Italy: Long and winding trail to a chant

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles missed out on what he wanted to hear in Montalcino, but what he saw made the trip worthwhile.

The scenic - but not very well marked - trail ends at the spectacular St Antimo Abbey. Photo / Jim Eagles
The scenic - but not very well marked - trail ends at the spectacular St Antimo Abbey. Photo / Jim Eagles

We were plodding wearily down the seemingly endless stony trail through the ancient forest when suddenly we got a first glimpse of the spectacular thousand-year-old tower of the Abbey of St Antimo peering above the trees.

A thick mist had covered the landscape for much of our walk - when it wasn't raining - but somehow the tower was bathed in a ray of sunshine and it shone out like a lighthouse amid a stormy sea.

Heartened by its appearance we strode out with renewed vigour and before long the abbey church was before us, its door invitingly open, the sounds of a service coming from inside.

Perhaps we would, after all, be in time to hear the Gregorian chant for which the monks of St Antimo's are famous.

We were. Just. When we tip-toed inside a small congregation was sitting in silence before three white-robed monks. The presiding monk said a few words in Italian, the other two sang a brief response which sounded to me very much like, "Aaaaaaamen". Then they rose to leave. The service was over.

A most un-monk-like curse rose to my lips as I thought of the appalling marking of the trail and unexpectedly bad weather which had caused us to arrive late.

We set out from the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino with plenty of time to make the 12km journey, on a trail we were assured was well marked and in cool, cloudy conditions ideal for walking.

Alas, we quickly discovered that the marking was patchy at best. Indeed, we would have missed the point where the actual track begins, branching off from an unsealed country lane, if we hadn't been for three fit young Americans on a self-guided walking tour who turned up as we stood wondering which of the five options to take.

"It doesn't mention a fork in the road," said their navigator, as she studied their instructions, "but it does say there should be a row of cypress trees on the left" - there was - "and the trail starts beside the third" - it did - "so let's go."

Foolishly we allowed them and their instructions to get ahead and as a result spent much time standing at unmarked junctions wondering which way to go, sometimes having to make a guess then turn back when the red-and-white symbol of the abbey trail did not appear after a few hundred metres.

Not that this was entirely wasted effort. Our diversions took us to lovely old stone villas, tempting wineries, peaceful tracts of forest - one of them with recent signs of the wild boar I planned to eat for dinner that night - and glorious vistas of the Tuscan landscape. It was delightful.

But then an added attraction arrived in the form of a thunderstorm with heavy black clouds, torrential rain, thunder and lightning. It certainly made the forest we were walking through at the time look even more primeval and mysterious. Unfortunately the rain also soaked through our parkas and sent us huddling under a couple of trees.

But we knew that while we would be able to visit the abbey church almost any time, the abbey itself was only open for a set period each day, and if we wanted to attend a service featuring the beautiful Gregorian chant we couldn't afford to dally.

So off we splashed through the rain which suddenly turned back into sun and then into rain and then mist, until finally we came over the ridge line and descended into the valley of the River Starcia in which the abbey lies.

First we saw the lovely hilltop village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, its stone buildings perched on high, then the abbey itself, sitting amid a grove of gnarled ancient olives surrounded by a field of ripening wheat.

But the delays on our journey had taken their toll. We were in time only to hear that one word chanted, the monks' quarters and their lovely gardens were closed for lunch, and the bookshop which sells their CDs also had its doors firmly shut.

But the church alone was well worth the effort. It dates back around 1700 years to a Roman villa which was converted into a chapel, expanded into a monastery and finally developed into an abbey housing the relics of St Antimo.

The present church is mostly about 800 years old, but its mixture of styles and the many unusual stone carvings testify to its long and fascinating history.

The spectacular sacristy, for instance, was originally a magnificent chapel said to have been built on the orders of the Emperor Charlemagne.

There are frescoes of St Benedict dating back 600 years. The interior stone carvings include a magnificent capital showing Daniel in the lions' den said to be 800 years old. Guarding the door are two worn but still ferocious lions which look even older.

The carvings on the outside look to have been assembled over centuries from many sources.

We could easily have browsed for hours but, unfortunately, another deadline was looming: our bus back to Montalcino.

As we climbed aboard - with the three Americans we had met at the start of our walk - a dog tried to join us on the bus. The driver seemed to ask whether it had come with us. No.

The Americans said it wasn't theirs but added, "I think it followed us from Montalcino." The driver laughed and indicated that the dog was always doing that.

Then he closed the door and drove off - with the dog loping behind. I guess it would be tired by the time it got home. But at least it got to the abbey in time to hear the chanting. Lucky dog.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has regular flights from Auckland to Rome, Frankfurt, London, Paris and Amsterdam via Hong Kong. For more information on fares or schedules, contact Cathay Pacific on 0800 800-454
Further information: Find out more about Montalcino and the surrounding district, here.

Jim Eagles got to Europe with help from Cathay Pacific, but paid his own way in Montalcino.

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