We arrived at the Fonte Avellana monastery in the Le Marche region late in the evening. The windy narrow road ran at the foot of the green Monte Catria. After one of many sharp bends, we suddenly found ourselves in front of a dimly lit large building. We could not see much, only stone walls with dark windows and the outline of the imposing mountain hovering above us.
A few hoots and screeches of night birds pierced the air, the crunch of the gravel under our feet, and then silence again. Brother Cesare, one of the monks living in Fonte Avellana, greeted us with a smile and showed the way to the refectory where plates with local cheese, cured meats, delicious salads and fresh fruit were lined up on a long table. What else a tired traveller would want at the end of a long day? A warm welcome, simple food and a roof above your head, – monasteries have perfected the art of hospitality for centuries.
After dinner, we were offered a tour of Fonte Avellana. Brother Cesare, who had lived in the monastery for twelve years, spoke in a low gentle voice telling us its story. A small group of hermits seeking quietude for their spiritual practices founded Fonte Avellana in the 10th century. It grew over time becoming an important centre of the Benedictine monastic order. The monks here made parchments from sheepskins and copied ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts. The scriptorium room where they worked is one of a few in Italy that have remained unchanged by time, undamaged by earthquakes and bombardments during the Second World War. The monastery was renovated a few years ago with utmost attention to historic details and many original details such an 11th century cloister, frescoes, some ceilings and floors were brought back to their original glory.Brother Cesare told us that the great Dante Alighieri might have stayed in Fonte Avellana, as the poet mentioned the Mount Catria and a hermitage at its foot in the Divine Comedy. We sat in the monastery’s chapel quietly and went to the main basilica to experience silence. Brother Cesare warned us that it was not for everyone but silence plays a big part in monks’ lives, so since we are here he invited us to try it. We sat still on pews, somebody thinking about their God, somebody curiously looking around. I was thinking about the overwhelming beauty of the monastery, the imposing Catria Mountain hanging over it, the people and centuries that these walls had seen. A few minutes passed, some of us exchanged glances looking for clues on what to do next. We understood what Cesare meant: this was the silence that bares your soul, the kind that requires solitude.
Today Fonte Avellana is home to nine Camaldolese monks, whose daily lives are filled with prayers and manual labour. They observe the monastic rules that might not be as harsh and burdensome as in the days of St. Romuald, who introduced the eremitical life into the West, yet strict and austere enough from a layman’s point of view: the monks raise before dawn, severe abstinence on bread and water has to be observed once a week, as well as two long annual Lents, total silence is required in certain parts of the building. However, days of isolation are long gone. The monastery has guest rooms, welcomes visitors for short tours five days a week, hosts exhibitions and concerts. Although, as Brother Cesare said, they are very fussy about the artists they let their space to. I noticed that on the New Year’s Eve, they have a jazz concert scheduled, “America in black and white”, with clarinet and piano. Clearly, it is not all about absolute asceticism and religion but rather spirituality.Early in the morning, before leaving, I went for a brief walk to see the botanic and vegetable gardens of the monastery. Fog was lingering in the valley below, birds were chirping, and squirrels chased each other on the trees. I am not religious but I loved the harmony and peace of Fonte Avellana and thought that I must come back for a “soul break”: to explore the hiking trails in the area, breath this clean mountain air and listen to the silence.
The Fonte Avellana monastery has guest rooms not only for believers but also for those, who are interested in monastery stays, experiencing monastic life and meditation.
Price: €60 full board (room, breakfast, lunch, dinner).
Email: foresteria(at)fonteavellana.it, tel: 0039 0721730261.
Featured photo by the Marche Tourism Board.
I visited Fonte Avellana on a blog tour along the Marche Spiritual Route organised by the Marche Tourism Board. All opinions expressed in the article are my own.