Madonna del Ghisallo, a Pilgrammage

DREAMS PLANTED

I don’t know when or how I ever heard about the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel. Like those rare, quiet thoughts that end up as thundering epiphanies, I found it lingering in my conscious years ago not knowing what it meant or if I’d ever make sense of why the name sent me dreaming. I’d never been to Italy and had no idea where Lake Como was, although from what I’d heard it was a playground for the rich and famous, which left me no business being there. My mom’s family is Italian and we spent Sundays eating multiple courses of my grandmother’s homemade meals and falling asleep on her couch, but there were no vacations to the motherland. I was a cyclist living in America who grew up in a sports culture defined by the World Series and Super Bowl, but on my own I’d pour over the biweekly VeloNews newspaper and watching ninety minutes of Wide World of Sports on Sundays each July. Europe was another planet, a fairytale land of mysterious languages and passionate riders and fans who breathed the sport I loved. 

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IT'S NEVER ACCORDING TO PLAN

In 2011 to celebrate my fourth decade I sent a dart into a map of Italy and picked two places to visit and ride. I was a European neophyte and thought “How hard could it be?” American college kids half my age backpacked around Europe as a rite of passage. Friends ensured me that everyone in Italy spoke English. The trains are so easy. You’ll have the time of your life! Make sure you get a ride on a red Vespa scooter! When I landed in Verona I was immediately schooled on how easily it is to fuck up by getting into the wrong hotel shuttle and almost ending up a few hours from where I should have been. Luckily I had my itinerary printed out and the driver immediately turned back to the airport. Then I tried to give him a 50 euro tip (again, luckily he refused). Needless to say I didn’t wander far from the hotel without a guide. At night I analyzed my map and calculated I was only 200 kilometers from the chapel, but the chasm between us was filled to the rim with my anxiety: nefarious villains lurking in the alleyways and trains I would board that would take me away to the ends of the earth. I stayed with my safe itinerary and hotel hosts and pocketed away thoughts of the chapel until another visit when I was smarter and more resilient.

IT STARTED WITH A PENDANT

For Christmas this year after all the presents were unwrapped and the last cup of coffee poured, my grandmother gave me a small package yet to be opened. I was surprised and gently pulled off the glittery paper. A velvet box sat in my hand. I opened it slowly and from within a small silver pendant peered back at me - the Madonna del Ghisallo. Maybe I’d mentioned such a gift like this to my mother before, but I was so shocked and happy to see the divine necklace in front of me. My grandmother smiled and pointed out an inscription on the back, and that she had the pendant blessed by her priest, too. She asked if I liked it (YES!) and if I’d wear it (YESYES!) and she laughed at how silly I must have seemed.

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PLANS IN PLACE

A few weeks into the New Year serendipity intervened. Emails flew among a group of friends to plan a cycling vacation in Italy that spring. The trip would center in Tuscany, but the quiet, guiding voice in my head got louder. Its momentum drove me forward to plan an extra four days of cycling in Lake Como at the beginning of my trip, with the chapel as my must-do destination. The small cadre of cyclists on the Internet who had ridden in this area all favored a family-owned hotel that welcomed cyclists, provided rental bikes, and even guides to ensure we enjoyed a full day of riding. And the hotel - Il Perlo Panorama - was right on the famous climb to the Ghisallo chapel. Frequent flier miles were turned in, a shuttle from Milan was reserved. countless emails to the ever patient hotel proprietors, Carlo and his Mamma, were sent to finalize logistics. I was on my way.

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CHASING GABRIELE

Day 2 in Italy, I woke up at 5 a.m. like it was Christmas morning, giddy to finally ride in this glorious playground. Our view of the lake from the room beckoned us to discover its shorelines and mountains. After a gluttonous European buffet had settled in our stomachs, my friend and I geared up in the parking lot for our first ride, waiting to our guide to arrive. Carlo, the hotel owner, asked what we might be up for. I explained that we usually do 3 hour rides, but the Seattle hills were no where near the height of the surrounding climbs. Seeing that we’d just flown in the day before, I expected our first day on the bikes to be an easy local ride to stretch the legs. Oh no. Welcome to Lago di Como. This is your guide, Gabriele, who won a stage of the Giro d’Italia and wore the pink jersey.

In the parking lot of Il Perlo our group agreed on a ride to the chapel (biting my lip to contain my excitement) and then depending on how we felt, on to the legendary Muro di Sormano. I’m a huge fan of photographers Jered and Ashley Gruber and I knew of the Muro from their fantastic video montageof Ashley climbing the dreaded Muro set to a very appropriate song. I had no intention of climbing something so steep (1.5 km, average 17%, max 25%), but you can’t be in the area and not experience some of the unique cycling history in Lombardia. Just 24 hours after arriving in Italy we would be riding a Ghisallo-Muro double pilgrimage, every cyclist’s dream, both within a short ride from where we slept.

Like every destination in Lake Como (or Italy for that matter), there is a climb involved. But rather than take the direct, 10km climb from Il Perlo straight up to the chapel, we went the longer, backside route starting with a spin along the beautiful, gentle eastern arm of Lake Como. A narrow ribbon of road wound south by the colorful houses of Bellagio then between tall granite walls on one side the gentle lapping lake on the other. Drivers of small Italian cars were patient, never aggressive, which was unimaginable to anyone coming from the States. In less than 15 minutes on spinning you knew you had found a cycling wonderland. 

In Osso you turn right to begin the gentle five kilometer switchback climb to Valbrona, where views of the lake open below you and a memorial to the beloved Pantani reminds you that you are, in fact, cycling in Italy. Once you’ve warmed up with the climb, the small village of Valbrona nestled in a tree-lined valley is a mandatory water fountain and social stop. Continuing through the valley you approach Asso, then turn north past the Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro, the village of Barni, up a gentle climb through the final village of Magreglio and then over a rise where the small chapel comes into view, quietly, like she’s been waiting for you all along.

THE GHISALLO-MURO DOUBLE

We parked our bikes in front of the chapel staring in awe at what was in front of us. Was the Madonna del Ghisallo really there? It was all so surreal! Before we could wake from the dream we removed our helmets and entered the door to marvel at all the pieces of cycling history collected on the walls: the championship jerseys up to the ceiling, plaques and memorabilia lining the walls, and then the altar itself safely protected behind an ornate gate. I wanted to stay for hours and examine every piece, to sit in wonder, but there was more to see today. Next to the chapel is a statue for fallen cyclists, so detailed with jersey buttons and facial expressions of defeat. The park includes the Cycling Museum, which we saved for another time, but there’s always time for espresso at the Ghisallo Cafe and chat with two old locals eating their paninis. I marveled at the number of cyclists stopping at the park mid-day. This piece of paradise was their lunch ride.

The second half of our pilgrimage was the Muro di Sormano. We left the chapel and rode south through the valley towards Asso, but turned right to begin the long climb to the village of Sormano. Slow, steady. Nurturing our jet-lagged legs to continue the pursuit upward. Fortunately ignorance and exuberance can make up for any lack of fitness or strength. The entrance to the Muro begins with a roadside sign like you’re entering a state park, with a short downhill through a ravine. It’s so quaint! How could it have such a menacing reputation? But then it goes straight up. And up. And you see the painted markings for each meter of ascent, the times of pros who traveled so much faster than you, the Italian quotations that no one should be made to do such an impossible climb. 

And so we walked. And tried again. And walked. It finally became less brutal to push the pedals over than walk in cycling shoes and stretch the calves into unnatural contortions. Finally at the top, a view of the valley opens below and there is a sign marking the pass, which every rider should pose in front of once completing the climb. We rode down the other side of the ridge towards Nesso, a 13KM descent also in Il Lombardia, full of switchbacks and rotten pavement. I couldn’t imagine the pros racing this in the pouring rain with barely a touch of their brakes. The undulating road back north to Bellagio seemed so flat, and we were mesmerized by all we’d seen and ridden in just a few hours. 

The next 3 days in Lake Como were over too quickly. There was a rain day with mandatory shopping for colorful and luxurious Como silk scarves, another gorgeous ride through valleys with new friends, and one last visit to the chapel and to say so long, but not goodbye.

A LITTLE VOICE GETS LOUDER

On our last day in Lake Como we took the small ferry to Varenna to catch the train south. It was time to meet the rest of our friends in Lucca for more cycling adventures. However, only a few days after arriving I couldn’t shake the idea - no the compulsion - to return to Lake Como before I left Italy. Something was pulling me back, that I had to see it again before I boarded the Boeing 777 home. My original plan was to be in Lucca for 10 days then 3 days in Milan, but I changed them all to spend the last 5 days back at Il Perlo. It’s not typical of me to be so spontaneous, especially with a non-refundable hotel in Milan, but I didn’t care. I emailed Carlo with my idea and to see if there was room. As usual, he was thrilled to host a newfound friend and more than willing to accommodate me. I counted the days until I left Tuscany, not knowing what I’d find back in Lake Como, but with open heart and mind ready to find out.

Ghisallo e bici

Ghisallo e bici

Jill Greco Bodnar