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San Giovanni Rotondo
San Giovanni Rotondo is a large town in Puglia, Italy, to the west of the Gargano peninsula. The town attracts around seven million pilgrims each year to visit the publicly-displayed tomb of Saint Padre Pio in the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. Padre Pio, a legendary healer and miracle worker, lived there in a modest cell for 52 years until his death.
The town’s name is reputed to come from an ancient circular temple on which the Lombards built a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It’s a town largely typecast by its religious sites, but its surrounding beauty should not be overlooked. Nearby is the attractive Gargano National Park and coast.
Unusually, the town centre is almost exclusively residential. In the old town you’ll find labyrinths of narrow pathways. The crops produced by the town are mainly wheat, oil, fish, fruit and vegetables. A typical dish may be orecchiette with tomato sauce, topped with grated local Canestrato cheese.
Despite the array of mouthwatering local dishes, visitors only usually come for one thing: the shrine of Padre Pio. Padre Pio arrived at the Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916 and called it home until his death in 1968. Enlightened stories about Saint Padre Pio include his ability to cure the sick, predict events, be in two places at once and develop Jesus-like stigmata on his hands.
In 2008, he was exhumed from his grave and placed on permanent display in the crypt of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. As his body had received partial decomposition, he was covered in robes and had a lifelike silicone mask applied to his face. The church is the second most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.
When Padre Pio arrived just before the First World War, it was a quiet and undiscovered village. However, its fortunes began to dramatically change throughout his life. Now, due to the income generated from the masses of annual tourists, its future is set for many more years to come. To take advantage of the numbers, a new church was built in 2004. Called ‘The Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church’ it was built in homage to the late Padre Pio. Designed by renowned worldwide architect Renzo Piano, the church can seat a huge 7,000 people.
The town is also home to Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (Home for the Relief of the Suffering), one of Europe’s most efficient scientific research hospitals. In the surrounding areas, the famed Monte Sant'Angelo sits with panoramic views across the water. Tourists can also visit and stay in the sprawling Foresta Umbrea, also within the Gargano National Park.
It is not possible to visit via train. Visitors must catch a train to Foggia station and then undertake a one-hour bus journey. You can also visit direct from Rome, which takes five hours in total. Once here, tourists can sample the fresh seafood and Mediterranean restaurants.