A few hills away from the Monastero di Camaldoli, dramatically perched on a sheer-walled rock surrounded by firs and beeches, is La Verna, founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1214. Ten years later, after a 40-day fast, St. Francis had a vision of Christ crucified, and when it was over, Francis had received the stigmata, the signs of Christ's wounds, on his hands, feet, and chest. A stone in the floor of the 1263 Chapel of the Stigmata marks the spot. A covered corridor through which the monks pass, chanting in a solemn procession each afternoon at 3 on the way to Mass, is lined with simple frescoes of the Life of St. Francis by a late 17th-century Franciscan artist. The true artistic treasures of the place, though, are 15 della Robbia glazed terra-cottas. Most, like a heartbreakingly beautiful Annunciation, are in the 14th- to 15th-century basilica, which has a 5,000-pipe organ that sings out joyously at Masses.
Several chapels, each with its own story, can be visited, and
some natural and spiritual wonders can also be seen. A walkway along the 230-foot-high cliff leads to an indentation where the rock is said to have miraculously melted away to protect St. Francis when the devil tried to push him off the edge. Most touching is the enormous Sasso Spicco (Projecting Rock), detached on three sides and surrounded with mossy rocks and trees, where St. Francis meditated. You can also view the Letto di San Francesco (St. Francis's Bed), a slab of rock in a cold, damp cave with an iron grate on which he prayed, did penance, and sometimes slept. A 40-minute walk through the woods to the top of Mt. Penna passes some religious sites and ends in panoramic views of the Arno Valley, but those from the wide, cliff-edge terrace are equally impressive, including the tower of the castle in Poppi, the Prato Magno (great meadow), and the olive groves and vineyards on the lower slopes. Santuario della Verna's foresteria also has simple but comfortable rooms with or without bath. A restaurant ($) with basic fare is open to the public, and a shop sells souvenirs and the handiwork of the monks.
As you leave La Verna, be glad you needn't do it as Edith Wharton (1862–1937) did on a 1912 visit during a drive across the Casentino. As she wrote, her car "had to be let down on ropes to a point about ¾ mile below the monastery, Cook [her chauffeur] steering down the vertical descent, and twenty men hanging on to a funa [rope] that, thank the Lord, didn't break."