Many of my travels begin with a book. In this case it was a book called An Irreverent Curiosity that I found for fifty cents outside my local library. The cover features a cheesy naked cherub on the front. It follows the story of a man named David Farley, an agnostic in New York City who is fascinated by Catholic relics. The Catholic church has its share of odd relics. For example, one of the small churches in Italy claims to have a vial of Mary’s breast milk.
This fascination with the weirdest of relics brings him to Calcata, a minuscule village about thirty miles north of Rome. Calcata has its own claim to fame in the weird important religious item department. Its small faded church was once home to Jesus’ foreskin. His foreskin. Apparently for some reason, Mama Mary must have kept his foreskin and then a couple thousand years later, this random oddball town in Italy got a hold of it. Naturally, I was fascinated by this book and his account of living in this small dilapidated town literally built on the side of a mountain.
In the book he never finds where the foreskin went, though rumor has it the Vatican stole it from the town and has it locked somewhere in their deep chambers. And so as I created my list for what I want to do in Italy, before the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel and everything else, I wrote Calcata.
And so one one morning towards the end of my trip with my grandparents Connie and Michael and their friend Cathy, we landed in the little town, hot and tired. Calcata looks like a fairytale village, complete with cobblestone roads, painted awnings and signs that read “Town Witch” and “Peter Pan and Tinkerbell are welcome to rest here.” It is a crumbling town; the roofs are covered in satellite dishes and radio wires and it’s beautiful.
We begin walking up the hill towards the middle of town. A young women stops us and asks us where we are going. She is American and immediately recognizes us as tourists. Her name is Clara and she is interning in Italy with Vatican Radio this summer. She asks if she can follow us, to which I readily agree.
We wind up at the La Sala, a tea shop that sells more than a hundred types of tea. We each select a cold pot of tea and a slice of cake and sit up on the patio of tea shop, overlooking the cliffs. As we watch, cat by cat slinks by. The owner explains that only one of them is hers, but they all come here to lounge and sleep on warm wood of her patio.
We wander through the town until we come upon a slight woman standing outside what appears to be a cave. She begins chattering enthusiastically to us, motioning wildly to us to come in, come in. We look at each other, confused, and Clara begins talking to her in rapid-fire Italian. Clara tells us to follow her, that she wants to show us her museum.
We’re game for adventure and so we follow her into her “museum” which is really a very dark, cold cave filled with large paper mache dolls and bottles. Clara translates the lady’s Italian for me. She says residents used to keep their winter food in this cellar, and something about mining. It doesn’t make much sense and the lady leads us to a very deep, very steep and dark packed-dirt staircase. I can barely make out what is at the bottom. I’m worried she will try to convince us to go to the bottom of it, but she continues chattering. Clara admits quietly to me that she doesn’t really understand what exactly the woman is saying. We thank her and back away from the staircase. She notices our hesitation and so instead she leads us to her much brighter cave-free art studio. We all breathe in relief and politely look at her sculptures.
We explore the small town for hours, through its slanted streets and cobblestone. I buy a little leather bag from a man who makes beautiful masks and proudly points out his vial of water from the Gange river in India. We stop and sit for a while and Clara teaches me bits of Italian I don’t understand and explains parts of Catholicism to me. Clara and I wander off from the group.
We enter the derelict church that once housed Jesus’ foreskin. I ask her if she knows this. She doesn’t and she clearly shifts with obvious discomfort, which only makes me giggle. There is a smoke-damaged fresco on one of the walls; I can’t make out the faces. But Clara stands transfixed in front of it, and whispers, “It’s so beautiful.” “I can’t see it,” I whisper back. But she doesn’t respond. I like to imagine what she might have seen in the damaged fresco. As we leave the church, she dips her fingers in the holy water and crosses herself.
We enter back into the sun. It is now late afternoon. I have not met any of the characters in An Irreverent Curiosity. I haven’t even heard anything about Jesus’ foreskin. It’s been a beautiful day but it doesn’t feel complete. A book led me here, yet I have heard and seen nothing of the book itself.
But as Clara and I begin to go back down the hill, Connie appears behind us, panting. “Hannah, what is the name of that character you loved in the book, the one you wanted to meet?” “Pancho!” I say. “I just met him; he wants to meet you!” She says excitedly. I laugh and pull Clara with us. Connie leads us to another cave, the inside of this cave filled with bright tiles and beautiful blue mosaic.