Summer 2014 will be remembered for its nightmarish weather here in Italy. July and August have never been so rainy and unpredictable. As it always happens in unexpected situations, there is a loser party that lacks business and customers and a winner one that enjoys an off-season exploit. Book shops have, probably, experienced a great increase in sales, not only on behalf of holiday makers, but also from a huge army of disgruntled ladies in search of relax during chilly, overcast days with a book instead of laying on the beach or taking a ride in the park. That was the time when I grabbed the Cathedral of the Sea, by Ildefonso Falcones, a book which had for far too long stayed on my bookshelf, after my husband was finished with it. Without finding the right time, and always postponing the start with different runarounds: too long, too binding, too much!

This is a historical novel, taking place in 14th century Barcelona in the time of the Inquisition and stretching itself on the long timeline of construction of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral as the background to the story. At the time of narration, the Doria family in Genoa was engaged in several battles against the Spanish crown for the control over the Mediterranean traffic and was building a watch tower next to an old Benedictine monastery, in the so called bay of San Fruttuoso, often witnessing pirates incursions and assaults to lay hold of the natural spring of water, with which they could supply their fleet. Andrea Doria would set control over the crystalline cove nestled at the foot of the Mount of Portofino and was inhabited for almost a thousand years by monks. When approaching San Fruttuoso by ferry (which is the only way along with a quite challenging hiking trail to access this magical place) you get the same striking impression that pirates, lords, clergymen or fishermen got in front of this imposing white-stone building standing out of the emerald blue sea with the dark green pine trees in the background.

Despite the buzzing crowd of tourists cooping in the small pebble beach overlooking the marina, my sight was completely captured by the astonishing beauty of the abbey that looked as if pulled down from the sky and embedded in the rock. While sitting at the small restaurant table along the pathway leading to the Doria’s tower, savoring the local seafood treats, I could not help thinking of intriguing story of the place. As the ‘Cathedral of the Sea’ whose set was in Spain, San Fruttuoso legend says that the bishop of Tarragona, fleeing Arab invaded Spain, chose the bay for shelter and built a church where he buried the relics of the martyr San Fruttuoso. An angel had, in fact, instructed him to find a place where a natural spring was protected by a dragon, the story of whom was reported by the fishermen, who, together with monks were the only dwellers of the bay.

It seems that the legend helped the fishermen in preserving their inheritance of the place as they have remained the only native presence here: colorful gozzos are stored under the abbey foundations, together with long picturesque nets.

After almost 500 years of neglect, the absence of monks to take care of the church and its buildings, floods and fires, it was not until 2004 that the abbey could be visited, thanks to the careful restoration carried out by FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) after its donation by the princes Doria Pamphilj.

San Fruttuoso is the Italian cathedral by the sea, whose trifora windows allow magical glimpse of the sea, where the salty smell of fishing boats and pine trees penetrate the cloisters, where the lulling sound of the sea follows every single step you take and where the magic of this place stands behind every corner, behind every window, under the ground which is still origin for a soft water spring…no longer protected by a dragon, but by the clever attempts of a no-profit organization.

Further information at FAI official site