Memory rides to the Santuario d'Oropa
This is the view from my favorite place to cycle. It looks east and south from a bit more than a mile up. The climb is 10 miles long and usually takes me an hour or so including a stop at mile eight at the Santuario d’Oropa for refueling.
Oropa has been a mountain top finish for the Giro a couple of times in the last twenty years. One hall in the church sanctuary complex includes a gallery of thank you mementos, including a nice collection of signed historic team jerseys, sent by those who wanted to thank La Madonna Nera (the black Mother Mary) for her help overcoming illnesses and other challenges. I’ve been coming up the road from my family’s village for 50 years, give or take, since I can’t remember the first time. Per the Sanctuary’s website, it was founded in the 4th century AD by St. Eusebio, the first bishop of Vercelli which is a decent sized town today that sits down the Biellese valley in the midst of the Arborio rice plains. Monte Mucrone sitting west of Oropa is accessible via cable car for skiing, and rises another couple thousand feet above Oropa. The highest Biellese alp is Monte Mars which sits just across the regional border of Piemonte in Aosta at 8,500 feet. Easy is not the right way to describe getting there, but hiking probably the fastest way to get there from Oropa.
The attraction of visiting Oropa for me now is that it is a memory place. As I noted, I’ve been coming here since I was between five and 10 years old, and I’ve been riding the climb since the summer of 1985 when it took a few attempts to reach the summit. My opponents were my own lack of fitness, and the crazy amounts of polenta, cheese, salami, stews, and wine - lots of wine from the communal crush of Barbera - my family insisted I needed to be stronger. Gianni, my grandmother’s cousin, and my host for that summer, made sure I finished what my cousin Gabri, didn’t. He smiled and laughed a lot. I remember him teasing me that I was getting fat! “Nice joke!” I said, replying that it was his fault.
During the day, it’s possible to see the Sanctuary’s new church from my cousin’s yard. As the sun set over the Alps, Gianni loved to point out the silhouette of the three largest mountains which rose and fell on the horizon creating the profile of la bella addormentata (sleeping beauty.) Going to Oropa was an occasion for us. It was an adventure on top of the adventure of being in the Biellese in Piemonte in the first place. My cousins were, and are, always as excited to make the pilgrimage to Oropa as we were, as I am.
There are days when the valley is heavy with humidity and the blanket of clouds that sit partway up obscures the view of the Sanctuary and the mountain tops. Those are great days to ride the bike. Breaking through the clouds into the sunshine gives a special feeling, like being welcomed by nature with a kiss of cool dry air. It’s little reward for pushing up the hill. Oropa has been a place of pilgrimage since St Eusebio’s day. There is an older church built over a rock outcropping that houses the sculpture of the black Mother Mary. Again, per the Sanctuatry’s website, this church was erected in the 17th century, in the aftermath of the plague of 1599, to fulfill a vow made by the Municipality of Biella on the site of an even older church going back to the 9th century, and is supposed to be the place where St Eusebio brought a statue of the Virgin from the middle east helping to spread her cult of mercy.
There is another church, La Chiesa Nuova, which crowns a piazza above the one where the old church is located. The new church was begun in the late 19th century and consecrated in 1960. It looks like a copy of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is the new church that is possible to pick out on clear days from 15 miles away at my cousin Gianni’s place. The massive doors of the church tell the history of the Sanctuary from St Eusebio on. It was built to accommodate the increased number pilgrims who wanted to visit.
Along the road to Oropa there are stations to rest. Most of them have a water fountain. At some point I realized these were set up for the pilgrims who walked the 10 miles. It hadn’t occurred to me when I was a kid because we drove up in our cars. Riding the bit where the grade is 10% for two kilometers I had much more time to have a look and think about how much less fun it would be to do the climb on foot. Right about then on one of my rides is when an old local walking down the hill explained to me that it’s easier to go the other way. (I grew up being told, “Piemontese, sono cortese”, which means the Piedmontese are a little too proud, but something about being on a bike brings out a lighter side, in a smartass kind of way, in my experience. Thank you, for example to the teenagers in the car yelling “Forza!” in an only semi-mocking way on another of my rides up to Oropa that summer in 1985.)
With all that I’ve written about pilgrimage, I haven’t meant to give the impression that the churches are why I ride there. I’m just glad they’re there because without them, there may have been an inspiring road to a ski station, but it wouldn’t have become a destination. Flat out I can say my family’s pilgrimages were for the meals we shared. The lower piazza is ringed by restaurants and cafes. There are also free-standing restaurants outside the piazza. Growing up and eating a Biellese Sunday dinner meant not a lot of pasta was served. Most often our Sunday dinner (served at noon, and woe betide you if you were late) was centered around a mass of steaming polenta. On the mountain most of the restaurants list la polenta concia as a speciality. It is rustic and heavy. The cornmeal is cooked with stock and flavored with toma, a raw cow milk cheese that is eaten at various stages of maturity from semi-soft that resembles a nutty tasting gouda in texture to stagionato which has been aged many months and takes on a crumbly texture like parmigiano, but backed by a funkiness that replaces the salty tang in parmigiano. (There are food purveyors who sell nothing but toma varieties at the open market in Biella, because well, you want to use the wrong one for your polenta or to serve with fruit.) Depending on the number of orders for the table polenta concia is served family style from a tureen or individually. Either way, polenta concia arrives with a deep pool of butter on top. The rustic alpine style food specialties include cottechino salami that is not cured and must be boiled, game, and wild mushrooms. Half-moon ravioli, called agnolotti, and tajarin which are little twists of a rich egg pasta, both usually sauced simply with brown butter and sage, are favorites too. Chocolate is favored as a budino (pudding) in many of the restaurants along with strudel-like pastries for dessert. At the cafes, the mountain theme comes through in creamy hot chocolate. All this may not sound like summer fare, but it never gets too hot, and the alpine air has a crispness that makes it feel right to indulge. It’s a little Swiss-like and a little French-like, but entirely its own. After all else, there is the espresso and local grappa, or a digestivo made by Ratafia d’Andorno to reinvigorate the senses.
The riding reinforces the memories and gives me new ones. Of the little Italian I learned on trips with my parents, I remember getting lessons from the cousins on how to say the words for knife, fork, and spoon. My Italian is much better now, but that bit of vocabulary still comes in handy. On my last trip I found a new farm distillery named Cascina la Noce had been created on the hillside a couple of miles below Oropa. The Cascina makes their own grappa. My favorite is a great, old school style that teases with a fruit note and then hits with some heat as it goes down. Their newer style softer and flavored varieties go great with the cookies and pastries they bake, and the fruit grown on the property. The churches may be old, but seeing and meeting the folks responsible for la Noce was as fantastic as the fact that the roads are in better shape than they were 40 to 50 years ago because it means there are new people coming to the area for new reasons. Not enough to overwhelm or transform its charm, but enough to keep it vital.
I’m riding there in Piemonte with friends next week. They will head home before me. I will have a few days to see family and ride to Oropa. Can't wait!