At first thought, an unlikely destination. Approximately eighty miles south-east of Rome, Italy, Cassino is the location of somewhere that any history or culture lover should take time to visit; Monte Cassino's monastery. Built in 529AD by Saint Benedict himself where a temple for the God Apollo had originally been, the monastery is home to the Benedictine order of monks.
Luckily, the monks accept visitors, enabling thousands of people every year to see the sacred relics and beautiful architecture for themselves.
The monastery can be reached by vehicle relatively easily, on a narrow road which winds its way round the mountain. The altitude is high, with Monte Cassino being on par with Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and so the journey up to the monastery is an adventure in itself - providing fantastic views as well as a stomach full of nerves. Once parked in the small car park that is provided, visitors will follow the path leading up to the monastery's door, still with magnificent views over the town below and the surrounding mountains. The main building above ground is relatively newer than what lies beneath, due to the events of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.
During this momentous event, the monastery was mostly destroyed due to the bombing of German troops by the Allies. However, it was rebuilt to follow the floor plan of the original building, meaning that the monastery we see today is simply a newer version of the old. Built from pearly white stone, the monastery gives an immediate impression of holiness and purity, evoking a quiet sense of awe from any visitors.
Visitors pass by some small courtyards, one with a fountain and another with a garden housing a statue of Saint Benedict at his death, before entering the main courtyard of the monastery. On either side of the steps leading to the monastery's church there are two statues; one is Saint Benedict himself, and the other is his sister, Scholastica. Around the edges of the courtyard are small balconies, giving an opportunity to once again admire the view, and also to have a look at the monastery's garden below.
Filled with fruit trees, vegetables and other plants, the monastery is almost entirely self-sufficient. Following this, visitors can venture up the steps of the monastery, and enter the church itself.
The church is a sight to behold, filled with valuable fresco paintings, sculpture and gold. The high ceilings, detailed with gold embellishments and small angelic figures, provide an almost cathedral-like insight into the religious background of the monastery, aided by the frescos on the walls to both sides as well as other, larger areas of ceiling. The altar at the far end of the church holds beneath it the sacred relics of Saint Benedict's bones, and those of his sister, Scholastica.
To the side of this Altar are steps, which lead through a tunnel to an underground chamber, exquisitely decorated completely in mosaic. This is where the monks pray privately, their being another, smaller altar with the relics placed above.
Upon leaving this chamber and exiting the church, another area that is crucial to visit is one of the underground areas that has survived all of the attacks through the centuries; Saint Benedict's private chamber. Deep underground, the small room is cold and lit by candles, which give the statues of Saint Benedict flanked by two angels an almost eerie glow. It is said that Saint Benedict talked to angels when praying in that very room, and the atmosphere makes that instantly believable no matter how much of a sceptic you may be.
Close to Saint Benedict's chamber, there is a large stone blackened by the fingertips of many pilgrims over the years; this is the Miracle Stone. Reportedly, Saint Benedict fell on this stone and, instead of injuring him as it should have done, it turned soft and instead cushioned his fall. The indent can still be seen today.
As the monastery begins to grow colder towards the end of the day due to the altitude, there is one necessary stop to make - the gift shop, filled with surprisingly cheap (yet not tacky) gifts. Why not purchase a book on the monastery while you're there, for a little background reading? Or, if you're a Christian, perhaps a rosary? Plan your visit to Monte Cassino using Trekeffect!. After all, there are few places with as much historical and religious significance in the world.
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