Sacra di San Michele
The day finally arrived. It was hard to believe it, I wasn’t ready. But ready or not, I was on my way to the Sacra di San Michele, the official symbol of Piedmont. The embodiment of the culture, history, and traditions of Piedmont encompassed into one architectural masterpiece.
My companions and I meet at Turin’s main train station, Porta Nuova, for 12:30pm to catch the 12:45pm train to Sant’Ambrogio. I ran the whole way there to be on time, but on arrival I discover Trenitalia is on strike. We are unsure if our train is running or not and try to find someone who can provide some insight on the situation. The screen display indicates that the train is 5 minutes late, then 100 minutes late, then finally changes to 30 minutes. The train couldn’t quite make up its mind on how late it wanted to be. I waited 30 minutes until the train lights came to life before buying my ticket. We boarded the indecisive train and we were off.
Leaving the Sant’Ambrogio station we moved towards the base of the mountain, assuming that our hike to the Sacra would begin there. Hiking up the mountain a trio of young American lads surpassed us. I explained to my Italian companions the meaning of a “young buck”. We had a few laughs and watched them disappear ahead of us. The young bucks in the end couldn’t sustain their pace and we ended up beating them to the top, we old timers still got it.
We bought our tickets and awaited our guide. You can only visit the site while being accompanied by one of the Sacra’s volunteer guides. The automatic doors opened to the church and we followed our knowledgeable guide inside and up the “scala dei morti” (staircase of the dead) named after the priests and nobles who had been buried under the stairs themselves. The complex has been slowly built, destroyed, and rebuilt over the course of a thousand years beginning around 1000 a.c. Just a few months earlier a fire broke out in the priest’s dormitory that was under renovation. The roof went up in flames but was luckily contained before it spread to other areas. The damage is estimated at 500 thousand Euros. The most astonishing fact regarding this church is that it is literally constructed on the tip of a 962m tall mountain called Pirchiriano. Throughout history the Sacra has played a strategic role as both a religious and military post due to its position at the opening of the valley Susa which even today is an important route between France and Italy. Over the years it has been host to millions of pilgrims on their way to Rome and the holy land of Israel. As well countless armies have passed by including Romans, Lombardi, French, Savoia, and finally Fascists.
Legend has it that around the 13th or 14th century soldiers occupying the church fortress were harassing a beautiful woman named Alda. To rescue herself she climbed the monastery’s tower. When she jumped down out of desperation an angel saved her and carried her to safety. Years later when she recounted the story to the people of her village they didn’t believe. To prove it was true she took them to the same tower at the Sacra di San Michele. With all eyes on her, she jumped once more, but this time it was to her death. Today the remains of the tower are referred to as “La torre della Bell’Alda” or the Tower of the Beautiful Alda. Who would of thought?
On the hike down I spotted the Americans again, they were well ahead of us again, but I was wondering for how long. At the train station the departures board indicated that our train was 100 minutes late, again. We passed a group of boy/girl scouts waiting on platform 1 which heads further into the Susa valley. We bought our tickets and waited on platform 2, which heads back to Turin. We were about to sit down and prepare ourselves for an hour and a half wait when I spotted something in the distance. “Hold on… is that our train”? It stopped, opened its doors and we promptly got on board. As we found our seats and the train began cricking forward I spotted 30 scouts running to the under pass to get to platform 2, and trailing behind them… three young bucks.