The ancient pilgrim route weaved its way along the Stignano Valley between San Severo in the west and Monte Sant’Angelo, and until comparatively recently was the only road that linked the villages of the Gargano interior. With your own transport, it’s still a good route for exploring a couple of the region’s most important religious centres. If you want to follow any part of the pilgrim route by bus, you’ll have to plan your itinerary carefully and be prepared to travel in leisurely fashion.
Nestling under Monte Calvo, the highest peak hereabouts, San Giovanni Rotondo is a modern centre for pilgrimage on a massive scale: it’s the burial place of Padre Pio, a local priest who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002. Pio received the stigmata and won an immense following – especially among Italian Catholics – for his piety and legendary ability to heal the sick. Proof of his divinity was announced in 2008 when his body was exhumed and pronounced to be in good condition and without signs of the stigmata, forty years after his burial. Two years later, his jewel-encrusted, silver coffin was moved to his own golden crypt.
Padre Pio is hugely popular in Italy, and you’ll see his image – bearing an uncanny resemblance to the late John Peel – stuck on the walls of bars, shops and petrol stations throughout the south. A whole industry has grown up around him in San Giovanni Rotondo, fuelled by the seven million and more pilgrims who pass through every year, making it the most visited pilgrimage site in the world after Lourdes. In 2004, renowned architect Renzo Piano completed a striking new church, the shape of which resembles a large snail – its “shell” forming the roof and enveloping the pilgrims below. The town takes its name from the Rotonda di San Giovanni, a building of indeterminate origin on the edge of the old town – like the Tomba di Rotari, it’s thought to have been a baptistry, built on the site of an earlier pagan temple.