Hear the Pope’s new album in Tuscany

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As an album of Latin liturgy heads for the Christmas pop charts, Catherine Nixey travels to Italy to hear the real thing

As he speaks, Father Abraham rests my room keys on Pope Benedict XVI’s face. “And when you go in the morning,” he says, “please leave the key in the door.”

I point to the laminated photograph of Father Abraham beside Joseph Ratzinger that is covering the surface of his desk. “You have met?”

In the dim light of the monastery guesthouse a blush is hard to discern, but I strongly suspect its presence. “Only,” says Father Abraham, modestly, “before he was Pope.” It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of “before they were famous”.

Once such idolatry was confined to Roman Catholics but, at least musically, that is changing. For the smart money for the Christmas No 1 isn’t on The X Factor but the XVI factor: Pope Benedict and his album of Latin liturgy, Alma Mater.

It isn’t Catholicism’s first brush with cool: last year the monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria topped the charts with their chanting. Their album has gone triple platinum. Fans of such music speak of its beauty, serenity — and accessibility: if you wish to hear such celestial singing yourself, all you need do is to travel to a monastery.

So, more out of curiosity than Catholicism, I set out on a pilgrimage. My path was to be the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, staying in convents and monasteries along the way.

Wimping out of the full 2,000km, I settled on the route between Pisa and Siena, finishing in the great Monte Oliveto Maggiore monastery, where the monks chant, for all to hear, five times a day.

The walk, which breaks into convenient 20km sections, is as beautiful as the music it leads to. In medieval times the Via Francigena was a major trading route, joining what were then the most important — and are now the most picturesque — towns of Tuscany.

Today it is all but forgotten, overlooked and overgrown, beneath farms and forest; an occasional stretch of stone paving is the sole reminder of the glory that was Rome.

The monasteries lining the route are equally ancient — and equally aesthetically pleasing. No municipal modernisation or fawn Formica here. These monasteries seem to have settled on their style (terracotta tiles; wobbly whitewashed walls; siege-strength doors) in the 13th century and haven’t changed it much since.

And, contrary to what one might think, you needn’t be Catholic to stay in one. According to the Rule of St Benedict, the 6th-century founding text of monasticism, monasteries must receive all visitors “as Christ”. Though if Christ does visit he ought to remember his credit card. For as one abbess tells me, sternly waggling a finger of Friar Tuck plumpness: “All must pay. You don’t pay, you wash up.”

Pilgrims who don’t settle up — and these, according to the abbess, are legion — are set to work in the monastery for two hours as a penance and deterrent. Does she never feel that, as a religious order, she ought to house the needy for nothing? “Mamma mia,” the abbess says, shifting her bosom indignantly beneath her scapular. “We are nuns. We are not made of money.”

Three nights later I have nearly reached my destination — at which point my pilgrim’s progress slows considerably. For, contrary to popular belief, not all roads do lead to Rome. Lots, such as the one I have mistakenly taken, lead in the opposite direction. Several hours and miles later, I correct my path. Whereupon it starts to rain.

Finally, long after sunset, I arrive at Monte Oliveto in a state of medieval muddiness. The white-cowled figure of Father Abraham flaps towards me like washing in the wind. “You are late,” he says, leading me across the rain-slicked cobbles to my room. “Compline begins at eight.”

Suddenly I feel aware that, despite papal pop, a church service is not a concert. Anxious not to intrude, I approach an elderly monk, Father Hugo. Are tourists really allowed to attend? “Of course,” he says. “You are welcome.” But do the monks not mind us watching their singing? Father Hugo looks puzzled. “But singing is a gift from God. It is to be shared.”

There is just time to change before the bell for compline, the final service of the monks’ day, starts. As it rings, a line of white-robed monks appears and glides, as smooth and punctual as clockwork figures, through a door into the chapel. Inside it is silent. A few candles glow in the gloom. The monks line up in two white lines.

A quick double knock on a pew, and the singing begins. Simple as stone, the ancient antiphons toll between the rows. And as I listen, I suddenly feel inclined to agree with Father Hugo. Singing, at least at this monastery, does have a touch of the divine.

Getting there

British Airways (0844 4930787, ba.com) flies twice daily from Heathrow to Pisa from £153 return.

Where to stay

Monasteries and convents line the route of the Via Francigena. Most accept paying guests and can be booked through Monastery Stays (monasterystays.com). Catherine Nixey stayed in: the Convento di San Francesco in San Miniato (about £44 for a double); Foresteria del Monastero di San Girolamo, San Gimignano, (about £67 for a double with breakfast);

Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Siena (about £45 for a double).

Getting about

Books and maps on the Via are hard to come by. But there is an excellent website of the route with Google Maps: francigena librari.beniculturali.it More information Italian State Tourist Board (www.italiantouristboard.co.uk)

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