In 1706 Turin was invaded by the army of Luigi IV (Louis IV for most of us) who hoped to transform Piedmont into a French province during the War of Spanish Succession. He ran into fierce resistance from the troops of Duke Vittorio Amedeo II. The story tied to the Basilica di Superga goes like this:

On September 2, the Duke climbed into the hills above Turin to survey the field below. The city had been under siege for four months already. At a small church on top of the second highest hill, the Duke knelt before a statue of the Madonna and made a vow. If he won a victory against the French, he would erect a glorious temple to the Virgin on that very spot. I think you can figure out the rest. The Duke kept his promise.

Designed by Filippo Juvarra, the court architect who has left an indelible mark on Turin, the church was begun in 1717 and finished fourteen years later. This was accomplished only after demolishing the original church and lowering the hill by forty meters (130 feet) to make a large enough platform for the new church. We’re talking about a “hill” that would be a mountain in Australia. It is still 669 meters (2,195 feet) high.

The dome of the grand church is 65 meters (213 feet) high. To the rear of the basilica is an enormous monastery. Constructing such a monumental building in this particular location in the days of ox carts is absolutely staggering.

Together with a half dozen others, we had picked an absolutely miserable day to ascend the hill. It was cold, wet and foggy. The spectacular view that has been lauded by famous men throughout the centuries was nowhere to be seen. Still, there were young men on mountain bikes all geared up for a fast descent on the steep, winding road down the hill. I kept my fingers crossed that their brakes were in good repair.

As I looked out over the fog-filled valley, a question came to me: What’s wrong with this picture? Striking a bargain with God, a Duke decides to command the creation of a church on a high promontory above the city. But he doesn’t have to dig the foundation, lug the stones, make the bricks, cut the timbers. That is left up to his peasants, the sons of the soil. I’m miserable just standing here in my windproof fleece three hundred years later. What must it have been like to actually work on this? I can’t begin to imagine.

Getting up to the top was not even a chore. We had reached the summit easily on public transport. There was a long tram ride on the 15 across the city to the suburb of Sassi, then a rickety ride up the hill. A funicular had been constructed in 1884, then converted to an electric “rack” rail line in 1935.

With the exception of one chapel, the entire inside of the cathedral is now full of scaffolding. Three centuries of wintry weather and a lack of regular maintenance takes a toll. We contemplated a guided tour of the royal tombs of the House of Savoy, then decided to save it for another day. We simply have to come back for the view.

But there was a small cafeteria. And there, on the menu, the ideal drink for the cold, blustery day—hot chocolate. You can spend an entire life thinking you know what a thing is, then discover that you had no idea.  You had been taken in by poor substitutes all this time– thin, watery tasteless stuff. The frothy, delicious chocolate was absolutely heavenly, almost obscene in its rich sweetness.  So Italian.

Oh, mia Madonna! For heavenly hot chocolate like that, what vow could I bring myself to make? What homage to the angel who brought such stuff to earth. Another glorious cathedral? A statue?  An alter? Perhaps not.  But I would definitely light a candle.  Ciao for now.

Advertisements