Each vineyard has its crucifix, each path its wayside shrine,
Where flowers adorn the Virgin’s brow, and crown the Child divine;
And few will pass those sacred spots without a lifted eye,
A crossing of the weary breast, a prayer, — at least a sigh.
John L. Stoddard – 1903
In a time when much of the modern world shies away from celebrating spiritual faith, South Tyrol stands apart. Tradition here is embraced and nourished. South Tyroleans maintain heartfelt respect for the solemn act of worship — cultivating a historic cultural garden through wayside shrines set among the most beautiful mountains in the world.
The preservation of centuries-old religious customs and symbols is one of South Tyrol’s more charming aspects. Travelers to this blessed land get to reap the benefits. You’ll take in sacred sights that can deeply move you as much as the immense beauty of the landscape.
To this day, South Tyroleans creatively express their faith through a custom born in Christianity’s earliest years. Ancient Rome’s persecution of the first Christians made the open construction of churches virtually impossible. In their place, the faithful erected small monuments with cryptic Christian symbols to conceal worship from Rome’s soldiers. These hidden “signposts” became the earliest Christian shrines.
When Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, decriminalized Christianity in 313 A.D. by issuing the Edict of Milan, mass persecution of Christians ended. Churches sprung up across Catholic Europe and the tradition of hidden shrines evolved into open illuminations of faith.
Each Path its Wayside Shrine
Today, one cannot wander in South Tyrol without encountering the sacred craftsmanship of wayside shrines. Whether we’re hiking a high mountain trail or meandering along a path in a valley, we always find them a delightful surprise. They seem to welcome you out of nowhere — poetically watching over the trail. Inviting a moment of prayer or reflection.
Set along paths, roads and nestled in quaint village nooks, South Tyrol’s wayside shrines come in countless shapes and sizes. No matter how big or small, simple or elaborate, local residents take great care to beautifully harmonize them with the natural surroundings.
Each is tenderly crafted from wood or stone. And within many you’ll find a crucifix or an image of the Madonna hauntingly expressed in various artistic forms. Some also bear rosaries, photographs and other thoughtfully-carved prayers and blessings. The faithful will even keep candles burning, softly lighting all that the shrine holds. Quite often native flowers spring from the foot of shrines intimately binding them with heaven and earth.
Finding South Tyrol’s Wayside Shrines
Whether your South Tyrolean adventures carry you to the heights of the Dolomites or through the bountiful orchards flourishing within valleys, you’ll come across shrines and crucifixes. Some of our favorites are along South Tyrol’s Waalwegs, ancient water channels that weave throughout the mountains and vineyards bestowing pure Alpine water from snow-capped peaks.
Even if your feet never leave the cobblestone streets of the many villages and hamlets sprinkled throughout the region, wayside shrines can often be found next to age-old churches and quaint gardens of local residents. Many homeowner also adorn the exterior of their homes with a wayside shrine near an entrance.
The wide array of wayside shrines in South Tyrol create fantastic moments to capture with your camera. South Tyrol’s mountains express many moods giving photography enthusiasts the ultimate canvas to work on. We particularly enjoy coming across shrines early in the morning when clouds are beginning to lift off the timbered slopes.
Bringing the Wayside Tradition to Your Home
You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to find South Tyrol’s wayside shrines enchanting. When you unexpectedly encounter one set among vines in a steep vineyard or deep within an Alpine forest, taking a moment to admire its beauty and the soulful devotion of the locals who safeguard the shrine is an reward unto itself.
For those that want to bring the peaceful sight of a wayside shrine into their home, many woodcarving shops located throughout the villages of Ortisei, Selva di Val Gardena and S. Christina in Val Gardena offer wayside shrines for sale. You can find shrines ready to be placed in your yard or garden or hung on a wall within your home. Thankfully, you do not need to worry about fitting one in your suitcase! Most shops will package and ship them abroad.
If you came across this article without knowing much about South Tyrol, take the time to discover what we consider Italy’s best-kept secret. Whether encountering a wayside shrine along a mountain trail or savoring authentic Alpine wine and cuisine from a local farm, the traditions of South Tyrol inspire a deep affection for the land and its people. A trip to this hidden gem in northern Italy stays in your heart for life.
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