As we sat in the blackness of the Duomo, the only sounds were the indecipherable whisperings of some hundreds of churchgoers -- none visible in the cave-like darkness -- and the occasional scraping of metal folding chairs on the stone floor. It was Easter Vigil and we were here intentionally, and by accident.

Intentionally, because my family and I had come to Florence, one of Europe's great Renaissance cities, specifically for its Easter weekend activities. I have long loved the mystery of the church and its rites. We had come here to experience those on the holiest of Christian weekends. We wanted the sanctity and pageantry of Florence's Festa Pasqua.

By accident, because while walking around the massive church on this Saturday night, we'd spent a half-hour talking to a Scottish family at the Duomo's doors before realizing that a vigil was about to begin inside.

We entered the church, known officially as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, found three folding chairs and sat, waiting in the massive darkness.

After a half-hour or so, a noise, behind us. I craned my neck to the left and there, in the aisle about 20 yards away, a massive fire burst through the black, its sparks popping and hissing into the air, sending smoke toward the church's frescoed ceiling 75 feet above us. In the white light of the fire, we could see dozens of white-robed priests and bishops, dipping their candles into the flames.

Then they proceeded down the aisle, pausing to light the tiny candles we held, before taking their place near the altar of the church.

After songs and prayers were offered in the candlelit darkness, bright lights shattered the blackness above our heads, illuminating the church's famous dome, one of the world's largest. It was as if the Gates of Heaven themselves were thrown open, the painted saints and angels of the Last Judgment vivid after hours in darkness.

This was one of the moments we'd hoped for. But the mass would continue for hours yet. And long after my exhausted wife, Heidi, and son, Seamus, returned to the Florence apartment we had rented -- after seemingly endless readings in multiple languages -- I nearly stumbled out into the wee hours of a Tuscan morning. I would return to this church, and its Piazza Duomo, in only a few hours for Easter revelry.

Alone among thousands

That morning, I awoke and got dressed alone. Beret, our 16-year-old daughter, was comatose. Seamus slept. Heidi, too, wouldn't rouse. With some sadness, I kissed her goodbye and made my way down the several flights of stairs from the apartment to the narrow streets below.

In researching our trip, I'd found that Florence's festival is the largest in Italy. In addition to the sanctity of the vigil, there is an Easter Sunday pageant with white oxen pulling an ornate, fireworks-filled wooden wagon -- the "scoppio del carro" -- that the bishop ignites with a flaming, mechanical dove gliding down a wire. The whole thing commemorates a long-ago victory during the Crusades. This was where I was headed at about 8 a.m. Easter Sunday.

As it turned out, I got a late start.

As I moved into the piazza, I was one of a cast of perhaps 10,000 pushing their way to the front of the church. I squeezed and snaked as close as I could. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, front to back with my now very close Italian friends, I caught glimpses of dancers in colorful costumes, tossing vibrant banners into the air. Horns played and bells rang as the dancers circled in the space between the front of the church and the gorgeous doors of the Duomo's baptistry, only about 30 yards ahead of me. I could move no farther.

A tap on the arm

The hours passed slowly. I alternated raising one arm to take a picture with my digital camera, and another to capture video of the pageant. Fathers held children perched upon their shoulders. Lucky renters of apartments overlooking the piazza peered upon the scene while they held cups of cappuccino.

Standing there, legs and arms aching, I was at first motivated by Florence's pageantry. Later, I was driven by a stubborn unwillingness to leave before the fireworks began.

Then, chimes sounded. The dancing stopped. The crowd hushed. More long moments passed before the doors of the Duomo were thrown open and the dove ignited the wagon. A roar erupted as fireworks swirled and whistled, shooting into the air and filling the piazza with thick, blue, pink and gray smoke. Yet, in the midst of 10,000 people, I felt truly alone. If only my wife and children were here.

Then I felt a tap on my right arm.

It was Heidi. She'd come, somehow making her way through the same crowd; somehow finding me here. An Easter mystery. She still doesn't know how she came to the same spot in the packed piazza. But there she was, smiling, and she stayed with me for the rest of the day.

As the sparks ended, the almost sweetly scented smoke rose from the wagon toward the top of the Duomo. A woman in a blue jumpsuit shoveled what the oxen left behind.

Heidi held my hand as we watched the haze wisp away and the crowd begin to thin.

James Walsh • 651-298-1541