoor play staged by the varazzini in a makeshift venue, on the square in front of S. Ambrogios cathedral.
The play celebrates St Catherines exploits during her journey to Avignon, in France, and back to Italy. Born in Siena in 1347 she joined the Dominican order when 18 years old but her most delicate undertaking was still to come: moving the Holy See from Avignon, where it was in thrall to the French king Charles V, back to Rome, where it had been before 1306.
On her trip back to Italy, when St Catherine entered the little village of Varagine, as it was called in those times, she was horrified at the sight of the havoc the plague had caused. The dwellings were abandoned and there was grass growing on the thresholds, says Simon Macone, her disciple and secretary in his chronicle of her life. She immediately knelt down to pray and the plague was defeated. After this miracle St Catherine ordered the building of the Holy Trinity church, which still exists and from where the procession starts.
About 250 walk-ons take part in the play. All of them wear traditional mediaeval costumes, ranging from the gaudy ones of the pope, cardinals, and aristocracy, rigorously in red velvet or silk, to the monks habits and the colourful uniforms of the mercenary troops. To make the whole performance convincing, there are also two fencing sequences accompanied by the raising howls of the actors and audience. When the curtain is lowered, pancakes and wine are distributed to the participants.
If for any reason youre not in time for these two events, visit Varazze all the same. Its worth going for its beaches, calm sea and the utterly transparent sky in springtime. After that you can easily understand Turgenevs statement Zollotaja Italija The Golden Italy.
For information about Varazze, see www.varazze.com, www.varazze.biz or
call St Ambroses church or Kairs association on 01997146.