TRAVEL: In Francis of Assisi's footsteps

La Verna, the monastery where St Francis received the Stigmata, is open to house guests. Lee Marshall enjoys monastic hospitality Tuscan- style
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The Independent Culture
"Silence!" exhorted the notice by the gate of La Verna monastery; "this is a place of meditation and prayer." "Cool!" came a shout from behind the high stone wall. So did a football. So, a few moments later, did a red-faced novice, breathlessly grateful to me for stopping the ball on its inexorable downward roll. When your monastery is perched on the edge of a sheer cliff, "out of play" can mean somewhere in the next village.

La Verna, which dominates the Casentino valley north of Arezzo in Tuscany, from a height of over 1,000m, is one of a number of Italian monasteries which have turned a centuries-old tradition of hospitality into an economic venture. When Saint Francis first passed this way in 1214, there were just the bare crags and a forest infested by wolves and brigands. Over the following ten years Francis and his followers started building: first with branches and leaves, and later with bricks and mortar. It was here that Francis was welcomed by a "great multitude" of birds, and here too that he received the Stigmata in 1224.

Today the monastery is a complex of ten chapels and holy spots - such as the fissure in the rocks where the Saint used to sleep when in need of a little mortification. These are connected by a network of corridors and courtyards, around which are the friars' quarters, the refectory, the stables and the old saw-mill, left over from the days when logging was an essential source of income.

After Assisi, this is Italy's most sacred Franciscan shrine. The 17 monks who live here spend their days in prayer, study and general housekeeping. They are joined by a varying number of novices, most of whom will go on to other monasteries at the end of the year (this year there are 11 - just enough for two five-a-side teams with one floating reserve). This hardy tribe is swelled, particularly on summer weekends, by the day- trippers who flock here in birdlike multitudes to look at the marvellous Della Robbia terracotta reliefs in the basilica, or to catch the photogenic three o'clock procession to the Chapel of the Stigmata. By half past six, when vespers are sung in the small, original chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, only the monks are left - plus a few smug house guests.

Anybody looking forward to a cold, bare cell with a straw mattress and a water-jug in the corner will be bitterly disappointed. Though the labyrinthine route to La Verna's guest wing takes you past some of the original cells - now used to house the monastery bookshop, the television room, and other communal spaces - the guest rooms themselves are warm and comfortable: most have en-suite bathrooms, and family rooms can be booked (though don't ask for a double bed - there aren't any.) If it weren't for the view and the Virgin above the bed, this could be a standard two-star hotel room.

Most of my fellow guests were individuals or family groups on private spiritual retreats; the monks see it as one of their duties to help Christians renew their faith by prescribing personalised regimes of meditation and prayer. More organised annual initiatives include a "course for young fiancees" in August and a three-day end-of-year retreat - plus, of course, the all-night Stigmata vigil on 16-17 September, when guest rooms are usually booked solid (it's good to have somewhere to crash out the morning after).

Increasing numbers of guests stay over at La Verna for two eminently secular reasons: the setting and the price. The place is a hotel-owner's dream. You can hear the brochure already: "A group of historic buildings nestling on the edge of the Casentino Forest Regional Park, ideal for walkers or those in search of complete rest and relaxation." Given the surroundings, the rates charged by the brothers for board and lodging are extremely competitive - even though, in view of the isolation of the place, it's full board or no board.

Padre Fiorenzo is the padre guardiano of La Verna: it is his job to manage the monastery's contacts with the outside world. He takes a practical attitude towards his paying guests, whatever their motives. "Now that the monastery is no longer self-sufficient, now that we no longer derive any income from timber, it is only natural that we should turn to small- scale tourism. La Verna is a priceless monument which is in constant need of repair, and we have to finance most of it ourselves."

While staying at La Verna, there is no obligation to follow the monastic routine: "We're not about to convert everyone who stays here; in fact, we have a long tradition of ecumenical outreach. We're happy if some of the sacredness of the place filters through." But has a holidaymaker never, as it were, stayed on? "Oh yes," he beams. "A young man from Rome is beginning his noviciate here next year; he first came as a visitor."

So it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation of jovial Padre Giordano to watch a video of The Life of Saint Anthony of Padua after dinner. Would there be questions afterwards? Would I be given a souvenir pencil if I got the answers right? Would they measure me up for a habit? It turned out to be quite an enjoyable romp, with the triple- chinned friar commenting on the salient points of the life of a saint who, as he pointed out with New Monk PC tact, "is also revered by Muslims and Hindus."

I'd been intending to get up at six-thirty the next morning to hear the monks intoning Mass. However, I slept through the matins bell. This may have had something to do with the small bottle of Alverne gin - an age- old recipe now farmed out to secular suppliers - which I had purchased in the refectory the day before. I had felt obliged to try it, in the interests of journalistic objectivity. It worked just fine.

! Bologna is the nearest airport to La Verna monastery; return flights from London with Alitalia (0171 602 7111) cost from pounds 176. From Bologna there are regular trains to nearby Arezzo. For further information contact the Italian State Tourist Office (0171 408 1254) at 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY.

HOW TO GET INTO THE HABIT

ITALY'S GOOD MONASTERY GUIDE

For those with a vacation rather than a vocation, the definitive guidebook is the Guida di Monasteri d'Italia - a sort of Holy Michelin. Travel writers Pietro Tarallo and Gian Maria Grasselli spotted a gap in the market three years ago. Their book, first published by Diemme of Casale Monferrato in 1994, is now in its second edition; so successful has it been that there is now a companion volume covering the whole of Europe (so far, though, both titles are available only in Italian).

Tarallo puts the growing fashion for monastic retreats down to the city dweller's desire to "pull out the plug" every so often. Though evidently a success with readers, the guide was not well received in some monastic quarters. "Some of the closed orders were reticent, and a few feared an invasion of the alien hordes - but most know from experience that the kind of people who choose a monastery break are not the Rimini disco brigade."

Some monasteries and nunneries rang to complain for another reason - because they had been left out. "I had a nun on the phone one day," says Tarallo, "incensed because we hadn't mentioned her order - which consisted of a handful of nuns in a single convent. We put that right in the new edition."

MONASTIC HOSPITALITY WITH STYLE

Tarallo singles out La Verna (see main story), nearby Camaldoli and Monte Oliveto Maggiore - all in Tuscany - as three of Italy's most comfortable and guest-oriented monasteries. But comfort is not the only criterion. A gastronomic convent-crawl might take in the delicious jam made by the closed-order Trappist nuns of Vitorchiano, near Viterbo, the top-class wines made by the monks of the Abbazia di Novacella in Italy's German-speaking region of Alto Adigo, and the gourmet specialities - which include the truly wicked "Mother of Peace" tagliolini - served by the Domenican nuns of Ripatransone, in the Italian Marches.

MORE THAN JAM AND VESPERS

Activity holidays at monasteries are also on offer, like the summer course in Gregorian chant held by the Benedictine monks of the Abbazia Madonna della Scala at Noci, near Bari in the heel of Italy. A stay at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice (at 2,473m, the highest monastery in Europe) is an activity holiday in itself. Only single travellers who make the slog up from the Italian or French side - as pilgrims once did - are put up in the monastery, rather than in one of two private hotels on the pass, and then only if they turn up between the snowbound months of May and October (so park the car well out of sight, and send the family along at five-minute intervals.) The famous Saint Bernard dogs no longer dispense wee drams from their barrels - to tell the truth, they never did - but they are still bred in the hospice, and you can even take one home with you (for 1,150 Swiss francs) if you book several months in advance.

OTHER DENOMINATIONS

"It's not just Catholic retreats that are experiencing a boom," says Tarallo, "or the Eastern religions which were all the rage in the Sixties. Russian and Greek Orthodox monasteries have been filling up again recently." He cites Mount Athos in Greece, the world's oldest continuous democracy (though it's really more of a theological androcracy, in that only male priests get to vote) and the only state still to run on the Julian calendar. Aspiring visitors (who must be male) must apply up to a year in advance, via the relevant consulate in Thessalonika, for a visitor's pass; only ten a day are issued.

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