At the beginning of our trip we came up with some simple rules for our road trips: Avoid motorways whenever possible, try new roads, mingle with the locals, if we feel uneasy move and stop driving before dark (to find a good place to park the van). Not exactly revolutionary concepts, but they have defined how we have travelled across Europe.
Today, we chose a Tuscan road less travelled. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t and today, it paid off. The landscape of rolling hills and fields of wheat surrounded our motorhome. Farmers are out tending to their fields, cutting the wheat and preparing them for bale. Other sights are few, though the countryside, as ever, is liberally sprinkled with Romanesque churches and inspiringly placed farmhouses and cypress groves.
We look in the distance the landscape resembles a sort of crater, with the volcanic like appearance and deep, steep cuts in the hillside. I have the feeling, as I stand in the middle of a field of swaying wheat with the odd scattering of distant poplars. That there was a time when these bare hills must have supported a small empire. What was so different then? The power and influence that came from Etruscan settlement? These landscapes certainly get you thinking.
We make our way through the baked landscape to the small village of Asciano. We park just outside the town and then take a slow stroll to the centre. It is hot and sticky and our pace is zapped. Flip flops no longer flip just flop and the heat turned them to jelly. Mac n Tosh and wilting too and it doesn’t take them long to suss out the shade is a lot cooler. We walk up the main street with half a dozen local market stalls lining the cobbles. Sadly, no punters today and clearly a tiring day for all, as most of the sellers snooze under the exhausting heat (click to enlarge the images).
Despite the heat Tosh wants a game of ball. I give in to his puppy dog eyes and wagging tail. We play ball on a small field in between running under the apple tree for shade. After about 20 minutes Tosh is panting like mad but his love for ball is relentless. In the end, I take him inside before he exhausts himself. Whilst Tosh recovers, I take Mac for a walk on the field. He has no interest in playing ball and would rather sniff the tuffs and tree trunks. He has a potter and enjoys his time without Tosh.
We head south and off the beaten track. We climb up to the crater through pine trees and olive plantation. To the finest and most striking of the Benedictine abbey’s in the area, Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Another half hour’s drive along the road and then a side track up into the crater landscape. We park on the volcanic like ledge, squeezed between towering cypress trees. Our view over the valley in untouched and unspoilt. The rest of the afternoon, we sit, read and admire the view. One of the most peaceful and natural places this trip. Day dreaming took on a whole new meaning until the sun set then star gazing took over. A day, of views to remember for ever.
Our Bumble wild motorhome sleepy spot at GPS position: for N043.179498, E011.545866
The next day, we eat breakfast on our little terrace with wonderful valley views, the land of the mightily cypress trees. To our left, a steep and abrupt ridge. Behind the wall of trees hides the monastery, the tips of the bell tower just peer above the tree line. You wouldn’t know there is anything there but for the chime of the morning bells. After breakfast, we set off on our walk to the abbey.
Five minutes down the road and a sign directs you up a dirt path. At the top, a private car park and and archway. We turn right under the arch and the courtyard that opens out is spacious and decorated with summer flowers. Its still early and we are the first visitors of the day. The entrance tower, now a restaurant, has a calm but organised feel as the staff prepare for lunch.
High stone walls rise and guide you further in to the abbey complex. The walls are covered in ivy and flowers, a natural and untended feel. A rather mighty but gradual slope of stone steps leads to the main church and abbey quarters. Along the way we pass an abandoned and overgrown roman bath. It somehow feels out of place for the abbey and equally, feels such a shame to be left to decay.
A simple and open cobbled courtyard with a grand white statue of Giovanni Tolomei, the founder of the monastery. The abbey entrance is flanked by intricate brick pillars followed by carved figure heads and an old map of the complex. As we walked down the corridor, the sound of Gregorian chant escaped through the slightly ajar church door. We stayed outside on the cloisters and admired the art work. Pillars, arches, walls and ceiling adored with beautiful frescos. We spent ages gazing over the detailed scenes and completely forgot about the church. By the time we entered the church mass was over and it was time for the organ to be fine tuned. A monk and an organ tuner tweaked and re-tweaked the pipes. After about 10 minutes it was time to exit before the tuning drove us a wee mad.
Towards the rear of the cloister the dining room. We peered down the corridor and we could see one of the monks preparing the tables. We watched him methodically set each place. He was slow and precise. This combined with the peaceful and artistic setting was rather mesmerising. By the time I snapped out of the trance Craig had well gone. He’d made his way through the conservatory and up in library, stacked with ancient books. At the end of the grand room a collection of old pharmacy apparatus and to the right, the abbey museum.
At the entrance to the library, a quiet chap offers you information about the abbey. He reminded me a bit of Richard Attenborough, small and quietly spoken. He told us about the small community of Benedictine monks live in the abbey. Their lifestyle has not changed for centuries. I think he said around 12 monks currently in residence but they can house up to around 40. The monastery was completed in the early 16th century. They live by the ancient motto: “Ora et Labora”, “Pray and Work”. Their time is divided between the three great pillars of monastic life: prayer, sacred readings and manual work.
We take one more look around the cloisters before heading out to the courtyard. In a strange way it reminded us of our time in Meteora, Greece.
The monastery has 850 hectares of land: woods, fields, olive groves, and vineyards. The monks farm the land using traditional methods with the utmost respect for the environment. They grow spelt, wheat, barley, oats, beans, chickpeas truffles. They also make excellent wine, grappa and a famous liqueur, which ancient recipe calls for 23 local herbs.
Their wine and olive shop is located around the corner from the church entrance. Here the very friendly shop assistant provides you with fascinating facts and information about the abbey. He also walks you through the abbey wine cellar and the ancient barrels and wine press. Whilst most people popped their head in the door and left within minutes, we stayed for a good hour. His oozed passion for Italy and we were more than happy to listen and learn.
We slowly saunter back to Vin and spend the afternoon walking Mac n Tosh. Who thoroughly enjoyed running around the Tuscan countryside. What will tomorrow bring? We are debating between countryside and beach and really not sure what to do!