Of the many types of churches that the Christian community has built over the course of the centuries, cave churches really stand out. Often built by some of the earliest Christian communities, they reveal precious insights into how early believers would gather to worship and pray. Not too far from the shores of Lake Verano, in the southern Italian region of Apulia, lies one of the best preserved yet least known cave churches of Europe.
Probably built in the 5th century, the cave church of St. Michael Archangel was excavated out of one of the limestone caverns that dot the peninsula that makes up the Gargano National Park in Apulia. As explained by travel blog Bewitched by Italy, during the 5th century, devotion to St. Michael was particularly strong in this region, with many shrines built in honor of the Archangel.
According to tradition, St. Michael descended from heaven and ordered the founding of the cave church. For centuries, St. Michael’s devotees from across Europe made the pilgrimage to this small cave church, something that is revealed by the “ex voto” signs carved on the floors. The tiny path that leads to the entrance to the cave hosts a towering statue of the saint, a reminder of the devotion of local believers.
The cave is 170 feet long and 22 feet tall, with a maximum width of 50-feet. Its walls are covered with the usual features of limestone caves, such as moss, stalagmites and stalactites, as well as signs of the cave’s centuries-old purpose: frescoes depicting religious images.
The best time of the year to visit this unusual church is probably May, when the feast commemorating St. Michael’s appearance takes place in Cagnano Varano. During the festival, locals walk from Cagnano Varano to the cave church in a ritual pilgrimage that has been going on for years.
Getting there: The cave is located along the coast of Lake Varano, a four minute drive from Cagnano Varano on the SS89 route. There is a small parking lot outside the church with a marked path that leads to the church entrance. Visitors are welcome Monday through Friday from 9 to 12 and from 3:30 to 6:30.