Should the urge to lead a monk’s life ever strike, or if you simply want to retreat from the world for an hour or two, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place than Sant’Antimo. This exquisite Romanesque abbey of pale yellow stone nestles serenely in a valley amidst vines and silvery olive groves at the foot of the small village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, 9km (6 miles) south of Montalcino. Adding to the allure of the scenic setting of the abbey is the luminous effect of light filtering through alabaster and the scent of incense wafting across the surrounding fields.
The first stone was allegedly laid on the order of Charlemagne in a.d. 781 when, as the story goes, the emperor was returning north from Rome along the Via Francigena. His party of courtiers and soldiers was felled by the plague, but an angel appeared to the emperor and told him to feed the stricken with an infusion made from a certain grass that grows in the valley to this day and is known as "Carolina." He did, the stricken returned to good health, and the emperor founded the abbey in thanksgiving. While any claim of a direct connection to the emperor is debatable, the monastery does date to the 8th century and may have once housed the relics of namesake Saint Anthimus, an early Christian priest. Saved by an angel when Romans threw him into the Tiber with a millstone tied around his neck, Anthimus was eventually beheaded, but not before converting many pagan priests and Roman officials.
Near the entrance, on one side of the campanile, is a charming medieval relief of the Madonna and Child, and carvings of mythological animals and geometric designs surround the doors. Inside the columned interior, the capitals are carved with a plethora of eagles and evangelists, sheep and medieval Christs; an especially intricate carving on the right side tells the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, with Daniel peacefully praying between two lions while their mates devour his tormentors. Above these scenes a second-floor matroneum (women's gallery) runs above the nave. In the chapel, 15th-century frescoes by Giovanni di Asciano depict scenes from the Life of St. Benedict and are rich in earthy details; the animals that look on in the various scenes seem wonderfully oblivious to the holy events happening around them. (One scene features two blatantly amorous pigs.)
A small shop on the road that leads up toward Castelnuovo dell'Abate sells souvenirs and has washrooms. A walk to the monastery from Montalcino along a well-marked hiking trail through fields and vineyards, with refreshing views over the surrounding valleys, takes about 2 hours; ask for a return bus timetable from the abbey at Montalcino’s tourist office.