The first thing that strikes you about the Abbey of Piona is the atmosphere, which is calm and peaceful, but not oppressive. This has a lot to do with the way the buildings are constructed, with a mixture of different kinds of stone. The front of the church in particular changes its style of masonry about half way up. It should be a mess but somehow it adds to the charm of the place. The easy-going atmosphere is also helped by the practical arrangement of things. For example, as you walk down an avenue of trees towards the Lake Como you can stop halfway for an ice cream or cold drink. And another feature contributing to the sober but relaxed tone is the panoramic view of the Lake, with sailing boats in the foreground and [post=69], [post=70] and [post=68] at the foot of mountains in the background.
The interior parts of the Abbey open to the public include the church, cloister, Capitular Hall and a couple of shops selling products made ‘on the premises’.
The most striking features of the church are the decorated bronze doors; two marble lions you see as you enter; the irregular stonework and the lovely, ‘primitive’ frescoes lit up around the altar. Sitting in the church it’s not difficult to imagine yourself in an earlier millennium.
The small quadrangular cloister with its loggia style arches is a place of silence and highly symbolic visual communication. The four sides are representative of the four cardinal points – self contempt, world contempt, love for others and love for God and these ‘themes’ are reflected in delightful frescoes on the walls of the ‘galleries’. In the middle of the cloister, a spring and a tree represent the spring of delight and the tree of life in the earthly paradise.
But when we were there an additional visual display caught our attention. It was a collection of paintings in a style that can only be described as abstract surrealism. It wasn’t clear who painted them, or even why they were there, close to the entrance to one of the shops but with no price tags on them. So we just enjoyed them as an eccentricity typical of the Abbey of Piona.
The Capitular Hall was historically the room where the monks read the ‘Capitolo’ of sins and begged their brothers’ forgiveness. It’s also the place where the business of the Abbey is discussed – hopefully not for too long because the wooden seats look to have been designed for elegance rather than comfort.
In addition to the small shop in the cloister, there is a big, new shop at the entrance/exit. There you can buy various types of liquor brewed at the Abbey; honey; herbal sweets to aid digestion; Abbey of Piona chocolate and creams said to be effective for a surprising range of ailments. We bought a bag of sweets, which lasted us a long time – so long in fact that we came close to muttering about loaves and fishes before they finally ran out.
The Abbey of Piona is highly seductive but in case anyone has fleeting thoughts about ‘joining up’, here is a simplified version of the official daily routine:
Apart from the obvious austerity of the regime, and the long day, two things stand out from the above schedule. The first is that ‘Beginning of the great silence’ is a very poetic way of saying bedtime. The second is, what happened to breakfast for God’s sake? Oops, sorry about that.
The Abbey of Piona stands on a promontory at the foot of Mount Legnone, a few kilometres south of [post=63]; and is not very easy to get to. You can take a bus from Colico to Olgiasca and then walk for about 20 minutes or take a ferry to Piona, but in practice it seemed to us that driving there was the most convenient solution. Even that wasn’t without its problems. The roads to the abbey are typically narrow and twisting, you can miss the signposts, and at one point the conventional road surface runs out and you find yourself driving on stones. But perhaps that’s how it should be – a metaphor for the difficulty of getting to heaven. And for the fact that the effort is worth it!
In our enjoyment of the Abbey we unfortunately forgot to take a note of the opening hours.
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