Of Crocodiles and Shrivelled grapes (Secrets of the Veneto, Part 1)

When planning your trip to Italy, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Venice is the only place to visit in the Veneto. True, it’s the highlight of the region, and also its capital, but there’s a lot more going on here. Take the city of Vicenza, for example: did you know that this historic city is home to no fewer than 23 buildings designed by Andrea Palladio? But we leave the many and varied architectural treasures of Vicenza (which, by the way, is just a short train ride away from Venice) aside for the moment to draw your attention to other secrets of the Veneto, for no other reason than to demonstrate just how many they are once you look a little bit below the surface…

…and sometimes in the Veneto countryside. In little Povegliano Veronese, for example, there’s a little church called Madonna dell’Uva Secca – Our Lady of the Shrivelled Grapes. How did it get this name? The story goes that a man who once lived in the town owned a particularly fruitful grapevine. So bountiful was it that he often guarded it at night. One day an old woman (who may or may not have been Cher) passed by  and implored him to give her some so she could quench her thirst – but the man sent her away in a huff. Well, the vine shriveled up on the spot and fried in the Veneto sun. The greedy man was never heard from again, and the woman probably ended up at a wine bar in Venice, but the locals never forgot this sordid episiode of greed, and the church’s name stuck.

In the vicinity of Verona, in San Michele Extra, there’s a somewhat larger and quite lovely old church called the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Pace. And larger is good, because it’s not your ordinary chapel that can accommodate a 15-foot long stuffed crocodile. The one here was donated back in 1608 by Bianca Bevilacqua Lazise, having inherited it from an ancestor who took part in one of the Crusades. But another legend has it that the crocodile somehow made its way across the Mediterranean from Egypt, swam up the Adige River and began gobbling up small children and goats in the countryside around Zevio. No hunter could catch the feisty croc until a local girl, inspired by the Virgin Mary, floated the idea of digging a ditch and extending giant shishkebabs made from tree branches over it. The crocodile snapped at the chunks of meat, fell into the ditch and is now inside the church.

Crazy, right? Not so much: as modern a country as Italy is (and it is: just check out some Italy’s latest hi-tech flashy trains, which put Amtrak to shame), it is also a place where legends and lore are the stuff of everyday life. That’s part of what makes even a short stay in Italy so enchanting…no matter where you are, chances are people’s footsteps were on the same spot in ancient times – and that makes the modern ones all the more interesting.



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