Rising from the sunflower-flecked fields of southern Tuscany, the ancient Abbey of San Galgano is one of the most captivating sights I’ve ever seen. Ruined and roofless, yet hauntingly beautiful, it was built in the 13th century by Cistercian monks and named for a saint and former knight who lived in seclusion at the nearby Hermitage of Montesiepi. He’s said to have plunged his sword into a stone as a vow of peace, and the sword remains on view to visitors, embedded in the rock. Some even believe that this is where the Arthurian legend was born.
But the abbey is the real reason to make the trek to this out-of-the-way corner of Tuscany. The towering structure must have been splendid in its early days, laden with rose windows and Gothic arches. Plague, famine and political feuding took their toll over the years, and it fell into decline as the monks gradually died or fled. Near the end of the 18th century, a lightning bolt sealed its fate, destroying the bell tower and what was left of the roof.
It’s hard to describe the mystical feel that the weathered brick-and-stone walls evoke. People fall silent as they enter, mesmerized by the vast sky overhead and the soft rub of grass instead of a floor underfoot. Kids can safely explore within the abbey’s shell while parents marvel over the hints of long-ago magnificence: a lone window mullion here, a lavishly carved column there.
The day of our visit, a young woman was moved to belt out an angelic Italian cantata in the stillness, to a burst of applause after she finished. It felt entirely right … the kind of spontaneous, spine-tingling moment that this sacred site inspires.
San Galgano is in Chiusdino, about 20 miles south of Siena. It’s just a stone’s throw from Borgo Santo Pietro, one of our favorite luxury properties in Tuscany — this expansive resort feels like staying in a private home with a staff to cater to your every whim. Guests are pampered from the moment of arrival; no request or indulgence is too much trouble. Best of all, the impeccably manicured gardens have ample room for little visitors to toddle and run.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Lisa Frederick.