Visiting this beautiful abbey and church last month wasn't in my original plans, but as always happens in travel, plans can change. And usually, for the better!
St. Peter in the Valley is in a wonderful, isolated position in a wooded area not too far from Spoleto in southern Umbria. The Benedictine abbey has been turned into a very private hotel (which seemed to have few guests when I was there) but the adjacent 8th century church is open a few hours daily to the public.
Its frescos are damaged but still quite beautiful and to me, it's always a marvel to find even fragmented frescos in exactly the location where they were originally painted so many hundreds of years ago. Who else had stood in the same spot as me, centuries ago, and marvelled and prayed? St. Francis or St. Clare, perhaps? Michelangelo or Raphael? Sophia Loren? Over 1,200 years, anything is possible!
It really was happenstance that I found my way to this sanctuary which is a bit off the beaten path. A few days into my trip, I met Mary (a fellow Slow Traveler and blogger) at her family's beautiful agriturismo, Genius Loci. I had just picked up my rental car a few hours earlier, had settled into my beautiful hotel in Bevagna, and had driven up to Genius Loci for a glass of wine (made on the premises) with Mary.
Sharing my love for art, and frescos in particular, Mary encouraged me to try to expand my plans to include some of the churches that are a bit more difficult to reach than those I had originally planned to see in Spello and Montefalco. And since I had a car for 3 days, I had a good deal of freedom.
Before I arrived in Bevagna, I hadn't quite grasped just how close all of these towns are to each other. From Genius Loci's hillside position, Mary pointed to Assisi, visible in the distance, nearby Bevagna, Spello and Montefalco. I realized that I really would have ample time to see all these towns and still drive to San Pietro in Valle.
The final push came the following day when, right after lunch, I was forced to flee Montefalco under a cloud of shame. What better time to drive the hour or so to San Pietro and see some of the mountainous Valnerina region where it is located? Despite Mary's directions, I still took a wrong turn and wasted about 90 minutes driving all the way to Norcia! Since this was at least one valley away from San Pietro, II turned around pretty fast. The drive was very beautiful, but I was on the run (and needed to pee after a while) so I was very glad to reach San Pietro.
Its roots are the stuff of legend. Apparently, its foundation dates from the 5th century when a Lombard duke of Spoleto Faroaldo II met the Syrian hermit Lazarus. St. Peter had suggested to Duke Faroaldo in a dream that he should transform the hermit's small chapel into a rich and powerful abbey, and thus San Pietro in Valle was built and completed in the 700s. In the centuries that followed, turmoil and a partial destruction of the abbey led to rebuilding in the 10th century.
The abbey church, now owned by the state, was completed in two different periods: during the Longobard (8th century) and the Romanic periods (12th century). Still, the two styles blend together very well. Inside, there are wonderful Romanesque frescos of Old and New Testament scenes facing one another on opposite walls; and in the nave are two Roman sarcofagi.