Walking under a beautiful old arch towards the Santa Chiara monastery where we were staying for the night I looked up. The arch was covered in faded frescoes: barely visible, intricate dark green and brown leaves ran above my head. We were in Sassoferrato, a beautiful small town in Le Marche, full of hidden treasures. Anywhere I looked, I saw reminders of the days gone by: weathered wooden doors, worn down cobbles, wrought iron gates covered with age patina. Sister Elisa greeted us with a big smile and pushed the heavy old door open. She told us the story of the monastery founded in the 13th century by the Clarisses’ order, or “Poor Clares” as the nuns are often called because they have no personal possessions. The courtyard, the oldest part of the monastery, was adorned by pots with bright flowers and in the centre stood an old well decorated with fairy lights. The sisters turned it into a small fountain that is switched on for special occasions. Simple pleasures! Sister Elisa apologised that we had to walk through the back door and a maze of stairs to our rooms but we were happy to have a glance at the monasteries “backstage”: the garden with neat vegetable patches, gnarled apple trees, a plain kitchen, wooden boxes filled with fragrant apples lined up in a dark corridor.Later we went to see the neighbourhood and a delightful small diocesan museum with treasures from abandoned churches in the area. Edgardo, our guide, bombarded us with jokes and locals legends. He showed handwritten tax books from centuries ago, a portable altar, a set of a bottle and tiny wine glasses that clerics carried with them to avoid being poisoned, and many other interesting rarities. Through a hole in a wall we entered a room that was only discovered a short while ago. It used to be a small prison cell where clergymen were thrown for behaving badly some centuries ago. One young priest scribbled his story on a wall: a wicked married woman seduced him and he was now sitting in the cell hungry, angry and miserable. Drawings of tasty chickens accompanied the sorry tale.After dinner, Edgardo took us to Santa Croce, one of the most important Templars’ churches in the area. As it turned out, Edgardo is a Templar himself although, as we understood, we were not supposed to talk about it. He showed us that the 12th century Santa Croce church is hidden from outside, enclosed in the walls of another building. Why would somebody want to hide it? It remains a mystery. We spent an hour inside gazing at the frescoes, reliefs, listening to Edgardo’s fascinating explanations and stories, looking at the dazzling mix of pagan, Christian and Templars’ symbolism and pondering over mysterious inscriptions in an unknown language. Pointing at a hole in the floor leading to an underground crypt Edgardo announced that nobody has entered it for centuries. One of the praying monks on the amazingly vivid 16th century altar painting seemed to follow me with his eyes in every corner of the church. Once a year a sombre procession of the Templars arrives to the church for prayers. They kneel all night in silence in the dark surrounded by ancient walls that know answers to all the mysteries of the Santa Croce abbey. …Back in the Santa Chiara monastery, I snuggled down on the bed under warm woolly blankets thinking of the fragrant apples and the pies that the nuns would make with them. The wooden crucifix on a wall had no special meaning to me, an atheist. Yet, I found it very comforting to be in an old town, in a comfortable quiet room of a monastery, which had been the heart and soul of Sassoferrato for many centuries. As a local told us, the nuns were always considered as the guardians of the town’s spirituality. In return, the locals looked after them. It hasn’t change over time. Sister Elisa gets a phone call now and then from a neighbour asking if everything is fine and why there is a light on in a monastery’s room at an unusual hour. Life runs at a slower pace here, and why should it be any other way?
The Monastery of Santa Chiara has nine rooms (some with a shared bathroom) and welcomes guests who would like to share silent moments, meditation, prayers and daily life with the sisters. There is no fixed price but the minimum of €15 euro per night is expected.
The church of Santa Croce is open every Saturday and Sunday from 3pm to 7pm. For visits on other days please call (0039) 3334211899.
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I visited Sassoferrato on a blog tour along the Marche Spiritual Route organised by the Marche Tourism Board. All opinions expressed in the article are my own.