Friday, October 7, 2011

Abbeys and Fairs and Hilltowns

Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore
Our first full day in Tuscany was a day to hit the big stuff. Back in May, when Nathan and I brought my mom up to the region for a four day trip, we drove an area called Crete Sinese. Nathan quickly logged that route as a must-do via bicycle for it's classic, Tuscan views of rolling hills capped with the classic, Cypress trees. After dropping off the guys on the side of the road with their bicycles, Lisa and I headed toward the town of Asciano. With a glance at the time, we bypassed this charming looking town to head south to the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, which closed in early afternoon on Sundays. Our multitude of guidebooks had little to say about this monastery (Benedictine), founded in the 1300s, but we felt it would be a fun stop. And I have to say, this place might have been my favorite tourist type site of the whole week.
The monastery has it all - grand church (of which I only caught a glimpse), cloister with frescoes by famous folks, refectory with a big, Last Supper tapestry, library filled with really old books, wine cellar (where they sell wine and olive oil made by the monks), shop with more tisanes and potions made by the monks, peaceful grounds to walk (albeit, a somewhat steep hill), and a restaurant with great food. A mass was going on when we arrived, so I glimpsed the church from the back, then headed into the cloister to take a look at the frescoes covering all four walls, some of which were done by Cortona artist, Luca Signorelli, in the late 1400s. For anyone who hasn't gone over the Resources page of this blog, one of my favorite nonfiction books on Italy is Every Day in Tuscany by Frances Mayes. In it, she talks a lot about Luca Signorelli, so I was pleased to see some of his work up close (Note: I'm not sure if the fresco pictured above is one of Signorelli's). With closing time looming, I glanced about the church part quickly, then headed to the wine cellar while Lisa checked out the library. The buildings were beautiful, red brick and set into a hillside, and while we were a bit taken aback by the tour buses and cars lining the outside road, the monastery has done a great job of maintaining a place of peace and calm amidst masses of visitors.

After our lunch on the monastery grounds, we headed back to Asciano. It just looked too cute to skip, so even though we were now in mid-afternoon on a Sunday (which equals quiet, quiet, quiet), we took a spin through the pedestrian streets, lined with the traditional, stone and yellow buildings, shuttered up against the day's heat. We lucked into a little craft fair going on, although I think we were the only visitors. Still, this was my first craft fair that is more like what I'm used to from the U.S., so I enjoyed seeing what was on offer - mostly stuff that was way more expensive than either of us would pay...except for an enormous, handmade copper pot for 80euro that I'm regretting leaving by the wayside.

While in Asciano, we got a call from Nathan and Ted. They'd made it to the town of Buonconvento and had decided to stop riding. Nathan's goal for the day was to be sitting in Montalcino at the Fortezza (fortress) Wine Bar with a glass of Brunello, the traditional wine from the area around Montalcino. We all had the goal of then continuing on to another monastery, Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, this one described more extravagantly in our guidebooks. Buonconvento is a town with an itty, bitty walled section - the entire walled section is probably smaller than a respectable castle. But since we were there, it was a nice stop and a quick, 10 minute walk through town, complete with the stares of locals wondering what on earth we were doing there. On to Montalcino, we lucked into a parking spot, and soon realized the reason the town was hopping on a Sunday afternoon was the honey festival going on. A large tent set up in the Fortezza detracted from Nathan's anticipated view while sipping his Brunello, but meant we were able to pick up a jar of yummy honey.

Finally, a short drive south to Abbazia di Sant'Antimo took us to a lovely stop in the middle of the countryside. Set in a valley and surrounded with vineyard covered hills, Abbazia di Sant'Antimo has sat calmly through the ages. An oratory (chapel) was built here in 352, then the monastery in the 700s. The "new" church was started in the 1100s. Years of use were followed by years of decay until the Italian government restored the structure in the 1870s. While the monastery was formerly of the Benedictines, the Canons Regular now call this their religious home. The monks offer daily services of Gregorian chants, which we unfortunately missed. I can only imagine how those voices must fill the soaring, stone church and echo off the walls. While the service would have been a great end to our first day of vacation, we had a long drive home after a long day of touring around, and our cozy apartment awaited.
12th century Carving

No comments:

Post a Comment