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Sant'Antimo Abbey Siena Tuscany
Sant'Antimo abbey near Montalcino

You don't have to be a catholic to remain spellbound by the eternal beauty of the Sant'Antimo abbey. The Tuscan church and monastery can turn a stubborn skeptic into a reborn spiritual. At least for the time of the visit. 

Sant'Antimo abbey is one of Tuscany's most beautiful examples of Romanesque architecture and was one of the most powerful monasteries around Siena in the medieval ages. The works on the originally benedictine monastery started in 1118 and ended in 1260 (without the convent having ever been finished). Life at the abbey can't have been to bad. At least to judge from the fact that the abbot who looked over the monastery in the 15th century his abbot was put into prison for lewd behavior. From there on things kept going downhill. Renaissance Pope Pius II decided to close Sant'Antimo down in 1462. He was turning his birth town Corsignano into Pienza and needed to expand the territory for his nephew - the bishop of the newborn town!

The monastery started to crumble, but never lost its splendor even though the crypt was used as a wine cellar and the church as a shed by the farmers who inhabited the convent buildings in the 19th century (I kind of envy them). 

In the 1980s efforts were made to restore the church and return Sant'Antimo to spiritual life. Today, after a break of more than 500 years, a small community of around 8 canon regulars from France and Italy lives and prays at Sant'Antimo. Vespers and mess are accompanied by Gregorian chants and are open to the public (as long as you don't disturb). The church is surrounded by olive trees and fields and one single cypress tree bears testimony to a thoughtful monk (or farmer?) who planted it right next to the monastery's bell tower. The man knew what he was doing. 

The famous cypress tree competing with the bell tower at Sant'Antimo abbey
San'Antimo abbey and its cypress tree

Vespers and mass with Gregorian chanting take place seven times a day. For the timing of the vespers and mass at Sant'Antimo consult the website of the monastery 

If you have time leave your car up in Castelnuovo dell'Abate and walk down to the abbey. Walking towards and around Sant'Antimo puts everything into  perspective, as part of the abbey's beauty comes down to how its positioned in the valley. You can leave the car right after the turn off to Castelnuovo dell'Abate. Follow along the road down into the valley and after exploring the church follow the signs to the boy scout's campground from where a small track leads up back towards Castelnuovo. It's a simple walk and as parking at Sant'Antimo is rather expensive you can even save a few bucks by leaving your car up in town. 

Sant'Antimo abbey in spring. Seen from the road that leads to Montalcino.
The Tuscan hills around Sant'Antimo 

Eating out: Castelnuovo dell'Abate is a lovely village for a stroll around. There is an old-fashioned 'Alimentari' (food store) up in town, where you can get a proper Tuscan sandwich. Sit down next to the town wall and take in the fabulous view towards Castello La Velona (a castle turned into a five star hotel and spa) and Mount Amiata. The quality of the two restaurants in Castelnuovo isn't great, but Osteria Bassomondo (at the crossroad on via Bassomondo) does deliver the Tuscan experience, as long as you stick to simple things, like a few slices of Pecorino cheese and Tuscan Prosiutto, obviously all of it accompanied by a glass of the local red wine. Service isn't at its friendliest, but the bar has atmosphere. 

If you want to tie in a winery visit, try L'UCCELLIERA, one of my favorite estates in Montalcino, which is a short walk from the abbey (check location on our Montalcino winery map). However you may want to bring your car if you plan on buying some wine. Other options are Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona (a bigger estate a bit further along the dirt road towards Sant'Angelo in Colle). You may also want to check out Mastrojanni, which is run by the coffee producing Illy family (I've got a soft spot for their Rosso di Montalcino) and Poggio di Sotto, which keeps getting top scores for its - very expensive - organic Brunellos.  

Hikers will enjoy the signed out walk that leads from Montalcino (partly through the woods) to Sant'Antimo. The fantastic views are well worth the effort. Ask for a map and further details at Montalcino's tourist office. If you want to do only the first part of the walk, also ask for the time table of the few daily buses that connect Castelnuovo dell'Abate with Montalcino. 

Art and history aficionados can find a well researched account of the abbeys history and detailed pictures of Sant'Antimo's architectural layout here

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