Finding Peace in Serra San Bruno
Nestled in the mountains of Vibo Valentia is the quaint historical town of Serra San Bruno. Although the town, named after Saint Bruno of Cologne, is perhaps most famously known for its namesake's tomb and adjacent church, there are many other things to see that make it a lovely place to explore, many of which are tied to the Catholic Church.
Nestled in the mountains of Vibo Valentia is the quaint historical town of Serra San Bruno. Although the town, named after Saint Bruno of Cologne, is perhaps most famously known for its namesake's shrine and the adjacent church, there are nonetheless many other things to see here that make the area a must-see. We left from our cousins' house in Vazzano, where my grandmother and I were staying, early in the morning to arrive in Serra San Bruno before the town began to get busier. Although the day was rather overcast, despite the threat of rain, the clouds fortunately held out. We were able to have an amazing time exploring the town without getting wet!
We began our morning wanderings by driving straight through the town to the outskirts, parking in a lot belonging to the Natural Regional Park of Serre. We were umbrellaed by the shade of young beeches and pine, as well as centuries-old fir trees with newly grown, bright green needles sprinkled at the tips of its wizened branches. Across the road were more towering trees, outstretched around the Pond of Atonement, pictured above, which was nestled in the midst of it.
The large pond featured fountains of water spurting out from springs within the depths of the earth beneath Serra San Bruno, pooling around a central shrine topped by a crucifix. Nearby, a plaque read (translated from the original Italian): "the pond is reminiscent of the legend, in which St. Bruno did penance and prayed in this water." Indeed, off-centre from the shrine, to the right, you will find a statue of St. Bruno submerged in the water holding a bouquet of flowers, which is refreshed regularly by locals. Thus, this body of water's name — the "Pond of Atonement" — seems quite fitting.
To the left of the pond, you will find a beautiful granite stairway slightly overgrown with grass and the occasional wildflower. These steps were constructed in the 1950s by the town’s last stonemasons. These lead up to the Santuario di Santa Maria nel Bosco (the Sanctuary of Saint Mary of Bosco), a lovely yet simple holy space built upon the twelfth century ruins of the old church ordered by St. Bruno to gather the monks in prayer; sadly, the original was destroyed in a 1783 earthquake.
However, upon entering the church, you will find some key elements to admire, including relics from the original Charterhouse (or Carthusian monastery) lining the yellow and white walls, a nineteenth century wooden statue depicting St. Mary, and, along the aisle toward the alter, the bones of Saint Bruno's companions and successors, all of whom passed away between the years 1091 and 1193. This ossuary is protected by a square of foggy and scratched plexiglass, which one must kneel down to see through clearly. Some of these individuals would have known the saint well, while others would have devoted their lives to him in the years after his death without ever having met him. All of them, however, were tied by a shared faith.
As mentioned previously, St. Bruno of Cologne spent the last ten years of his life in Serra San Bruno, eventually dying there in 1101. He was the founder of the Carthusian Order of monks in 1084, located in France, in the Valley of Chartreuse. It was because of a friendship with Pope Urban II, a previous pupil of his, that he agreed to travel to Italy to work as an advisor to the papacy. While in Italy, he established the Carthusians of Calabria, but nonetheless was intent on rejoining his brethren in southeastern France as quickly as possible. This was never to be, and St. Bruno remained in Calabria until his death. In fact, he has since been regarded at the patron saint of entire region.
Across the way from the Sanctuary, you will find the final resting place of St. Bruno. His tomb is located on what was once a personal refuge to him while in the area, but was also thoroughly destroyed in the same 1783 earthquake that brought the original adjacent church to ruins. Despite this, you can still see the remains of the original spot, including two sets of stone steps, the remainder of a red brick wall, and some pillars now supported by iron bars to keep them from toppling over.
As my cousins admired the façade of the Sanctuary, I walked up the seemingly ancient steps of St. Bruno's tomb and closed my eyes. With this quiet pause, I could hear the symphony of hundreds of birds chirping in the trees surrounding me, the rush of the wind rustling the branches, and the near-silent exhalations of my breath with each passing second.
When I opened my eyes, I peered through the black wrought iron gate and into the airy upper level of the crypt. Directly ahead is a white marble statue of a lounging St. Bruno with a skull positioned in front of him, near his propped up elbow. He sits within a shallow alcove, with lanterns hanging around the mouth of it and a large wooden cross centred directly above his body. Above, centred on the ceiling of the tomb's interior, is a large black wrought iron chandelier with delicate roses made of the same metal. Below it, you can clearly see the entrance to the subterranean tomb where the saint's remains have been permanently laid to rest.
Once we felt that we had well explored the hilltop of the Sanctuary and tomb, we returned down the steps and walked back to the car. Next, we would drive to Piazzale Santo Stefano to see the famed Certosa di Santo Stefano di Serra San Bruno (the Serra San Bruno Charterhouse of Saint Stephen).
Built in 1095 by St. Bruno, the town's namesake would eventually die here just six years later. The cloistered monks at this Charterhouse remain within the monastery's walls from the moment that they take their oath to God until their deaths. During this life of devotion, they have rigidly structured days filled with silent contemplation and prayer. That is, they opt from their own volition to remain behind the medieval walls of the monastery and never interact with anyone outside of the religious order. It has been this way since St. Bruno first erected the monastery centuries ago, and it appears that it will remain so forever.
Though the actual monastery is obviously not open to the public, visitors still have a chance to gain a better idea of what life is like in a Charterhouse by exploring the attached museum. Depending on what time of day you are meandering through, you may have the chance to hear the solemn yet enchanting voices of the monks rising through the stillness next door; when I heard their songs, goosebumps immediately covered my arms and sent the hairs on the back of my neck upright. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. With the perfumes of the garden's flowers carrying on the crisp air of a spring breeze, nothing seems more peaceful than this.
If you opt to tour the museum for a small admission fee, you will be granted access to twenty-two rooms overflowing with detailed information describing the customs of the monastic life of the Carthusian monks. This includes a glimpse into what a typical monk's private bedchamber looks like, artefacts (such as dinnerware), and access to the tended gardens. In fact, the gardens are visible for free just upon entering the entrance of the courtyard; though you cannot explore the area in depth, you are nonetheless able to see the natural beauty of the enclosed space.
As a fun additional fact about the Charterhouse: Pope St. John Paul II visited the monastery on October 5, 1984, on the eve of the feast of St. Bruno. During this same visit to Serra San Bruno, he also paid tribute to the late saint at his aforementioned tomb (of which there is a photo of this event, framed behind the locked gate).
As well, whether you pay for the tour or not, visitors have the chance to walk into a small chapel located in the monastery's ancient sixteenth century tower, called Cappella di Crocifisso (Chapel of the Crucifix). Though small, the chapel is the perfect place to pause a moment in silent contemplation. If not in prayer, then in silent admiration for the incredible work that went into building the Charterhouse, for the unwavering devotion of the men behind its walls, and for the sheer fact that you are in one of the prettiest towns having an absolutely amazing time getting better acquainted with it.
That being said, be sure to walk around the perimeter of the monastery to admire the magnificent stonework of the enclosing walls and towers. You will also have a chance to see some cows grazing in the field opposite of the winding path. I spent a while leaning over the wooden fence and calling out to the cows, hoping that they would come towards me so that I could admire them from a closer proximity. Unfortunately I had no such luck, and they continued to graze lazily while eyeing me and my large camera lens with the utmost suspicion.
As we turned back to return to the car, we noticed that there is also a small gift shop not far from the museum's entrance, which sells a variety of religious items such as rosaries, crucifixes, and statuettes, but also caramele (candies), locally made preserves, oil paintings, jewellery, and postcards. It really was a great spot to peruse for anything that you could possibly want from the town, in terms of souvenirs to bring back home.
Now that we had seen the most important sights outside of the central town of Serra San Bruno, we returned to the car to see what interesting things the 'downtown' (if that's even what you can call it) had to offer.
Within the centre of Serra San Bruno, you will find a plethora of streets curving and interconnecting with one another, veins extending outward from the heart of the town. In taking the time to explore each and every one of these streets to the best of your ability, you will find a seemingly endless supply of stunning doors to take in, all unique and exhibiting their own individual personalities (so to speak). From brightly coloured plastered exterior walls, to stained glass windows stretched over the top of a door, to painted wood with engravings weathered by time, there is something special about each that will catch your eye and leave you wanting to discover even more.
I've included a few of my very favourites that I happened upon during my walk, in the collage directly below.
However, it goes beyond just fronts and architectural details that make the town so magnificent. It's the friendly people who smile at you as you pass by their store, the smell of fresh food wafting from a restaurant's open window, the children who greet you with a nod and friendly "buongiorno" as you cross paths. It's the fact that holly here grows year-round (Christmastime forever!), that you are consistently visually stimulated, that friendly dogs wander the streets looking for a gentle pat on the head from passerby. It's a place that would seem overly romanticized to hear about from another person had you not visited yourself, as if it was not entirely true. But yet... it is.
This is how a typical weekday morning in Serra San Bruno panned out for my family and I, seeming as if we ourselves were locals just wandering in and out of churches and enjoying the loveliness of the quaint town we could call our own. Really, we were not much different from those living here — we cherished our time here as much as any native would appreciate the fine details of their own home.
Our first real exploration of central Serra San Bruno's historical beauty was a church that was smaller in terms of size (compared to the massive basilicas and cathedrals that you see in large cities), but lavishly grand when considering the intricate details of both the exterior and interior of the building.
Chiesa di Maria Santissima dei Sette Dolori, or dell'Addolorata (the Church of Holy Mary of Seven Sorrows, or Our Lady of Sorrows), was a peaceful place to enter. With no one inside the space but us, we passed through beneath the granite blocks comprising the late Baroque portal of this 1721 church. Inside, you are swept up instantaneously in the fine details of it all, from the spacious narthex up to the alter encircled by tiny crystal chandeliers.
Turning your attention to the vaulted ceilings, you are instantly captivated by sizeable crystal chandeliers and floral, scripted moulding cascading toward the centre of the curved roof with bits of gilded accents. Each step taken deeper into the church creates a soft echo as the soles of your shoes pad along the diamond-tiled floors.
When you turn to exit Our Lady of Sorrows, you are met by the sight of the grand organ resting atop the upper level balcony. Beneath it are the massive wooden doors granting entry for passing parishioners and tourists, and an exit for those who have completed their quiet prayer or have attended a mass. Over the door reads, in Latin: Ave Regina Coelorum, "Hail Queen of Heaven".
Once we exited, we walked around the immediate area a while more, to see even more of what made the town unique. Perhaps because it was midday and people were mostly at work, as the day went on, Serra San Bruno seemed to become increasingly quiet. It wasn't until around noon when the younger children began to flow into the streets from nearby schools for their lunch break, crowding around the war memorial in the small square by the Church of Saint Blaise to socialize and enjoy a freshly made panino.
Though this is not much different from the actions of a school-aged group of children back home, something about seeing children (or anyone, frankly) go about their daily lives while I'm on my travels is so intriguing to me. I love to see how they interact with one another, listen to what they talk about. I love to see how they act and what they choose to eat. I love to listen to the sound of other people's voices lifting high above the three- and four-storey houses and buildings of the town to ring and echo down connecting streets. Simply put, I just love being somewhere new and finding a way to make the experience completely distinctive. Idiosyncratic, even.
We deepened our morning of immersion within Chiesa di San Biagio (Church of Saint Blaise), located at Via San Biagio and Via Fiume. You'll know that you have walked up to the correct church when you find its bright yellow neighbour directly beside it (pictured above).
Though the church does not appear massive when sizing it up from the street, it opens up to a shocking series of aisles and tucked away niches once you walk through the front door. Many of these niches are initially obscured, only becoming visible when you walk to the furthermost aisle on either side of the nave and make your way to the opposite end of the hall.
Though St. Bruno is known as the patron saint of Calabria and is the namesake of the municipality, St. Blaise is patron saint of Serra San Bruno itself. Thus, this building serves as the mother church to its churchgoing locals. When you take into account the sheer grandeur and space inhabited by the holy space, this fact is undeniable. The structure of the building was formed using local granite and the entirety was designed by a Serrese (Serra San Bruno inhabitant) architect by the name of Biagio Scaramuzzino. He stopped work on the church when it was only half-completed, leaving a second local architect, Salomone Barillari, to pick up where he left off during the late 1800s. Today, you can appreciate the completed majesty of the church in all of its glory, from its smooth stone façade, to the two marble angels (engraved in the seventeenth century) gifted from the nearby Charterhouse, to stained glass windows throughout rendering the Catholic Church's most recent popes.
Though the vaulted ceilings are far simpler than the Church of Holy Mary of Seven Sorrows, the perimeter of the church is much more intricate, thanks to its many decorated niches. Each features a saint that one can stop and pray to, including St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457), an Italian widow and Augustinian nun who had been married off as a child bride before the age of twelve to a husband who was murdered just eighteen years later. You can learn more about the interesting life that she lived by clicking here.
Deciding that it was time to part ways with Serra San Bruno was difficult. Though we had seen all of the municipality's main attractions, I parted with the knowledge that regardless of how thoroughly you feel that you have explored a place, there is always something new to see. However, I reminded myself that this was a town close to my family and I can always return on my next visit to Calabria.
With pangs of hunger, we decided to return to the car and head back in the direction of home; we would come to stop at a restaurant along the way, in a small mountain village called Spadola, bordering Serra San Bruno. Trattoria da Rosa was our culinary oasis, the place where we would fill our bellies to last until later that night for our evening meal. Run by the Gagliardi family, this trattoria is the oldest in the town, continuously in operation since 1974. The most exciting part (which I had not even realized until I stepped foot into the warm and welcoming interior of the restaurant) was that the menu revolved primarily around one ingredient: fresh porcini mushrooms.
The eatery was relatively empty when we arrived during off-time (and off-season), with only a couple of other people finishing up their meals before we even ordered our wine. At the suggestion of the waiter and after deliberating amongst ourselves, we opted for a rosé to quench our thirst after a long morning of exploring Serra San Bruno. In the collage above, on the left, you can see the relief on the faces of me, my grandmother, and our cousins as we finally had a moment to sit down and decide on something to eat. Naturally, the wine was a nice bonus.
We began with a large antipasto platter, featuring squares of a flaky pastry filled with fresh vegetables, sautéed potatoes with red and green sweet pepper, pieces of ricotta and pecorino cheeses, green olives, and porcini mushrooms marinated in olive oil. With the two baskets of bread placed in the centre of our table, it was nearly impossible to ration my servings and save room for my actual meal, which I had also just ordered. You know that saying "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach"? That's basically me, during every single restaurant outing on every single trip that I take. How can I turn down good European food?
My entrée, pictured on the right, was the tagliatelle ai funghi porcini, made with tagliatelle pasta (as you can, of course, imagine), porcini mushrooms, garlic, black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. Like our appetizer platter, each bite from my meal made me stop a few moments to let each forkful sit on my tongue while savouring the rich palate. It was delicious and it was flavourful, and it felt as if there were angels dancing in my mouth.
Eating at Trattoria da Rosa truly was the icing on the metaphorical cake of our time in the municipality of Serra San Bruno. There is nothing quite as wonderful as ending an amazing day of taking in an old town's beautiful architecture and culture than with a delicious meal to fill your belly and satiate you fully, all the way home.
How do you like to end a day of sightseeing? Let us know in the comments!
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