Cathedrals and Abbeys


I dedicate this article to my mother, Shirley Marguerite McNeil Wright, 1920 to 2009, who lived by the principle of leaving the world a better place.  She was a staunch Methodist but loved going to the St. Cecilia Cathedral flower show (Omaha, NE).  I went this past January 2017 for the first time since her death and the art and architecture reminded me of the many beautiful places I’ve been privileged to see.  I only wish she’d been able to see them too.

I hope the photos and text inspire some readers to take the beauty they see out into the world and make it a better place even if it’s just one small act of kindness.

Here’s to you mom.  We could use you now.


I’m going to start with two of my favorite abbeys in the countryside of Tuscany then attempt to do justice to the Duomos of Siena, Florence and Pisa.  When appropriate I’ll add some comments from my travel journals and if I use material from web sites or travel books I will, of course, give credit and/or links.

Sant’ Antimo

Abbazia di Sant’Antimo

I’m starting with San Antimo because it’s one of my favorite places in Tuscany.  Like a number of my favorite places in Italy, I saw Sant’Antimo for the first time on a bike trip.  Surprisingly I didn’t write about it in my journal from that trip but I carried the peace and beauty with me for a long time. And when my sister asked me to take her to Italy in 2010, it was one of the first places I thought of going to.

According to the Web site for the abbey

the abbey was erected at the behest of Charlemagne, but there are no documents that confirm this news. The emperor would have founded it in 781, returning from Rome, along the Francigena road: his army tired by an epidemic of plague, he would find health through grass that is born in the Starcia valley, then known as Carolina. He would have brought with them the relics of the holy martyrs Antimo and Sebastiano, received by Pope Adrian I, making it a gift to the Abbey. The first mention of the church dates back a few decades later, however, in 814, when Louis the Pious succeeded his father Charlemagne.”

My sister was stunned at the beauty of the abbey and it’s setting in the valley between Montalcino and Castelnuovo dell’ Abate off SP 55.  We were fortunate as we sat inside the church to have the monks enter for vespers and sing their hymns (which sounded to my ear like Gregorian chants).

Interior of Sant’Antimo

In 2014 my sister and I brought my daughter here and we spent a long time walking through the Abbey itself and wandering the grounds.


We stopped at  the Abbey briefly on our 2016 walking tour, after a hike down a steep rocky trail  off a back road from Montalcino.  Unfortunately our trip leader didn’t let us linger and I was one of the last to arrive but I was still glad to have even a brief glimpse.  Our guide did tell us that the both the interior and exterior are made of travertine marble, something I didn’t know.


Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

It was only recently, while doing some fact checking on Sant’Antimo, that I realized the monks at Sant’Antimo are from the Benedictine monastic community of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

On my bike trip in southern Tuscany we rode to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore from the small town of Murlo, where we were staying at the beginning of our trip, winding through Buonconvento and then to Asciano. We were able not only to walk through the cloisters, looking at the magnificent frescoes, but were allowed into the dining room as the monks, who have taken a vow of silence, entered for their midday meal.

Garden at Monte Oliveto

I brought my sister here in 2010 on our way from Montalcino to Siena and as I wrote in my travel journal, we were only able to spend about 15 minutes looking at the frescoes before the cloisters were closed to visitors, something new since that first trip.  However, we did spend a lot of time walking through the grounds which are worth a visit even when the cloisters are closed.


We came back in 2014 with my daughter but the abbey was closed so we spent our time walking along the paths through the woods, enjoying the peace.

Santa Croce

Santa Croce has always been one of my favorite churches partly because of the history within its walls–the crypts of Michelangelo, some of the Medicis and  Dante, the monument to Machiavelli, the many tombs in the floor. But also because of the peace I find there.  One of my travel book describes the interior as ‘barn like’ and to an extent that’s true.  But perhaps its the openness that makes it seem peaceful even when there are multiple tour groups. Whenever I go, I like to sit for a while in a pew and just absorb the peace.

In fact I wrote exactly that in my 2010 journal: We walked back [to our hotel] via Santa Croce which is one of my favorite churches in Florence.  It always seems so peaceful compared to other sites and somehow I find it amazing that Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and, I think, Dante, are buried there.

I also enjoy walking through the loggia of the cloisters.  I find it a lovely and peaceful spot. 

The front facade, which I think is graceful and lovely, was added in 1857.  Prior to that time the entire exterior was the gray stone you see on the sides.

In September 2016 my sister spent nearly two hours in the church while my niece and I were at a cooking class just down the street.  She took some exceptional pictures which you can see below.

2019: In 2019 I spent two weeks at Istituto Michelangelo, a language school in Firenze.  I was pleased when I saw that a tour was scheduled for Santa Croce on my last day of the school, especially since my sister was flying in the day before.

My sister and I arrived at the school at the appointed hour finding a large group including all my classmates, some of them with spouses or friends who were visiting. After my sister had paid the entrance fee and we had all milled around for a while, the Secretary announced that the church was closed.  We were all very annoyed thinking that a school in Firenze should know these things and about half of the people left. The school tried to substitute a Bardini Museum tour but it was so poorly organized we peeled off and had some laughs over a glass of wine, especially when one of my friends texted that she had lost the will to live.

So when my sister and I returned to Firenze for a few days at the end of our trip, we went to Santa Croce our first morning (and to La Scuola del Cuoio behind Santa Croce).

It was as peaceful and pleasant as I remembered despite lots of tourists.  Knowing my sister would take lots of pictures of the interior, I focused on the cloisters as well as an exhibit in the area near the cloisters which showed the effect of the floods of 1966 on Santa Croce.

The cathedrals (duomos) of Pisa, Siena and Firenze

These cathedrals have entire books written about them so it may seem incredibly arrogant of me to try to contribute.  I’m fascinated, in general, with the art, architecture and history of the cathedrals of Italy and France and especially the architecture and art of these duomos. So much of what I will write will be my first impressions and what I’ve learned about the art and architecture from my visits. My sister is the opposite, much more religious than I am and the knowledge and pictures of the interiors are mainly hers.

Pisa Cattedrale (Duomo) and Battistero (Baptistry)

I was fully expecting not to like Pisa in general and the Piazza dei Miracoli and its monuments, in particular.  But I found Pisa and its beautiful buildings more than worth a visit and was disappointed when we couldn’t make our way back in 2016 due to a huge fair in the city.  That said, the throngs of tourists can be annoying and I told my sister that if I saw another tourist taking a selfie in front of a Renaissance or medieval masterpiece, I would rip the stick out of her hand and beat her with it.

Looking from left to right as you enter the Piazza, the Baptistry, Cattedrale and  the Leaning Tower are, in my opinion, very harmonious–the bands of light and dark stone with colored marble inlay, the circular buildings and domes, the Moorish arches, all seem designed to flow from one to another.

It’s challenging to get good exterior shots due to the crowds but hopefully this gallery will show what I’m having difficulty describing:

During this same trip of September 2015, you could see the Duomo without charge but had to obtain a ticket for a particular time.  My sister bought a combined Baptistry and Duomo ticket and was able to get right in.  I really regret not doing the same after seeing her beautiful pictures shown below.  From what I’ve read in both my Michelin and Frommer’s guide books the baptistery in particular is known for its arches, octagonal font and pulpit.  Plus the views from the upper level are worth the ticket, along with being able to look down on the art and architecture.  I think you can see that in the photos below.

We visited Pisa again in 2018 on a day trip from Montecatini Terme and you can see more pictures of the Duomo and Baptistry in my Montecatini Terme post plus see and listen to a video in which the staff closes the Baptistry and performs what sounds like Gregorian chant.

Siena Duomo

There are so many excellent accounts of the Siena Duomo (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption) that it would be foolish of me to try to provide any historical background.  So I will focus on my observations from five visits plus add some of the interesting information provided by our tour guide in 2014.

My first two visits to the Duomo were on bike trips.  I haven’t found any pictures from those trips but on my second trip I wrote: the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen.

Siena Duomo

I’m sure every visitor  feels the same awe over its  façade, white marble with bands of red and green stone, the soaring Gothic spires, the gold leaf ornamentation, along with the carvings and statues.  But as beautiful as the exterior is, the interior made the greatest impression on me from the first time I entered–the black and white marble, the arches which remind me of the Mezquita de Cordoba, the azure ceilings painted with gold stars.   As I wrote in my Siena to St. Gimignano post, when I brought my sister here in 2010, she said seeing the Duomo alone was worth the trip.

I’ve written in my Siena post that our 2014 trip was the best in terms of really seeing Siena and the Duomo.  We had a fabulous guide who had an amazing knowledge of the Duomo.  She started with the inlaid floors (which are only uncovered once a year) telling us the myths and Biblical stories represented by the stone images.  She also showed us a statue by Michelangelo pointing out the incredible detail including the veins in the arms.

While guides are not allowed in the Piccolomini Library, a gift from Cardinal Piccolimini, our guide gave us the historical background on the library and also discussed the frescoes and illuminated manuscripts in the library.

Our visit to Siena in September 2016 included another tour, but our guide basically abandoned us in the Duomo with very little information.  However, my sister got some of the best photos ever.

2018: My sister and I decided to do a day trip to Siena from Florence, taking the bus.  Unfortunately it turned into one of the coldest, wettest days I’ve ever spent in Italy.  We were drenched by the  time we found the ticket office which is now across the piazza from the Duomo.  Given the weather, the Duomo was surprisingly busy.  I sat and tried to enjoy the beauty of the cathedral, after lighting some candles for my grandson.  My sister took more lovely pictures, then we had a lunch down the street from the Duomo and took the next bus back to Florence.  As you can tell from the latest gallery, my favorite aspects of the Cathedral are the soaring columns and the stars covering the ceiling.

Florence Duomo

I’ve been fascinated by Brunelleschi’s dome since the first time I saw it emerging above the surrounding buildings as I walked along the via dei Servi.

The history of its design and  architecture defines Florence for me. My sister  wanted to see the interior of the Duomo and the Baptistry since I first brought her to Florence in 2010. I wrote in my journal that ‘the Duomo stunned and amazed Sue.’  I’ve always been content gazing at the beautiful exterior; the green and pink and cream marble, the ornate carvings and statues.  I think that’s part of the reason I love the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo since the original doors and statues are kept there.

So here are a few of my favorite photos of the exterior.

In 2016 my sister finally got to see the interior of the Duomo when our walking tour came to Firenze.  Here are some of her photos.

We visited the Duomo again in 2018 and I think our pictures came out better.  You can see them in my Firenze, old and new post.

Given the difficulty of photographing both the exterior and interior, I’ve included a video from the Il Museo del’Opera del Duomo site which I think is incredible.


Milan Duomo

I didn’t originally plan to write anything about the Milan Duomo since I was only there once at the end of my first trip to Italy.  But my daughter encouraged me to add some pictures she took when she and my sister and her two cousins came in 2012 after visiting the Cinque Terre.  And her pictures are stunning.


Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet

On my first trip to Provence we stopped at Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet on the way back to St. Remy from the Pont Du Gard.  Our guide, who was also the owner of the company, was a self-professed Francophile and owned a home in the Dordogne area.  He had an amazing knowledge of all the places we stopped on our trip and I wish I’d kept more careful notes. (And wish I could find more of my pictures from that trip many of which have disappeared.)

The abbey sits in a lovely wooded area near Tarascon, in some ways similar to the area around Monte Oliveto.  It also reminds me of the foot hills of Colorado, tall pine trees, brilliant blue skies. As you drive or bike up the road to the abbey there’s a picnic area which would make a nice lunch stop.

According to my DK Eyewitness travel book the cloisters date back to the 12th century but the Premonstratensian monastery was founded in 1858 and the church was built after the founding of the monastery.

When my sister and I were planning our Provence itinerary in 2015, I happened upon a web site that showed pictures of the abbey and I told her I had a vague recollection of being there.

The online pictures of the abbey were beautiful so we decided to stop on our way to the Pont du Gard from L’isle sur la Sorgue.  As soon as we drove up I knew our bike group had stopped here.

We strolled the walkways between the cloisters and the church, enjoying the beautiful scenery, then walked through the interior of the church which,  with its intense colors and pillars decorated with gold leaf, reminded me of some of the churches in Spain that had once been mosques.  My sister took so many gorgeous pictures that  the gallery below is probably a little over the top but hope you enjoy it.

There’s also a fairly large gift shop that sells the monk’s liqueur which is supposed to be fairly strong.  A thyme based liqueur doesn’t appeal to me but we did buy some mementos in the shop.

Senanque Abbey

The web site describes the Senanque Abbey ‘as a beautiful and still-working 12th century abbey, tucked into an isolated valley north of Gordes (Vaucluse).’    Its Romanesque unadorned style reminds me of Sant’Antimo.  Online photos show it sitting in fields of lavender.  While the lavender was no longer blooming when we went in September 2015, the setting was still lovely.

On my first trip to Provence we stayed 2-3 nights in Gordes and in retrospect I’m surprised that we didn’t ride to the Abbey, although the roads from Gordes are narrow and winding.

I found the web site researching sights to see on our 2015 trip to Provence and the Cote d’Azur and once we got out of Avignon and through L’sle sur la Sorgue, it was fairly easy to find.  I wrote in my journal that there were more tourists than expected but that was true everywhere.  I think the pictures from the trip say it all. This web site also has good directions to the Abbey.

It seems I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the lovely cathedrals I’ve seen so I created a gallery below of some of my favorites including the Palais des Papes in Avignon, San Frediano in Lucca, Santa Margherita in Cortona, and the Great Synogogue of Florence (Tempio Maggiore.)  Enjoy.

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