The beautiful hilltown of Loreto, in Italy’s Marche region, is said to attract about four million pilgrims a year.

But when my son and I visited on a rainy January day this year, most of the shops were shuttered, and we had the town and its spectacular basilica almost entirely to ourselves.

We were returning to Rome from an indoor track competition in nearby Ancona and didn’t want to miss seeing Loreto.

It was certainly an unusual first visit to this shrine, which is usually thronged with thousands upon thousands of visitors who are no longer make their way to the basilica due to the Corona virus travel restrictions.

Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan

The faithful flock here to see the Holy House (Santa Casa) of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that Mary’s birthplace home was flown “by angels” from Nazareth to Ancona in December 1294.

This more romantic depiction is countered by scholars, who believe the home was transported by sea in ships operated by the Crusaders. The “Holy House” was believed to have been removed from the Holy Lands following expulsion of the Christians by Muslims.

These scholars believe they can trace the Holy House’s journey first to Trsat, in modern-day Croatia in 1291 and onward to Loreto in December 1294.

Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan

Studies have been carried out on the stones of the house that appears to be consistent with work of the Nabataeans of the region, including graffiti on display under glass said to be consistent with other markings found by archaeologists in the Holy Land, and specifically Nazareth, at the time.

The interior of the Holy House contains a statue of Our Lady, the “Black Madonna”, the color caused by centuries of smoke from oil lamps and candles. The original statue dated from the 14th century and was destroyed by fire in 1921. The current statue is a replica created in 1922 from wood from a Lebanese cedar that grew in the Vatican gardens.

You will see countless Black Madonna replicas sold as souvenirs around town – or at least we noticed them in the windows of the numerous closed tourist shops around town.

Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan

The stunning white marble structure adorning the exterior of the Santa Casa was carved in 1444 -1514 following a design created by Bramante.

The basilica itself was built under Pope Paul II (1417-1471). Work initiated in 1469, and its design as a church-fortress reflects the fear of Ottoman raids that began a year earlier along the Adriatic coast. Many of the best architects of the era worked on creating the basilica that has become such an important pilgrimage site to the faithful over the centuries.

Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan

There is much more to see in the town once it is again open to wider tourism. Loreto is also the birthplace of the Italian poet Leopardi and the town hosts an art gallery and a flight museum (all closed during our visit).

Although we will definitely return, it was special to visit this holy sanctuary for the first time and to have it almost to ourselves.

Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan
Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan
Loreto, Marche, Italy/ Kimberly Sullivan