Sacra di San Michele: a Gothic adventure

Among the most amazing buildings in Piedmont Region (north west Italy) a special place is taken by a Romanesque-Gothic abbey built more than 1000 year ago on the very top of the Pirchiriano Mount, at 962 meters above the sea level (3.156 ft) called “Sacra di San Michele” (Holy Abbey of Saint Michael).

The site is protected by Unesco for its unparalleled architectural and historical value and in most of the cases it also is used as a symbol for the whole Piedmont Region due to its unmistakable silhouette that makes it one of the most recognizable constructions in the world.

There is a story here, linked to the devotion to the Archangel Michel, which led to the construction of several Churches across the whole European continent during the Middle Ages, and to the identification of a straight line connecting of them: the Via Micaelica.

St. Micheal’s way.

As you can see from the picture, such route starts in Ireland at a temple called Skellig Micheal, it then goes to England – St. Michael’s Mount, then to the Famous Mont St. Michel in France, it touches Sacra di San Michele and then moves on to southern Italy until it reaches Monte Sant’Angelo, then to Greece at Simi and finally to the Holy Land at the Monastery of the Carmel.

Sacra di San Michele is right halfway along this path, thus occupying a very special place.

Getting there is very easy if you come from Turin: just take the highway heading to the Frejus Tunnel under the Alps, which connects Italy to France and vice versa, take the exit at Avigliana Centro, then follow the light brown signs pointing to the Abbey. It’s a winding road but well scenic. In 20 minutes you get there.

On the way there, the most romantic and magnetic view over the Abbey will appear before your eyes. Regardless of the religion you practice, should you be Christian, Muslim or Jew, the incredible talent of the architects of the gothic time will impress you and will make you question how they made it to build such a big Abbey on the tip of a mountain.

Sacra di San Michele. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

From the parking to the abbey it takes from 5 to 10 minutes on foot, depending on you individual speed.

Once you get to the ticket office, take you time for a pit stop (restrooms are available) to admire the view: from here you get to see the entrance to the Valley of Susa and the plain heading to the city of Turin, which is pretty well visible from here in clear days.

View from the ticket office over the plain of Turin. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

This is the point where, based on the most authoritative studies, Hannibal crossed the Alps with the Elephants, as well as the place where the Roman Emperor Constantine had the vision of the cross that made him decide to turn the religion of the empire into the Christian one.

The Abbey is actually a compound of several buildings of which the most impressive is the church.

View over the main compound of Sacra di San Michele. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Once you get your ticket you have to climb a short but steep staircase that will take you to the doors of this monumental building. Another impressive view over the Valley will be there for you. Now enter the building: the first thing you see it a massive pillar, 18 meter tall, whose basement lays the rocks of the mountain,  which is the only support of the upper Church. Destroy this pillar and the whole abbey will collapse. Don’t worry is well solid and still does its works since a 1000 years!!!.

The main pillar which support the whole church. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

The second thing that will attract your eyes is the so called “staircase of the dead”. It’s quite a long and steep stair, which was used for the burials of the monks, and that is why you see some painted sarcophaguses here. Climb the staircase until you get to the very last step where the famous “gate of the Zodiac” will give you access to the southern side of the abbey, externally.

The Staircase of the dead. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Take you time to explore the gate of the Zodiac. It’s a very unique complex of thin round marble columns, each one sculpted and decorated differently, placed on zoomorphic basements, while the two main pillars are squared and decorated with the signs of the Zodiac. As the Roman Catholic religion does not accept Astrology, it is quite unique to get such a portal here.

The Gate of Zodiac. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Now take a careful look to the pillar on the right, until you identify the sign of Cancer (moon child). When you look at it, you clearly identify a crab. Take a picture of it, then open it on your phone and turn it upside down: doesn’t it look as the head of a Bishop, a Cardinal or even, the Pope?

The Gothic decorators were used to leave hidden messages in their works, maybe it’s one of them.

Now cross the Gate of the Zodiac to find the very last staircase for you to climb. Here you will see some greenish rampant arches that do not belong to the original construction. Through the centuries in fact the abbey lost it power and also the financial resources for the maintenance of it were pretty limited. In the first half of the 1800s, the house of Savoy decided to contribute massively to the restorations. The rampant arches were added to provide stability to the church.

The Greenish rampart arches on the southern wall. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Now enter the Church. A real Gothic atmosphere will be all around you. The Church is divided into 3 naves but the main entrance is not from a façade but from the southern side. Once inside, the church is to the left while to the right you’ll find a collection of paintings, frescoes and decorations. One of the most recurrent images you get it obviously the Archangel Michael. Here you get one of the several painting on the subject.

Internal view of the Church. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

One of the several paintings depitcting the Archangel Michael. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Inside the Church, stop at the very last pillar before the sign exit and look at the basement of it. There is a sign saying “Culmine vertiginosamente santo”. That is the tip of the Pirchiriano Mount, which is actually inside the Church at 962 meters (3.156 ft).

The tip of the Pirchiriano Mount under the basement of a pillar. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Get out of the church and you’ll be on a panoramic terrace overlooking the Valley of Susa. On very clear days the view spans up to the Rocciamelone, one of the highest of the Alps. Now look back at the portal you just crossed and you’ll see some unique decorations, including the face of a man whose mouth is kept wide open by someone else’s hands.

Decoration over the outer portal of the Church. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Now get back into the church, take the narrow staircase to your left and get down to the level of the so-called “new Monastery”. You only see the ruins of it, but among the several, you will see the remains of a tower. That is called the tower of the beautiful Alda. Legend has it that a girl called Alda, during the French invasion, became the target of a group of soldiers who wanted to harass her. While trying to escape from them she fell trapped into the tower. The moment before the soldiers broke into the room she jumped out of the window, into the void. But she didn’t die. The angels, in fact, lifted her from the arms and let her gently land 960 meters below.

The Tower of the Beautiful Alda. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

She was so happy and couldn’t contain her joy, thus she spread the around the new to all the people of her village who didn’t believe her. Thus she decided to give them a demonstration. She called all of them at the tower and she jumped out of the window again. And she died.

Outside the compund you get to see the remains of the Sepulchre of the Monks. A round structure of which little is left, shaped as the Holy Sepulchre.

Sacra di San Michele and the remains of the Sepulchre of the Monks. Photo by Gabriele Merlo

Allow at least 3 hours to visit Sacra di San Michele. You will need 10 minutes from the parking to the entrance and 10 minutes on the way back. There are many steps to cover, thus, take it easy and allow yourselves several pit stop if you are out of breath.

My recommendation is to hire a local guide here as it might be difficult to understand the history and the complexity of the building on your own. You may see a beautiful places without learning anything about it.

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