One of the most stunning day trips from Turin had to be the Sagra di San Michele. This stunning abbey on top of a mountain has been a pilgrimage location for thousands of years and remains a symbol of Piedmont. Recently, I visited this abbey, which was the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose!
Sagra di San Michele History
Sagra di San Michele is a stunning abbey built on top of Mount Pirichiano, which is nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. This abbey sits halfway on a vertical line between San Michele Al Gargano in Italy and Mont St. Michel in France. It is one of the earliest abbeys built in honor of Saint Michael! You’ll see numerous symbols in honor of Sant Michael around the church.
At the beginning, there was a simple church on top of the mountain, which you can still view today. Starting in the 10th century, a Benedictine monastery was built on top of the mountain although due to its location, it was destroyed several times by invading armies. Today it is owned by the Rosminian Fathers.
The Staircase of the Dead is one of the most stunning features of this abbey! This Romanesque staircase was where monks were buried (you can still see the tombs!). This is easily one of the oldest parts of the abbey and it’s very easy to imagine monks throughout the centuries passing through on their way to pray.
As you reach the top, you’ll pass through the Door of the Zodiac, which is a carved stone archway from the 12th century. It was the work of Maestro Nicolao, a master of stone carving at the time! It’s incredibly intricate, so stop for a minute or two to study the stories within the stone!
The grandeur of Sagra di San Michele is evident as you pass underneath the flying buttresses that form the neo-gothic portion of the abbey. Most of the church within the abbey is sits on the mountain itself, but it’s easy to see why many thought that building this abbey on top of a mountain was a miracle in itself. Unfortunately much of the abbey is in ruins at this point, but I especially enjoyed exploring the outer parts, which included the Tower of Alda the Beautiful. A young woman who was desperate decided to jump off the tower only to survive in tact. Convinced that angels would once again save her, she jumped again.
Tips for visiting Sagra di San Michele without a tour
It is certainly possible to visit Sagra di San Michele without at tour from Turin. It is a lot of convenient with a car, however I was able to visit using public transit. There’s a parking lot near the top of the monstery. The monstery itself isn’t handicap accessible, but someone in a wheelchair could still probably enjoy the views from the top of the hill prior to entry.
If you are going to take the old pilgrim’s route, you’ll need to have good weather as the route can be quite slippery on a rainy day as well as sneakers with good grip. The route itself isn’t overly difficult, but you’ll encounter a lot of small stones, which can be uncomfortable to walk on with shoes that have thin soles.
The ticket office accepts all kinds of cards. Tickets cost eight euros (2019) for adults although seniors, children, disabled people, and Italian military will get reduced admission. Children under six and holders of the Piedmont Card will get in for free! (The Piedmont card gives you unlimited access to most of the castles, museums, and palaces within Turin and Piedmont!)
There’s an app that you can download which provides information about each of the areas of the abbey. There’s also sheets of information provided in different languages, including English, explaining the features of the abbey.
Getting to Sagra di San Michele by public transit
To get to Sagra di San Michele from Turin, you’ll need to take a train from Torino Porta Nuova Railway Station. I bought a one-way ticket to S.Ambrogio as I wanted to ensure that I bought a ticket for the correct train on the way back. The ride takes about thirty minutes and you’ll arrive into town. (You can buy a ticket at the machine once you arrive back down.)
From the train station, you can easily follow the signs up the old mule trail/pilgrimage route, which starts close to Palazzo Abbaziale di Sant’Ambrogio. This should take about 40 minutes to an an hour depending on your level of fitness. You’ll pass through Chiesa di San Pietro.
Rain could really make this miserable, so check the weather first and bring a water bottle with you. Good shoes help a lot. There are a few fountains where you can fill up a bottle as you climb. (We were surprised to realize that there were more than 12 crosses to reach the top of the mountain, which is untraditional.)