You Need To Know About This Abandoned Monastery In Tursi!

It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in Italy that feel undiscovered. Each year Italy gets somewhere between 33 million and 58 million tourists, but the bulk of them stick to the most famous destinations. It amazes me that you can escape the crowds and still find totally incredible places, filled to overflowing with priceless art, history and treasures, without a t-shirt shop in sight!

This year when my June Glam Italia Tours were done I slipped off down to the deepest south, (very) southern Basilicata, to stay with my friend Martine at her idyllic Orangery Retreat. I wrote about the Orangery Retreat here. (Make sure you check this post out – this place is fantastic!)

In case you don’t know where Basilicata is, imagine Italy being the shape of a boot. The long, thin heel of the boot is Puglia, the toe of the boot is Calabria, and the instep, running between the two is Basilicata.

The Orangery Retreat is a series of vacation rental apartments in historical La Rabatana, a hill town just above the town of Tursi. La Rabatana was built in the 800s by the Arabs (Saracens), who ran the show for the next 400 years.

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The Convento of San Francesco

At some point after they left, a church and monastery, known as the Convento San Francesco, was built across the gorge from La Rabatana, sitting atop its own hill with its own majestic view.

The Convento San Francesco seen from the Mandarin apartments at the Orangery Retreat in Tursi, Basilicata, Italy
View of the Convento San Francesco from the balcony of the Mandarin at the orangery Retreat in Tursi, Basilicata

From the balcony of the apartment I stayed in, the Mandarin, I had a clear view of the convent. Martine told me it was abandoned and had frescoes dating back 700 years. I live for opportunities like this, so the next morning we drove over there to have a look. The Convento is only 5 minutes drive from Martine’s resort, plus another few minutes walk along an undriveable road.

The town of La Rabatana in Trsi, Basilicata, southern Italy
Looking back at La Rabatana from the Convento san Francesco

Standing in front of the convent/monastery I looked back across the gorge at La Rabatana and my apartment at the Orangery.

I would love to be able to give you the full run down on the abandoned church and monastery, but google as hard as I might, there seems to be very limited information available about it, and that which I did find was both full of holes and what appear to be some inaccuracies. Which just makes it even more fascinating.

My heart was pounding as we walked in – Martine wasn’t kidding when she said it was abandoned!

walking into the abandoned church at the Convento San Francesco in Tursi, Basilicata

It has also been raided.

Interior of Convento San Francesco in Tursi, Basilicata

I saw one blog post about the convent that said it was abandoned in 1914, but somehow I think it was possibly long before then. This place has been stripped to the bones.

There are gaping holes in the floor where tombs used to be.

empty tombs in the Convento San Francesco in Tursi, basilicata
The tomb on the left is where the noble woman was found

Not too long ago a tomb containing a noble woman holding her baby was excavated. Her dress was intact and is in the local museum. I am dying to know who she was, why she was buried in the nave of the church (in terms of hierarchy this is quite significant) and how she and the baby died.

The Art Hiding Inside The Abandoned Church

Inside the Convento San Francesco in Tursi, Basilicata
There are frescoes hiding behind these baroque walls

At some time during the Baroque period, the inside of the church got a retrofit. Huge baroque installations were built over the original frescoes, hiding them for centuries. As the baroque pieces were stolen and carted away frescoes emerged underneath.

hidden frescoes in the abandoned church at the Convento San Francesco in Tursi, basilicata
Hidden frescoes in the church
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frescoes behind the walls in Convento San Francesco, Tursi, Basilicata

Here is where it gets even more interesting. As I researched the convent/monastery I kept seeing a construction date of 1441. But that cannot be correct because frescoes freed from behind the baroque fixtures are dated to 1377.

frescoe in Convento San Francesco, Basilicata, dated to 1377 A.D
Fresco dated A.D. 1377

Similar to the artwork in Matera, which is perhaps an hour drive from Tursi, the style of painting is very Byzantine. This shows just how cut off from the rest of Italy Basilicata really was. This was the era of Giotto. Italy was full of artists painting in a gothic, gilded style. Faces had changed, art had changed. But not in deep Basilicata, where the art movement was two to three hundred years behind.

byzantine art in the Convento San Francesco, and abandoned chhurch in Tursi, basilicata, Italy
Byzantine style fresco, painted in 1377 inside the abandoned church in Tursi

Seeing these frescoes made me feel the same as when I first saw the frescoes in the rupestrian churches in Matera and at the Crypt of the Original Sin. It knocks the wind right out of you, leaves you speechless.

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And how crazy that these treasures sit unprotected in a church that has been stripped? Looking along the length of the wall at the baroque architecture all I could think was how many exquisite paintings are hidden away behind here?

Italy is full of little towns like this, economically disadvantaged but with sensational church art that goes unprotected. In my travels across the country I always get excited to find these churches and have always marveled at how the local people have taken care of them despite a complete lack of funds. So seeing the Convento San Francesco in this terrible state was totally jarring.

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The Abandoned Monastery

Attached to the church is the (also abandoned) monastery. This has been attempted to be repaired but in a particularly nonsensical, grotesque way. Concrete, and badly done concrete at that, defies logic.

ugly concrete restoration destroys the look of the abandoned monastery at Convento San Francesco, Tursi, Italy
Ugly modern concrete restorations at the abandoned monastery make no sense at all.

But you can still walk into the monk’s cells and see where and how they lived, while marveling at their views across the valley below. Unfortunately they now have ugly concrete floors, but it is still pretty fantastic to see.

Window in a monk's cell in the abandoned monastery at Convento San Francesco in Tursi
Room with a view. Inside a monk’s cell in the abandoned monastery at Convento San Francesco
view from monk's cell in the abandoned monastery at Convento San Francesco in Tursi
missing floors inside the abandoned monastery at th Convento san Francesco in Tursi, basilicata
Missing sections of floor and pieces of walls, the interior of the abandoned monastery also feels stripped

Another thing I found interesting with regard to when the Convento was built is the dome on the tower. It looks very Arabesque, which makes me wonder if it predates the 1377 frescoes, or if it was a later addition? I will have to add studying the architectural history of Basilicata to my to do list, just so I can figure this one out!

modern concrete restorations below the dome at Convento San Francesco in Tursi
Ugly concrete making for a surreal restoration attempt of the monastery. Look at the dome and its interesting shape

Next time I stay at the Orangery Retreat in La Rabatana (I seriously cannot wait to get back there!) I want to find a local historian to explain everything here at the Convento to me. And then to take me on a walking tour through the fascinating town of La Rabatana. This place is an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in history.

Did I mention I cannot wait to go back??

Is planning your trip to Italy stressful? Get insider info on everything from finding the best deals on flights, to how long to stay, where. Find out which wines and foods to order in each region of Italy, tips on everything from how to use the trains, the ins and outs of shopping, how to order coffee, what to do if you get sick while you’re away and much, much more in my Best Seller Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget)

For more information on the Orangery Retreat see their website here


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Secret Basilicata ~ You Need To Know About The Orangery Retreat

I always talk about making your trip to Italy a mix of visiting the big sites and getting off the beaten track. My book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps tells you about places to slip away and find absolute magic away from the crowds in Rome, but I am often asked about other places around Italy to put into a travel itinerary.

Today I want to tell you about a truly special place to add to your Italy travel plans.

A few years ago I fell in love with Basilicata when visiting the town of Matera. If you imagine Italy being the shape of a boot, Puglia makes up the heel of the boot, Calabria is the toe of the boot, and in between the two the instep of the boot is Basilicata.

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For centuries Basilicata was somewhat cut off from the rest of Italy, so it is lesser known than the other regions, and is possibly the least touristed of them all too. Which puts it at the top of my list of must see places!

This summer at the end of my June Glam Italia Tour I snuck off to Basilicata for a few days of rest and relaxation before coming home. While there I didn’t see a single tour bus, flag waving tour guide or t-shirt shop. Instead I met the local people, had fabulous food and wine and travel experiences, visited some amazing sites and made a friend who it felt like I had already known forever.

The Lovely Martine

bath inside a cave at the Bergamot, Orangery Retreat, Tursi
This bath though….

This photo caught my eye a couple of years ago, and haunted me ever since. It is from the Orangery Retreat in a town called La Rabatana in southern Basilicata. I became obsessed with the idea of taking a bath here, surrounded by candles. From the photo I couldn’t decide if it was in a cave of a giant fireplace, but it looked so incredible, so different, I just had to find a way to get there!

arriving at the Orangery Retreat in La Rabatana
Blurry selfie taken with Martine when I arrived at the Orangery Retreat. I was exhausted and had bags under my eyes, but so happy to finally meet her!

Through social media I tracked down the owner, a fun, gorgeous and incredibly inspiring lady named Martine, whose story is the stuff of dreams. We became social media friends, and funnily enough by the time I actually met her in person it felt like I had already known her forever. Some people carry that kind of magic in their pocket, the ability to immediately connect with other humans and make you feel as if you’ve always known each other.

Martine’s story is glorious. She is from the U.K, had a huge career in the wine industry as well as owning her own high end catering business, and gave it all away to move to southern Basilicata and pursue a dream.

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La Rabatana

La Rabatana, Tursi, Basilicata

Martine discovered the town of Tursi, and the mostly abandoned town of La Rabatana that sits above it. Built by the Arabs in the early 800s and abandoned by them 400 years later, this little town on the hill has had a fascinating history. Life unfolded across the centuries here, and at some point in the late 1960s/early 1970s the inhabitants moved down the hill to the new, modern town of Tursi, leaving most of La Rabatana empty and falling into ruin.

Martine fell in love with the place and bought an old house that was missing walls here and there, didn’t have all of the roof, and in some places had no floor. It was 1000 years old and was in need of some serious love and attention.

the courtyard and arab arches at the Mandarin, Orangery Retreat in Basilicata
The courtyard leading to the Mandarin apartment at the Orangery Retreat.

When I looked at the “before” pictures I just couldn’t see how Martine had been able to envision the home she went on to create. It is phenomenal! She keeps doing this over and over too, rescuing old, run down houses and turning them into vacation rentals and homes that are so special, so unique, so wonderful that it is impossible to only think of staying there once!

The Orangery Retreat

While her other properties are in various stages of restoration, Martine has two vacation rentals available, the Bergamot and the one I stayed in, the Mandarin.

Convent of San Francesco in Tursi
View of the abandoned convent/monatsery of San Francesco, seen from my balcony at the Mandarin as the sun is setting

Both share a breathtaking view across the gorge to an abandoned monastery and beyond that to the piercingly blue Ionian Sea. Both are a combination of modern convenience (dishwashers and washing machines, well appointed cook’s kitchens and chic bathrooms) with ancient history.

freestanding bath at the Mandarin Apartment, Orangery Retreat, Basilicata
The Mandarin apartment also has a freestanding bath.

Rough stone walls, floors made of centuries old local tiles, old fountains, very old concrete sinks, freshly plumbed and offset with faucets found in estate sales across the region. An attention to detail that I will never possess but was astounded by each day.

One of the things I adored about the Mandarin was in addition to an indoor bedroom there was also an outdoor one.

like a moroccan riad, the ooutdoor bedroom at the Mandarin apartment at the Orangery Retreat in Tursi, basilicata is completely beautiful
The outdoor bedroom at the Mandarin

Inspired by Moroccan Riads and painted in local colors, with a fountain and pink and white tiled floor, this beautiful space gives you the option of sleeping under the stars, under the beautiful Basilicata sky, the midnight blue of which has become the screen saver when I close my eyes at night.

dinner at the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata. Local tomatoes and deep fried cheese served with Primitivo
local tomatoes made into a salad with fresh basil, topped with fried cheese bites, served with fresh bread and Primitivo wine

Evenings at the Mandarin were spent enjoying fabulous local wines from an estate in nearby Montalbano paired with Martine’s divine cooking, looking out over the candlelit Arab archways on her property.

candlelit archways at night at the Mandarin, Orangery Retreat, La Rabatana
The archways lit with candles.

Morning coffee was sipped here too, as no matter how hot the town was below, the soft La Rabatana breeze cooled the patio and channeled its way through the arches.

It was like being in heaven.

So lovely in fact that Vogue has been there and featured it, weddings happen there and are photographed there, even advertising campaigns have been shot here. This place is unique.

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fresh fruit at the Orangery Retreat in Tursi
Apricots and nectarines from the neighbors gardens

Most days at least one of the neighbors would pop in to see Martine with a bowl of fruit from their garden, some wild asparagus, or even freshly picked wild capers from the surrounding hills. It was like living inside Under The Tuscan Sun or Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Everything we ate was local and fresh and in season.

olives, cheese and fresh sausage at the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata
Welcome snack of olives, local cheese and fresh sausage, served with Prosecco at the Orangery Retreat

The next door neighbor made homemade sausage for us to snack on when I arrived, another evening a neighbor dropped by with a bottle of Prosecco for an aperitivo and some of Martine’s fabulous antipasti. I think one of the reasons staying the Orangery Retreat has resonated so deeply with me is that quite apart from its staggering beauty and history, you feel like you are living inside the local life, not just observing it from the outside looking in.

On top of that you sleep your deepest, truest sleeps at the Orangery, the weight of the world falling from your shoulders long before you tumble into the most comfortable beds in the world. It isn’t hard to see why the Orangery has a 9.8 rating on Booking.com!

Reading through the comments in the guest book I saw that everyone feels the same way I do about the experience, and apparently all of us are planning our return.

There is so much to see and do in the area, some of which will find their way into upcoming blog posts.

Getting There

Although The Orangery Retreat and Martine had been on my radar for ages, I had somewhat stupidly put off going because I thought it would be tricky to get to. Not so at all!

Basilicata doesn’t have an airport or a major high speed train hub. Some guests arrive on regional trains and are met at the station. Others arrive by car.

In a quirky twist of fate my Glam Italia Tour ended in Venice instead of Rome, so I traveled from the north of the country down to the very south. In a different set of circumstances I would plan my Basilicata adventures to begin from the Amalfi Coast, Puglia or at least Rome!

My route involved flying to Bari and driving 90 minutes across Puglia and Basilicata on velvet roads that run between fields of olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old. It was so beautiful! My other thought had been to take the high speed train to Salerno and rent a car there.

Before you get panicked about driving in Basilicata – this is not at all like driving anywhere else in Italy! The roads are wide open, well signed and perfectly maintained, and it is a very easy drive. You won’t find much traffic as this is not a densely populated area. I was surprised at just how easy it was to drive there.

See more about the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata on Instagram here and on Facebook here. Visit the website and blog here. You can also find them on Booking.com

Orangery Retreat, basilicata
Leaving the Orangery Retreat feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and refreshed

Do you need help planning your trip to Italy? Or maybe just need some help when you get there? My first book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) helps you with everything from finding great flights, deciding how long to stay in each location, using the trains, shopping tips and much, much more. It has become a best seller and has helped people all over the world create the trip of a lifetime. You can order your copy anywhere in the world on Amazon.com

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Sunset In Rome ~ You Need To Know Where To Watch It From

Most tourists get so caught up in the hustle and bustle happening at street level in Rome that they don’t realize just how completely gorgeous Roman sunsets are. There’s too much going on: too many people, too much history, too many breathtaking sights – Rome is a glorious sensory overload.

late afternoon in Rome at the Forum
This is not my photo – check out @RomeGreatbeauty on Instagram

It is easy to lose yourself in the sheer majesty of the city and miss the delicate moments she has to offer. Sunset is one of those moments. If you know where to go you can get up high and watch the apricot veil drape over the city, making the ancient ruins and the Baroque buildings glow in the near ethereal light. The soft haze starts drifting upwards, as if 3000 years’ worth of souls are floating up into the evening sky.

Castel Sant' Angelo at sunset
Castel Sant’ Angelo at sunset via @takemyhearteverywhere on Instagram

After years of traveling to and from Rome I have learned to make sure I am somewhere fabulous at the end of the day to watch the sun set over the Eternal City.

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In my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome I devote an entire chapter to the 7 best places to watch the sunset in Rome.

One of them is in my neighborhood, the Trastevere.

Walk to the end of via Geofreddi Mamelli, go up the stairs through the park-like surrounds and follow the road to the Garibaldi Monument.

sunset on the janiculum hill in Rome
My favorite place to be in Rome at suset is up here, on the Janiculum Hill at the Garibaldi Monument

This is the Janiculum Hill. From the viewing points you can look out across Rome and spot every monument and building you have visited that day. You get an incredible perspective on how small the heart of Rome really is. The first time I went up here I was shocked to see how close the Monument Vittore Emanuele II (the Wedding Cake Building) and the Roman Forum are to the Pantheon.

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View of Rome from the Janiculum Hill in the late afternoon
Just before sunset, from the Janiculum Hill on my iPhone

This is my favorite place in Rome to watch the sunset, for two reasons. Firstly you are across the river (Tras-tevere) so you are looking out at Rome rather than from within Rome.

the dome of St Peter's in Rome at sunset, from the Garibaldi Monument
The sun setting over the dome of St Peters, seen from the Garibaldi Monument on the Janiculum Hill

Secondly you are behind the Dome of St Peters, so rather than looking and photographing into the light you can watch the sun turn the dome into a magnificent apricot-orange ball. I don’t even know how many times I have come up here to watch it, but it has never lost any of the magic.

Rome's Garibaldi Monument at sunset via @tonyhofvander on Instagram
Rome’s Garibaldi Monument at sunset via @tonyhofvander on Instagram

You don’t really see tourists up here. You will meet lots of locals, walking their dogs, going on dates, stopping to enjoy the view. The American school and the Spanish school are nearby, so sometimes you will run into college kids.

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Sunset up on the Janiculum Hill is peaceful and beautiful and gives you a lovely respite from the hubbub of the busy city. On the way back down the hill there are wine bars and restaurants to stop at, or you can walk into the Trastevere itself where there are endless eateries to choose from.

early evening drinks with a view of rome from the Janiculum Hill
Post sunset drinks and snacks up on the Janiculum Hill in Rome

The Janiculum Hill is across the river from the heart of Rome, and is an easy walk from anywhere in central Rome.

Find out more about the best places to watch the sunset in Rome in my new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome, available worldwide on Amazon.com

Want to know where to find the Best Rooftop Bars in Rome? Download my free PDF here.

Follow @takemyhearteverywhere on Instagram

Follow @RomeGreatBeauty on Instagram

Follow @tonyhofvander on Instagram

101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome Book
My new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome is now available worldwide on Amazon.com

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