The clouds thicken overnight and we wake to a low grey overcast. Plans for a morning expedition are thwarted as the rain begins. This afternoon we decided to make a second attempt at the hike we tried earlier this week. We have been confounded by the fact that the only map we possess is of such a large scale that it is difficult to make out the secondary roads and trails. It takes a bit of guesswork when we are hiking, and so far, our guesses about the proper direction to take have not produced a tangible result.
We are trying to reach the church of Madonna delle querce (Lady of the Oaks) for no other reason than our guidebook claims it is a pleasant walk. Once, again, vague map in hand, we hike down our road. With an unsupported burst of confidence, we take a different turn at the intersection that had already led us astray, and press on for new vistas. We are deep in wine country by now, strolling through rows of yellowing vines. One row of vines still has purple grapes clinging to it, but the rest have already been stripped bare, off to the presses of Montepulciano.
Our interpretation of the dodgy map is rewarded by the appearance of the church. It is an odd-looking edifice—the upper story windows have lace curtains in them and there is a satellite dish bolted onto one side. Nevertheless, it appears to be a functioning house of God, although, since the doors are locked, we are unable to confirm this through direct observation.
This is unfortunate, for the church is reputed to be the site of a miracle that we are eager to see. In the dark past, the land around Montepulciano was densely forested. These woods were haunted by witches, satanists, and other denizens of the dark side. On June 6, 1690, a man named Antonio di Giulio Rossi was riding through the woods at night and encountered a group engaged in the practice of their black arts. His horse, spooked by the spirits, threw Antonio and he was dashed to the ground. The next day, local peasants found him and bore him back to Montepulciano where he recovered from his harrowing ordeal.
Antonio resolved to drive the demons and their worshipers from the forest so he placed a plaster icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the hollow of an oak tree, near the spot where he had been waylaid. The icon's presence proved efficacious, and the dark forces were expelled from the area. To thank the Virgin Mary for this miraculous cleansing, Antonio decided to replace the crude plaster image with a piece of art more worthy of the Virgin. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that he was unable to remove the plaster statue from the embrace of the oak tree. Some mysterious force bound it to the trunk, and no one was able to pry it free. Axes were reputedly broken when men tried to chop the tree. Eventually a church (Madonna della querce) was built around the tree, and the trunk of the tree and the plaster statue may still be found inside.
Well, we were greatly saddened that we were unable to see this ourselves, and had to content ourselves with a less miraculous walk in the hazy sun (which was trying to burn through the overcast). We turned back toward Montepulciano, walking along a narrow road bordered by ancient shell beds. This area was once under a sea, and in the cut banks you can find white snail, clam, and scallop shells sticking out of the rich dirt.
We return to our flat near dinner time, and plot the next day's adventure. The Colonel (for some reason an Italian Air Force colonel gives the weather forecast on television) is calling for more clouds and rain tomorrow. We shall have to see.