Travel: Retreats - Old habits die hard

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The Independent Online
Pilchards for dinner, en suite cells with sex-defying single iron beds, lights out at 9.30 - and no whispering. Born-again atheist Michael Delahaye mortifies the flesh at the monastery of La Verna in Tuscany

Some years ago a magazine ran a competition for the most unlikely newspaper headline. The winner, as I recall, was "POPE ELOPES". It was with a similar sense of the incongruous that, just after Christmas, I asked my wife to book us a double room in a Franciscan monastery.

The Sanctuary of La Verna is between Florence and Urbino. Its claim to fame is that for a decade, between 1214 and 1224, St Francis was a regular visitor. But what makes this the second most important Franciscan site in the world, after Assisi, is that it was here the saint received the stigmata - the holes in his hands and feet in imitation of Christ's crucifixion.

Nearly 800 years later, La Verna is still a "working" monastery, with two dozen resident monks and a couple of nuns. And, in the age-old tradition of offering hospitality to weary pilgrims, it takes in paying guests.

For anyone who has ever wondered why holy places are so often high places, La Verna provides the answer - closer to Heaven and about as hard to reach. More than 4,000ft above sea level, the monastery is built on - and into - an extraordinary outcrop of rock. During the winter months it's literally lost in the clouds. As you approach through a forest dripping with moisture, up a series of increasingly tight switch-backs, it's hard not to feel like the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker in one of those early Dracula movies.

The night we arrived, Sister Priscilla was on reception, swathed in black anorak and white scarf. She referred to the bookings list... "Ah, numero ventisei".

Room 26 turned out to be an "en suite cell", 10ft by 10, with a pair of single beds; shower and lavatory. It was clean and adequate, although during the night my wife was to develop a peculiar devotion to the cast- iron radiator. On the back of the door was an injunction against whispering and giggling after 10pm.

For a number of reasons, this is not a place for honeymoon couples. All beds are narrow and chastely single. Hic hankum nullum pankum. Indeed, only in recent years have married couples been allowed to share rooms, although in our case Sister Priscilla had the delicacy not to demand documentary proof.

For anyone more familiar with hotels, the biggest problem is protocol. Should you say grace before eating? (Optional) Do you tip a nun? (No) Or do you discreetly drop a couple of coins into the offertory box? (That'll do nicely. God bless.)

Nor should you expect too much in the culinary department. The Franciscans, it soon becomes clear, are not a gastronomic order. Turning over our place- cards at dinner, we were heartened to see "vitello ai ferri" and "anitra arrosto" on the menu. This, we told ourselves, would be a meal to remember.

At this point something like a miracle occurred as the grilled veal and roast duck were transformed into a hard boiled egg, a slice of cheese and half a pilchard. OK, so a fish was once the secret sign of Christianity - but, Madonna, a pilchard?

When we pointed to the back of the place-card, our server shook his head: "That's the summer menu. This is winter." A diner at the next table murmured "Buon appetito", thoughtfully adding, "Good hunger."

Dinner over, we were about to settle in with a compensatory glass of the monastery's excellent Lamponi - a diabolically tempting 33 per cent proof raspberry liqueur - when we were sent to bed. Lights out, doors locked, heating off. Buona Notte. It was 9.30pm.

None of this is to diminish the extraordinary power of the place. You might even argue it helps concentrate the mind. La Verna is Gethsemane without the coaches; Lourdes minus the plaster knick-knackery.

As a born-again atheist, I'm hardly qualified to judge but I've no doubt that anyone seeking the "spirit of St Francis" is more likely to find it here than at Assisi (of which my clearest memory is buying our daughter a plastic globe of St Francis in a snow storm). It's a chastening experience to open the door on one of the sanctuary's many chapels, guidebook in hand, camera cocked, to discover a cowled monk kneeling, still as a statue, in silent prayer.

The morning of our second day, I woke to the sound of bells. Leaving my wife still incanting a fitful "Shiver me cloisters", I skipped the 7am service and set off in the mist for La Penna, the mountain peak where St Francis and his brethren used to meditate and pray.

Visibility was down to 20 yards. As I climbed through the forest of pine and beech, the only sound was the occasional crack of gunfire from hunters in the valley below. St Francis would certainly not have approved.

This is not a walk for unsupervised children. At the very top there is a cross and, one pace beyond, a vertiginous drop of several hundred feet - an invitation, if ever there was one, to step into eternity. Walking back by a different route, you come upon a succession of tiny stone chapels. The most charming is that of the Blessed John - a Franciscan brother who, centuries before tree-hugging became fashionable, spent his days praying in front of a giant beech. When the tree died, the chapel with its low- walled courtyard was built in its place.

Back in the monastery, there are more than a dozen della Robbia glazed reliefs. The best is in the Basilica - a stunning Annunciation by Andrea della Robbia. In the Chapel of the Blessed Stigmata, before a Crucifixion by Andrea, you can see the stone on which St Francis received his wounds.

You don't have to be religious to appreciate La Verna, but it probably helps. If, as a bonus, you fancy a foretaste of Purgatory, make the trip in winter. On the other hand, it's telling that St Francis himself seems to have come here only during the summer months.

Santuario della Verna, 52010 Chiusi della Verna, la Toscana (00 39 575 5341) Full board: 62,000 lire per person (approx pounds 22)