Piano. In Italian the word has several meanings. The first of which, floor, begins a journey which leads to another two. It is an unexpected turn in the road, and all the better for it. Crossing eastern Tuscany, I decide, one Sunday afternoon, to head for the hills. The map indicates a mountain sanctuary. With nothing else planned I choose to pay a visit.
The Santuario Della Verna is found in the Casentino national park. The sanctuary itself is at Monte Penna, every inch a mountain. It's buildings built into the very rock face. This is no exaggeration. In 1912, the writer Edith Wharton’s car, following a visit, had to be lowered down the first mile, by twenty men holding onto a rope.
Here Saint Francis, patron Saint of Italy, preacher to the birds, lived in hermitage. The floor in question is found within the Chapel of the Stigmata. An indentation in the floor marks the spot where St. Francis, following forty days of fast, received the stigmata. The wounds of Jesus on the cross.
The sanctuary, founded in 1214, holds a simple beauty within its weaving paths and tiny chapels. Being on a mountain, each chapel window enters onto a vista that takes your breath away. Sweeping Tuscan hills, dotted with Cypress trees, roll into the distance. Omnipresent Olive trees shimmer in silver. Heaven without and within.
The only way to describe the beauty of the landscape, is to say, ‘the views are as though painted by Michelangelo’. This is both apt and true. You can stand at the very spot, half way down the mountain from Della Verna, and look out to that same hill, that Michelangelo used, when depicting Adam reclining onto the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Holy hills indeed.
Instantly in love with the region, I stay a week in the Casetino national park. It is wild and untouched. Pathways cut through ancient Pine, Fir, Beech and Hornbeam forests. Walking upwards towards a viewpoint a deep mist draws in. Edging higher and higher the mist becomes thicker, adding to the magic of the forests. There sense of age and wildernes. At one point, the trees themselves become denser, totems of nature. The light oblique, despite it being midday.
Standing, looking through the mists, you feel as though you have arrived at the very centre, the soul of the forest. Silence, again. The only sound is the drip, drip , drip, of the mist falling from leaves. Nothing moves. Which defines the second Italian meaning for Piano. Slowly. These moments when you slow down, more than the destinations on a map, are the true markers of any travel.
Nature has a role in this. The beauty of this region is found in it’s mountains. Nobody moves fast across their winding girths, narrow lanes. This slowness and solitude is perhaps what drew the early monks here. You are squeezed into a slower pace of life. Naturally.
Being started on this path by Saint Francis, I visit his city. Assisi. Slowly, I walk it’s winding streets until my amble is broken by music. Peering through the door of the Monte San Frumentario, I discover an old chapel. It is not empty. Plastic chairs are laid out in rows. Their ordinariness enhancing the beauty of what is unfolding.
At the front of the chapel is an arched window. The window gives out to a view across the Umbrian plains, the hills, the sunflowers, the trees. Below the window, framed, a silhouette sits. Like a shadow play, a women is dancing with a grand piano.They appear as one, and she, in rehearsal for an evening performance, strides across, up and down, the dramatic music of Beethoven. The piano sings. The Umbrian light fills the room. The silence is broken. The slowness is broken. It is the most beautiful scene. A completeness. A piano.
Something makes all of this just perfect. On a journey you find a moment which is a combination, not only of this journey, but of all your journeys. You find yourself walking in and sitting down beside yourself, so to speak. A different self, who has been waiting here, on the plastic chair,in the old chapel, listening to the piano, all along. This is a full stop. Which of course, is just the beginning of another sentence.