Monte Senario Sanctuary

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Monte Senario Sanctuary is very close to Florence -only 20 km away - and can be reached both by car and by public transport. For those looking for walking tracks, there are some suitable for all, both for real athletes and just to go for a stroll. Monte Senario is a place of worship, where you go to enjoy moments of recollection and prayer, but it is also a perfect destination for Sunday walks, especially in the sunny seasons. And the Florentines know this well! In the spring and summer weekends, affluence to this place is rather intense: everyone enjoys a good snack at Monte Senario! In the summer, it is a great destination to escape from the humid heat that gathers like a cap above Florence: after a few bendy roads you will reach a more pleasant temperature, whilst also enjoying wonderful views over Florence and the surrounding hills. Despite the large number of visitors, the place is never crowded, because the atmosphere of the sanctuary does miracles – even noisy Florentines spontaneously lower the tone of their voice. Perhaps this is the ‘true miracle’ of the sanctuary?

HOW TO ARRIVE AT MONTE SENARIO. The Convent of Monte Senario is located in the Municipality of Vaglia, about 800 metres above sea level. From Florence, if you are travelling by car take Strada Statale 65 to Pratolino, at the junction enter the Provincial Road which leads directly to the feet of the convent, where there is also a parking lot. It couldn’t be easier! However, if you do not want to follow demanding walking routes, leave your car a little further down and walk for part of the uphill road that leads to the Monte Senario Santuario. Walking along the paved road, flanked by tall trees, you will find the Friars’ graveyard and the stations of Via Crucis. Come on, it’s worth it! If you are travelling by train from Santa Maria Novella station in Florence you can take the local bus line (No. 21) to Bivigliano and to the Convent itself. If you are a fan of trekking and are well trained, you can opt for the hiking route from Caldine Train Station, reachable from Santa Maria Novella. This route, which takes about two and a half hours, passes through the Fiesole countryside, the Mugellane mountains until you reach Monte Senario. The route runs for about 9 kilometres between Via Faentina, Via Campolongo, Via della Casa del Vento and finally along the most impressive stretch of Via Monte Senario. The last 3 kms will pay off the fatigue with the shade of the woods, with the flowers and gems in the spring, and with the wonderful views.

THE SEVEN HOLY FOUNDERS OF THE SERVITE ORDER: HISTORY AND LEGENDS. Like every Sanctuary born in antiquity, the history of its origins blends historical events with a series of legends and traditions that make the story even more fascinating. Everything seems to begin with a vision of Virgin Mary, who appeared at the same time as the seven mystic Florentines who, at the request of the same Virgin Mary, would have founded the Servants of Mary Order, most commonly called the Order of the Servants of Mary Friars. The seven mystics were nothing but seven merchants, well-placed in the social life of the time. Some of them were widowed, some married, but in spring 1233 they all abandoned their homes, their families and their activities to devote themselves to a life of prayer. Beyond the legend of the apparition, their decision seemed to depend more on the religious climate of the period: these were the years of the preaching of St. Francis, the years when the first Dominican Friars had settled in Santa Maria Novella and even the years of a general spiritual renewal. The seven saints founders moved to Cafaggio, just outside the walls of Florence and then, to lead an even more isolated life, moved to Monte Senario in some caves excavated in the rock which can still be visited today. In 1241, Giuliano da Bivigliano gave the bishop of Florence a part of Monte Senario asking for it to be donated to the seven hermits. The Monastery was expanded in the 15th century and in 1594 by the will of Grand Duke Ferdinando. A curiosity: amonh the ‘Sette santi fondatori’ there was also San Filippo Benizi. Is this name familiar? It was he who for fear of being named Pope hid in a cave in Val d’Orcia. Legend has it that by tapping the stick three times on the ground, he created a spring of beneficial waters. The resort where he hid is today a famous spa resort and is called, in his honour, Bagni San Filippo. Evidently, the saint was a real master with water, because even on Monte Senario he created a spring that provided water for the friars. A final linguistic clarification and then we’ll leave the rest for you to explore! What do you think the term ‘Senario’ comes from? There are two hypotheses! It could be the short form of ‘Asinario’, where donkeys (‘asini’) are kept. Who knows, at the end donkeys provided the only means of transport to get up there. The other hypothesis, slightly more fascinating, is that the name derives from the etheric term ‘eiser’ which means ‘of the Gods’. So is Monte Senario the Mount of Donkeys or the Mount of the Gods? I shall leave you with this Hamlet doubt.

WORKS OF ART AND NATURE. However you have decided to reach Monte Senario, you will be welcomed, after the dense tree-lined avenue, by the two statues of San Filippo Benizi and San Bonfilio Bonaldi, which are placed at the beginning of the square from which you enter the complex. Even if you’ve come for a countryside walk, before you relax on the lawn take a look around! You access the main part of the complex through a staircase located just behind the two statues. On the left side of the staircase there is the building of the ancient hostel. At this point you will find yourself in a small square overlooking the main buildings of the complex. The church, built in 1412, was then renovated in 1717 under the guidance of the architect and sculptor Giovan Battista Foggini. It consists of a single nave on the sides of which there are several side chapels. To the right of the altar there is the Chapel of the Apparition where the Virgin Mary appeared to the seven founders, while to the left there is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, also designed by Foggini. On the sides of the crucifix placed in the apse there are two canvases by Tommaso Redi representing stories of Filippo Benizi’s life. Behind the wooden choir stalls you will notice a more modern work: it is a fresco by Annigoni Pietro painted in 1985 which depicts the seven founders ‘Servi di Maria’ as they climb Monte Senario. On the left you access the Sacristy where there is a beautiful painting by the Florentine school, continuing to the Chapel of the Founding Saints which dates back to 1933. Inside the convent, by asking the Friars, you can access the Cloister of the 15th century and consisting of 10 columns, of which only 8 are left. In the centre there is a courtyard and a well to collect up to 9 hectolitres of rainwater. The loggia running over the sides of the cloister as well as the arcades were closed in the 1700s, but looking at the façade you still notice the arches of the lower part. From the terrace you can enjoy a 360° view over Florence and Mugello. In the summer, what you will see is probably a ‘white’ sea created by the fog due to the heat, but I assure you that the show will be particularly impressive: it will seem like you are floating over a soft expanse of candy floss! The Park of the complex is perfect for walks under the shade of trees enjoying the peacefulness and serenity that the place naturally conveys. Further down you can visit some of the Monte Senario caves inhabited by the Servants of Mary, located at the feet of the hill on which stands the Sanctuary of Monte Senario. The San Filippo Benizi cave is shaped like a temple that cover the famous spring discovered by the saint. In fact, you can read an inscription in Latin which says that so that the Friars didn’t die of thirst, Blessed Philip discovered the source in 1254’. The other two caves that can be visited are S.Alessio Falconieri cave outside of which there is a small building where the Friars lived and finally San Manetto cave. Nearby there is another building in which garden a miraculous vine that grew branches in the winter can be seen.

FROM SACRED TO PROFANE: HAM, WINE AND LIQUEURS. At this point, if you have not taken a ‘snack’ with you, you can go to the bar where you will surely find something tasty to eat. A classic sandwich with homemade raw ham and pecorino sprayed with the red wine of the Friars of Pontassieve. There are also great desserts and liqueurs you can taste. However, the bar is only open on Sundays and Saturdays in the summer months and has special opening times, so it is best to inform yourselves beforehand. Here you will also find a shop selling products that still follow ancient recipes: since 1865, in fact, the ‘Gemma d’Abeto’ is produced, the delicious liqueur extracted from White Abetus (abies alba) of the woods surrounding the convent. Amaro Borghini, Elisir of China and Alchermes is also delicious. Obviously there are also other products such as sweets, natural herbal extracts and creams, marmalade by the Cistercian Sisters and Trappist beers. In short, nature and recollection are great, but a bit of healthy shopping has never harmed anyone. Also, that way you can help the Friars! If you want something more substantial than a snack you can go to the nearby Bivigliano where there are some little restaurants where you can enjoy typical Tuscan specialties: start from a beautiful fett’unta (bruschetta) seasoned with the olive oil of the hills of Florence IGP and continue with a nice first course to get to the succulent Florentine steak. Especially if you have come to walk you will have earned it – if instead  you preferred to go by car, you will have to go back on foot!

So, if you are in Florence, you must find the way to do, as the Tuscans say, a ‘capatina’ at the sanctuary of Monte Senario and from the city you will find yourself immersed in a completely different context and atmosphere. You will breathe in the fresh mountain air filled with the beautiful fragrances of nature, you can take some time to pray and reflect, relax in peace in the meadow or in the woods surrounding the sanctuary and admire the artwork contained within the buildings of the complex. Returning home, along with a nice bottle of ‘Gemma d’abeto’, you will bring with you the pleasant memory of an original day.