Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
Possibly containing Europe’s highest density of picturesque villages, Italy is practically a fairytale land. Deep within Northern Italy’s charming and beautiful Aosta Valley is the little-known fairytale village of Cogne, perched within a now-forgotten mountain pass crossroads through the Alps. Often home to Italy’s professional cross country skiing team who come here to practice on its renowned 70 km (43 miles) of trails, Cogne village is snuggled into the Italian Alps making it an outdoor lover’s paradise. During winter, enjoy cross country skiing or perhaps downhill skiing and snowboarding. Explore the nearby valleys on snowshoes or even try your hand at ice climbing! On your way there, be sure to visit the Savoyard town of Aosta, founded by the Romans. During the summer, hike the impressive mountain trails of Gran Paradiso National Park. Inhabiting these mountains are herds of ibex, wild goats, marmots and eagles – all easy to spot while out hiking or snowshoeing. Back in town, wander the adorable streets of Cogne to admire the quaint old-world Alpine architecture. Be sure to taste the region’s delicious red wines and cheeses such as the Fontina and the Fromadzo where you’re here!
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a relaxing Alpine escape, plan a stay at the rustic wellness hotel & spa, La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso. Please keep in mind that though the road to Aosta is quite good, you’ll need to take narrow, winding mountain roads the rest of the way to reach Cogne. Not for the faint hearted!
Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!
Cities by night are highly underrated. The same could be said for cities in the small hours of the morning. Night – and by extension early morning – somehow seem ‘bad’ – the immoral dark hours where indecency and ugliness show their teeth. Nights are cold, dark, empty. At night, ‘good’ people are snuggly asleep in their warm beds because everyone knows that bad things happen at night – mostly because ‘bad’ people come out at night. Or so we’re taught. And in some ways, this is true (crime rates, for example, go infinitely up at night). But the rewards for staying up late or getting out of bed early are worth it. Whether we want to be reminded at how big the galaxies are, we are astronomy geeks, or we simply want to see the world in a new perspective, travelling destinations by night is a unique way to get to know a place. Torino, for example, is an entirely different city by night. The cool, Alpine air whistles through the empty streets, each monument, church or palace strategically lit up. The streets are clear and quiet – quite the change from the Italian hustle and bustle typically filling Torino’s city centre. First, enjoy the quietness of an empty city, then enjoy the stars as they spread across the sky, and finally, the best part: enjoy the dawn painting across the canvas of a new day breaking.
Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.
Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy
Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.
Thundering waves churn past the narrow shores of the little Italian city of Brunico. Just a blimp on the map of quaint, charming Italian cities, Brunico holds its own in the northeastern corner of the Boot. Deep in the Italian Dolomites with the towering silhouette of its squat castle gazing down from the mountaintops, Brunico is only a short drive from both Austria and Slovenia. While this all helps to spotlight this town, none of this is what adds the extra something special to Brunico’s recipe. Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a town without a country, a town of many languages and cultures, a town plastered onto a multi-cultural lining. For nearly all of its history, Brunico was Germanic. Founded by a baron called – wait for it – Bruno (von Kirchberg) in the early 1200s, the town remained Germanic until the end of WWI, when shifting barriers pushed the region of South Tyrol (including Bruneck) down into Italian territory, where it was re-baptised under an Italian name, Brunico. It is, therefore, an Italian town that is, in effect, Germanic in all but name. The interesting result is a multi-cultural colouring that leaves the city with a dual nationality, which manifests in language, names, gastronomy, architecture and personality.
Northern Italy and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. In fact, that’s not quite specific enough, as Northwestern Italy and Northeastern Italy are quite different from each other while still different from the South. Northwestern Italy is more French/Swiss, while Northeastern Italy is so Austrian that if you spend a few days there, they’ll fool you into thinking you’re in Austria! The Valle d’Aosta is in the northwestern sector, not far from Torino, and in the heart of the Alps, and more French or Swiss (or rather, just ‘Alpine’) than anything else. Literally the “Valley of Augustus,” it goes back to Rome’s conquering of the region to secure the strategic mountain passes. It’s one of the most castle-rich regions in Italy–it had to be, as the region comprised of a vast array of warring kingdoms each with the need to protect themselves against his neighbour. Valle d’Aosta is also the least-populated region of Italy, making it the great-outdoors lover’s place to be. If you have the time, planning a few stops would be ideal. Get out and stretch your legs, breath the fresh mountain air, hike the hills to reach a few of the many castles such as this one! But if you don’t have the time, taking the train through the region is also extremely satisfying–there are so many castles along the railroad track that you can play “I Spy the Castle” simply by looking out the window!
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
In northwestern Italy, there is a quiet, beautiful place called the Aosta Valley. Known for its castles, the valley is snuggled into the Italian Alps. Taking its name from the charming alpine town at the far end, the journey to the once-Roman town of Aosta takes the traveller past castle after castle. While Fenis Castle is certainly magnificent, it’s hardly the only option. With at least 10 castles hugging the valley’s slopes alone, the smallest region in Italy has no shortage of ancient strongholds. Fenis Castle dates back to the fourteenth century and exemplifies both military might on the outside and cultural riches on the inside. Less than 15km from the regional capital of Aosta and roughly 100km from the city of Torino, Fenis Castle is located in between the villages of Fenis and Nus on the dramatic backdrop of Dora Baltea River and the Italian Alps. Getting there with public transport can be tricky; check in with the tourism office in Aosta to plan your trip accordingly, and do not (under any circumstances!) attempt to visit on a Sunday afternoon – northernmost region or not, Aosta is still in Italy, and in Italy, Sundays are still the day of rest!
Known for once hosting the Olympics, and probably more importantly, for hosting the infamous Shroud of Turin, Torino is still often overlooked. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the ruins of Rome and the canals of Venice, Torino does not fit into the typical Italian mold. And yet—Torino can hold its own. It is a superbly beautiful and elegant city. The banks of the Po River (here) are charming. The streets are grand, everything is clean. Because of its location in northern Italy and on the doorstep of the Alps, even the air feels cleaner. The city has a pulse; it doesn’t take much to hear its beating heart. If you continue across the river, you reach the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio which rather looks like the Pantheon, and just past that, a hill that leads to a monastery. From there, you can see the whole of Torino, and, just beyond, the Alps. Torino may be a big city, but it is also a mountain city. The simplicity and tranquility often associated with Alpine towns can be found here, in one of Italy’s largest cities!
Antica Mulattiera in the Val de Susa (near St Ambroiso), Italy
Hidden among the curves of this ancient mule path (antica mulattiera) that carves its way up the mountain carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years, one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” a reminder to the route’s many pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by millions of pilgrim’s boots line the rugged path that hugs the mountainside. For those who want to leave behind the 21st century–travelling back in time to the middle ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer, take this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views and hillside villages. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.