Saturday, 15 August 2009

Hidden havens: St Eustachio

The beautiful medieval town of San Severino (in Le Marche's Macerata) province and the nearby Roman settlement of Septempeda have several things in common (besides their location). One of them relates to building material – the stone used to build their respective edifices comes from the same quarry, tucked away in the Valle dei Grilli to the west of town. There the huge cavern that opens into the side of the sheer rock face dates back milennia, and you can see the score marks on the rocks from the chiselling work of the stone cutters. History records that the stone and lime from these quarries were highly rated in ancient times, and were transported to other places in Marche and even into Umbria.

There are several other smaller caverns in the area that likely served as quarries, but the largest of them is the only one that boasts a Romanesque church at its entrance. It's called the Gallo quarry, after a rooster that was thrown into a hole to try and find two lost monks - it (the rooster) eventually came out at a spring near Camerino, some 20km away. The monks? There's no account of what happened to them. Perhaps they teamed up with two oxen that went into the grotto and were never found again.

Although not quite as old as the quarry, the church at the quarry's entrance dates back almost 1,000 years, and covered a far larger area than its crumbling remains now hold on to. At one time an important Benedictine abbey, St. Eustachio in Domora started out life in Lombard times as St. Michael, and over the centuries served as a guest house on this important connection road between San Severino (in the Potenza valley) and Camerino (in the Chienti valley).

Inside the main structure with its large round eye for the rose window is a shrine of sorts in Gothic style, and underneath one can still see the cells which most likely served as living quarters. The “prodigious crucifix” from the abbey is now in the San Lorenzo Abbey in San Severino.

Across the river in another cavern are the remains of a circular tower, and all around (especially at this time of year), the burgeoning green tide of vegetation threatens to overcome the ruins.

A trail – likely the old road to Camerino – leads up through the valley, but it's not frequently used these days, and in the early walking season is overgrown, with brambles and thorns predominating. High up on the western cliffside the constant drone of a huge wasp's nest provides a natural "No Entry" warning to the steep and unstable slopes that reach to the top of the gorge. Against my better judgement, I braved it, but was turned back by a vertical face, and so once again held my breath as I slunk past the thousands of stingers just waiting for a chance to use them ...

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