If you were to ask me where my favourite place in Italy is, I'd probably say anywhere in the North mountains. Whilst the Dolomites absolutely stole my heart forever and ever, Piemonte really is not lagging far behind (it helps that it's an absolute cheese fest over there too).
In December last year, Michele and I took a trip to the Sacra di San Michele (or Saint Michael's Abbey). As we rounded a corner and came out from behind a hill, we could see this formidable building looming ahead on the crest of a hill. It looks more like a creation in a computer game than a real abbey and is much more impressive in real life I assure you!
It was pretty empty when we got there, with it being early December. We have this terrible habit of saying that we're going to eat on the road and then being awful snobs and not stopping off anywhere because we don't like the look of the restaurants we pass. This was one of those days and as we progressed up the windy road and into the mountains where our pickings became all the slimmer for our fussiness, passing closed osteria after closed osteria, my rumbling stomach became more and more anxious.
Luckily there was a small cabin-like cafe open just metres from the Sacra and we took refuge from the cold in there, eating excellent rolls stuffed with Toma (a Piemontese cheese), anchovies and salsa verde. They also sold Guido Castagna chocolates which, if you haven't already stocked up on from nearby Torino, you should definitely try.
The building itself is jaw-droppingly impressive up close. However these awe-inspiring heights just made me feel incredibly sorry for the hoards of pilgrims who would have walked miles and miles to reach the Sacra and after having climbed partway up into the mountains would have been faced with even more stairs!
And then even more stairs!
This stairway was called the Scalone dei Morti or the (Big) Stairway of the Dead and until recently it was lined with the skeletons of monks to illustrate this. I'm pretty sure most of the pilgrims were ready to join them having trekked all this way, just to be faced with more stairs.
Once you've made it to the top you can relax for a while and take in some of the breathtaking architecture, sculpture and scenery such as the beautiful Porta dello Zodiaco above.
And the sensation of being in a video game or some kind of fantasy novel persists.
Back when Michele was still sporting a moustache from Movember! He now has a fully-fledged bushy beard once more.
Walking around the building, you get the most fantastic views of the Alps. I love hiking but I'm pretty glad we were wrapped up warm and sheltering by the Abbey rather than being out on the peaks that day.
It's an incredible place; where the Abbey fuses with the rock, you get a real sense of man meeting nature and the two forces adapting around each other. Monuments in the cult of St. Michael are typically positioned in hard to reach places (St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall for example) and can be plotted on a straight line across Europe.
Some parts of the Abbey show the centuries of abandonment (from 1622 - 1835). The site is believed to have been occupied since Roman times where it is thought to have been used as a military stronghold. Whilst the exact age of the Abbey itself is still under speculation, there is evidence that some parts were constructed as early as the 10th century due to the Byzantine influences in the crypt. But whether you're a history nut or somebody who just loves the timeless feel of buildings older than we could really, truly comprehend, it's a real treasure of the North.
We were pretty lucky to have the entire place to ourselves (bar the occasional monk passing through the halls) and I would definitely recommend visiting in off-peak times. On the other hand, our trip to Piemonte last March (which I still haven't blogged about, ohmygod) proved that the region is probably best April-September when everything is actually open.
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