Abandoned religious sites across Italy are enjoying new lives as peaceful retreats offering succour to the soul and body, says Silvia Marchetti.
‘All rich people are simply the administrators of wealth for the poor. They should hand over their worldly possessions to those in need. Life without charity is useless, it’s like beating the air.’
So says Father Paolo as he sells me a bottle of fine herb liqueur made by his fellow monks at Casamari Abbey, south of Rome. The friary regularly opens its doors to sinners longing for a spiritual retreat and willing to give up modern comforts for a week. You get to pray with monks at dusk and attend Latin mass featuring Gregorian chants.
Surely this is the best way to enjoy a soul-cleansing detox break during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which was inaugurated by Pope Francis and grants indulgences for the remission of sins if certain steps are followed: passage under a Holy Door, confession, absolution and Eucharist. Of course, for all this to work one must be fully repentant.
But if a sojourn at Casamari, with all its strict rules, might prove a little tough, there are other, more worldly options in Italy for ‘mystic stays’ in search of peace and meditation. Abandoned convents, ashrams, crypts and sites linked to martyrdoms and pilgrimages have been restyled into elegant boutique resorts offering physical regeneration, be it either divine food or hot baths.
Monastero Santo Spirito is a light-filled, ‘lay’ monastery located in the Abruzzi’s rugged hills. Built in the 13th century by Cistercian monks, it flourished under the enlightened rule of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, becoming one of the country’s most important religious centres. ‘My husband and I are the first to inhabit this place since it was abandoned in the 1660s,’ says operator Cristina Sordini. ‘You can feel a powerful energy vibrate through your body and soul.’
The monastery features just twelve friar cells turned into fashionable rooms, with ancient wooden furniture and hand-made linen bed sheets. There are Byzantine-style frescoes, a permanent archaeological exhibition, and a loggia overlooking the snow-capped Gran Sasso mountain, which becomes ablaze at sunset. Yoga sessions are held at dawn on the terrace. Silence and magic rule. Spooky Templar Knights’ symbols and alchemic-esoteric images decorate the walls.
Guests will live a half-real monastic experience in understated luxury. Dinner is served inside the refectory and ranges from Michelin-starred dishes to a humble lentil soup. You spend the time meditating and walking to the tiny rock crypt, which was the first nucleus of the ashram. Here are buried the relics of various saints, blessed men and martyrs, and the pull of the place is so strong that guests don’t tend to go anywhere else.
An alternative to a cloistered retreat, allowing sightseeing and gastronomy shopping, is the ‘diffuse hotel’ Sotto Le Stelle, a Renaissance abbot’s palace that spreads out across the tiny medieval hamlet of Picinisco in the Comino Valley, for centuries a crossroads for bandits, pilgrims, saints, popes and shepherds, and famous for its gourmet meat and cheese. The six apartment suites, with balconies jutting out of the original village walls, used to host monks, bishops, and believers during their pilgrimage to the Madonna di Canneto sanctuary, one of Europe’s most ancient spiritual journeys.
Every August thousands of pilgrims gather in Picinisco and walk across woods and dense forests to the ashram, which rose from the ashes of a pagan temple and features a Jubilee Holy Door. There’s always been a spiritual allure here, favoured by the surrounding mountain scenery. It is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor, thirsty shepherd
girl and made her drink from the palm of her hand. The ring she wore broke into millions of diamonds that fell inside a waterfall where Pope John Paul II liked to pray.
There’s a sleek, gigantic Mac computer in each suite, where a typical pilgrim’s breakfast is served by village ladies: tasty pecorino cheese with home-made mulberry and fig jams, and fresh ricotta topped with acacia honey. The 130m2 ‘Abbot’s House’ features three bedrooms. The panoramic terrace and garden overlook this misty ‘Valley of Faith’ dotted with churches, crumbly convents and Italy’s most important Benedictine monasteries. A patch of land over which St Peter roamed and where Dominican friar and philosopher St Thomas Aquinas was born, it was already sacred to early men, who chose it as a place of worship and burial.
‘Picinisco has been blessed by God: it was the only town in the valley to be spared by pirates in the Middle Ages,’ says local Monsignor Antonello Dionigi. ‘San Lorenzo created a huge ghost army and the Saracens fled.’ Frescoed Madonnas and images of Jesus decorate the narrow alleys of the villa, and at Easter a living Passion is enacted with a Christ-actor tied to a cross.
At the end of a mystical hiking tour, the Sotto Le Stelle’s concierge will serve in-suite dinner with horse carpaccio and black pig salami. The wi-fi doesn’t work well, but that can count towards qualifying as a detox break.
If one prefers a totally unplugged spiritual weekend, with zero mobile coverage, Borgo di Carpiano, in St Francis’s Umbria, is the perfect destination. Rising in the middle of nowhere, it is an isolated, former ghost parish brought back from the grave and restyled as a village resort of stone dwellings. There’s no paved road leading here, just a bumpy country path. It’s not even mapped. A huge cross greets visitors at the entrance, while an infinity salt pool sits atop an old cemetery. This place has a divine origin: it was built by the father of Saint Ubald, the patron saint of Gubbio. For centuries it was a vibrant farm led by fiery bishops.
As I step into the lobby I’m not sure whether I should make the sign of the cross, for it is a church with blue marble columns, frescoes and Florentine tapestries that has been turned into a cocktail lounge and reading corner. I’m served a welcome Martini below the altar, on a plush red velvet sofa. It feels almost blasphemous. Resting, eating and drinking are the main activities.
Forget fasting. Meals are far from frugal: elaborate fried porcini, duck carpaccio and creamy burrata are part of a seven-course tasting menu that will tempt palates. The rooms have double showers covered in old majolicas, and the former snow cellar is a wine canteen. The spa is in a wooden gazebo surrounded by nature, while the ‘outdoor’ gym has circular paths for use as treadmills. Hammocks and sun beds nestle among olive groves, lavender and rosemary bushes.
Most of these holy places have always been slices of heaven on earth, but some were corners of hell that have now been purged of evil and transformed into mystic pampering spots.
The Relais Sant’Uffizio in Asti, in the wine-rich Piedmont region, used to be a Holy Inquisition tribunal in the 16th century, where heretics and witches were sentenced to death by Dominican inquisitors and burned alive in public piazzas. Today it is no longer a place of suffering but one where soul and body are soothed and taste buds stimulated. The relais boasts six hectares of Barbera vineyards and makes premium bottles which can be tasted at the Wine Theatre. You can also go on a truffle hunt with the restaurant’s chef.
Thinking of the place’s dark past, it does feel quite strange to relax in the spa and indulge in ancient body rituals invented by monks using magical potions of herbs, spices and flowers. The ‘Brushing of the Monastery’, for instance, uses cactus fibres to revitalise skin microcirculation. It might, too, sound disquieting to sleep in the ‘Paul III’ deluxe suite, named after the pope who founded the Inquisition, but its glass bathroom ceiling and ancient icons make it by far the most prestigious room.