In the valley of the Fiora river, which springs from the southern flanks of Monte Amiata in Tuscany, medieval hermits carved and chiseled the local tuff rock into sacred places of meditation and spirituality. Because of its bucolic and peaceful setting, its unusual architectural details, and the short hike that’s required to reach it, the Poggio Conte hermitage (Eremo di Poggio Conte) is the most spectacular of these spiritual sanctuaries.
The hermits, who were inspired by the Gothic-Cistercian architecture of the time, dug a church and their living quarters in the local, malleable tuff stone at an ancient site that some believe was previously associated with the order of the Templar Knights. The interior of the chapel is adorned with certain symbols that are unusual for a Christian house of worship, suggesting they could have originated from the mysterious order. The site was also strategically placed close to the border between Tuscany and Papal States and the Via Clodia, the ancient high road built by the Romans.
A rose window is located above the small entrance of the church and inside there are pillars, an altar, and a cathedra, or bishop’s throne. The dome and cross vaults are decorated with geometric and floral designs, in a brilliant rainbow of colors that are still visible centuries later. Just a few feet to the left of the entrance are the collapsed remains of the monks’ living quarters, which look out on the waterfall below. Several benches are aligned in front of it to preserve the site’s spiritual use. At a short distance from the site are two Etruscan tombs chamber tombs carved in the tufa cliff.
Unfortunately, six of the original frescoes painted by the local monks, which depicted Jesus surrounded by his 12 apostles, were stolen in 1964. The other six are now on display in the nearby museum of Ischia di Castro.
Know Before You Go
Poggio Conte can be accessed from the road connecting Ischia di Castro to Manciano. You must park your car at the start of a track on the right of the road just under 1km after the bridge over the Olpeta stream. There are simple, hand-drawn signs indicating “Poggio Conte.” On foot, follow the track that winds along the Fiora Valley, cross a few bridges over a few small streams and turn left at the high tufa wall. Follow the trail towards the waterfall; the hermitage should be visible above you (2km on foot, one-way). The site is usually open and accessible. (You may have to get past a cattle gate which can be opened and closed behind you.)