‘He went into the field and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground. The birds in the trees immediately came to him and they all stayed perfectly still while Saint Francis preached.’
We trekked up the pretty mule track that goes from Chiusi della Vernia to the Verna retreat. Along the path we come across the chapel which, in 1602, was built in honour Saint Francis’ preaching. It is said, in fact, that when the saint first came across the Verna hills, he was greeted by an enormous flock of bird who beat their wings in joy at his coming. In walking, the saint had found the perfect form of spiritual meditation, a way to pray and to try to teach men to live in harmony with nature.
Up the hill from the chapel is the main square and buildings that make up the retreat. The Eremo of Vernia (Vernia Retreat or Hermitage) is in a particularly beautiful location and is a spiritually important place. The Count of Chiusi, Count Orlando Catani, donated the site to Saint Francis and his followers.
We leave our backpacks at the entrance of the church and with the little time we have, we admire the works of art by Andrea della Robbia in the basilica. We wander down the corridor that leads to the cave where, according to Catholic tradition, Saint Francis received his stigmata on 17th September 1224. A sign at the entrance of the sacristy reads that all sins will be absolved by visiting the retreat once a month and by reciting a ‘pater nostro’ and a ‘credo’.
We eventually push on from the Sanctuary and start our real walk towards Badia (Abbey) Prataglia, which is within the Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi (Casentino Forest National Park). We walk under a misty rain. The footpath we are following is part of the Grande Escursione Appenninica (G.E.A.) network of paths. We walk through lovely beech woods that cover the slopes of Mount Penna and arrive in Croce della Calla. The sound of the wind through the leaves creates a sense of sacred spirituality from the retreat we’ve just left behind.
The thick trees protect us from the worst of the rain but also block any panoramic view. After walking for nearly two hours we arrive at Poggio Tre Vescovi where the great Apennine ridge begins. Today’s walk doesn’t involve too much up and down but is rather relatively flat, so our legs are happy. We finally arrive at Montalto (1302m) which is the highest point we’ll reach today and then our path goes down towards the Madrioli Pass. The footpath ends here and the road to Badia Prataglia begins. It’s strange to suddenly find ourselves on a road and to have to watch out for cars after hours in the thick forest. We are tired and hungry when we get to the town around 5pm. We first head for a pizzeria and then spend the night in the Campo dell’Agio forest hostel. After a warm soup in front of an open fire, we head to bed.