Postcard from Ostuni, Italy: A white-washed citadel a few olive groves away from the Adriatic Sea

bicycle over ostuni

Experienced travelers as we are, hopping a train for the short ride to Ostuni from Lecce was easy. The flaw in our plan was what to do on arrival. Oh, this is why some people rent cars.

A travel blogger wrote the walk from the station up into town was only a mile or two if cab or bus was unavailable. Neither materialized after what seemed a long wait, so we took off on foot. What the blogger had failed to mention was that the walk was on a stretch of a no-shouldered highway. A sympathetic young woman with a baby on board turned off into a driveway almost immediately to come to the rescue of the two wayward seniors. We gladly hopped in the car. Getting robbed or kidnapped appeared much less likely than getting hit by an automobile. She spoke no English, but went well out of her way to drop us in the center of town.

And everyone in this white-washed town in the heel of Italy was as helpful and friendly, approaching us to offer advice on finding our way around. We were there post-prime-tourist season, so had to navigate our way around the tangle of narrow streets to several restaurants before finding one open for lunch.

But that is both the beauty and fun of Ostuni. Street names change almost every block, and a “street” is often what appears a private stairway. When it came time to try to find the bus back, a trio of men directed us down several flights of unpromising-looking stairs to exactly the right spot where a piccolo autobus transported us and a trio of teens to the station.

The statue atop the column in the middle of a plaza is Ostuni’s patron saint, Saint Orontius of Lecce. The first Bishop of Lecce, he was executed for his Christian faith by axe by a representative of Roman Emperor Nero. But of particular relevance today are the miracles he was credited with centuries later. Residents of Lecce claimed he ended an outbreak of the plague there in 1656, and in Turi it is said he brought an outbreak of cholera to an end in 1851. Better known, Saint Sebastian must be swamped with requests for protection from Covid-19, so maybe light a candle to Saint Orontius as well.

As for the bicycle perched above a rooftop? Pure whimsy.

Postcard from Mexico City: The Lord of Poison and potent relics

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City also features a black statue of Christ, known there also as Lord of Poison which is a pretty interesting name for a Christ figure. This is the most venerated statue in the entire cathedral and… dates back to the 18th of August, 1602 when the Dominican Fathers came to Mexico with several Christ sculptures, all white.

Legend has it that this particular figure was installed in a small chapel in Tlanepantla where the regent archbishop prayed daily and at the end of a prayer, would kiss the feet of this statue. When his enemies saw what his routine was, they applied poison to the feet of the statue in the hopes that they could off him in this way after his next prayer. Alas, their cunning plan was foiled when the statue (faith, people, faith) shrank back from the archbishop’s approaching lips, thereby saving his life and providing for yet another biblical story. …the poison that had been applied by the evildoers… is what turned it black.

The story quickly got out and spread rapidly amongst the flock; the great back story and the fact that the chapel was not open to the public heightened the mystery and devotion to this black Christ. After being under wraps for many years (ie the marketing plan had worked and the product was ready) in 1935 the now heroic black Christ was moved from its private location to the Metropolitan Cathedral so as to be available for worship by all.

The Mystery of the Black Christ at Chumayel,” Lawsons Yucatan

The black figure of Jesus on the cross is somewhat of a newcomer to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Whether the version above or the story of the poison fed to Don Fermin by Don Ismael is preferred, the willingness of the figure to absorb the evil dark potion to spare the good man does make the Lord of Poison somewhat of a star attraction. The largest cathedral in the Americas actually is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If the halo-bearing statue below is of Mary, she appears quite shocked by her immaculately conceived swollen shape.

Construction of the first part of the church was begun under orders of Hernan Cortes in 1524. Original building materials were recycled from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of Huitzilopochtili, which stood on the site.

It would take more than a few Hail Marys to make a pass the entire length of the cathedral, as it measures the entire length of a football field, including the two endzones. There are two major gilded altars surrounded by 16 chapels. Ornate facades mark four major entrances to the cathedral. The main entrance was barred when we were there, and a crane appeared to facilitate an inspection or repair of any possible damage above incurred during the recent severe tremors.

Despite floods, fire, earthquakes and general sinking of the foundation, the church has remained steadfast in its determination to occupy the symbolic location in the heart of the city. As the huge capital city drained the water table, the cathedral continued to sink. Work to rectify that in the 1990s required extensive excavation. The successful stabilization project revealed ancient treasures, discussed here in a post-to-come.

The rather substantial first-class relics of San Vital housed in the glass case reside at the front of a gated chapel filled with portions of numerous saints. I am confused about whether these belonged at one time (until about the year of 304) to San Vitale, whose bones we first became acquainted with in the Cathedral of Bologna where they are enshrined combined with some of those of Saint Agricola. Or were they originally part of San Vitale who was buried alive, probably about the same time, for his faith in Ravenna, on the spot where a basilica now stands in his honor? Or someone entirely different?

Outside of the main chapel of reliquaries, unbeknownst to us, life-size wax statues of saints contain secret stashes of more human relics recently revealed via digital X-rays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Anyway, I’m totally uncertain of what causes this particular San Vital is in charge. But surely relics of this size are pretty potent, so go ahead. Pray for his help for anything.

Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Saints to answer any prayer

Not only is there a church on almost every corner in Puebla, but they are filled with saints to meet almost every need imaginable.

One often reads about the fall in the number of Catholics in Mexico, but maybe many simply don’t have time to devote attending a full Mass. Leave a church unlocked during the day, and there is always someone dropping by for a quick prayer for help with some difficulty encountered in life.

Catholicism in Mexico, or in all of South America and Europe, is a totally different animal from the religion of my childhood. I find myself mesmerized by the magical mysticism permeating their churches.

Sure we had incense wafting about at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Star of the Sea, but, beyond that, things were pretty tame. There were Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s offered aplenty. But, when we were growing up, we pretty much missed out on the more than 10,000 saints hovering above waiting to answer our prayers.

If I’d only known. I mean, how many times would I have turned to St. Anthony with help locating that lost homework or to St. Jude when I totally missed the teacher telling us about a test? Gladly, I would have parted with every charm on my bracelet if I’d known leaving them as milagros might improve outcomes.

So many people in Puebla pin their hopes on saints, tuck photos of loved ones near their favorites, leave flowers as thanks and light candles to brighten the chance their prayers will be heard.

Miracles might not always arrive, but maybe comfort does. Time alone thinking calmly in a pew might be what’s needed to face life’s everyday challenges.

Certainly viewing a statue of a saint in flames or Jesus suffering from his wounds diminishes the size of one’s own troubles.

Lest you jump to conclusions prematurely, the red guitar balloon was not left by the Mister. Although perhaps that presents a far less dicey alternative to going down to the crossroads.

But, if one is going to place faith in a balloon, of course there’s a saint for that. Bluesmen would best be served by leaving their tributes floating near the harp-bearing hands of Santa Cecilia.