09 Sep Off the beaten track: Sacra di San Michele
You know those places that you often see from a distance, or drive past on your way to somewhere else, and every time you spot them again you think to yourself, “I really need to go there one day”?
Well the Sacra di San Michele was one of those places for me. It’s a Medieval Abbey, plonked on top of a hill, looking out over the Susa Valley. From the top of tall buildings in Turin’s centre, or from the hills directly surrounding the city, you can see the shape of the abbey, and it’s quite Hogwarts-y to look at, which is probably why it’s somewhere which had always intrigued me.
Like so many attractions in Italy, this one is a religious site, but trust me, you don’t need to be a believer to appreciate it.
The first time I went, I was accompanied by my friend Laura and her family (the ones who first took me to see the Langhe wine region). They’re locals, and the nicest people on earth, and Laura actually works as a tour guide, so there’s really no one better to follow to new places. The only bummer about the Sacra di San Michele is that you really need a car to get there. But once you’ve got your hands on one, it’s only about a 40 minute drive from the city centre of Turin and – like most day trips from the city – feels worlds away.
The first time I went was at the end of winter – there was some snow on the hills, and it was pretty nippy out. That, anyway, was our excuse for driving all the way up to the car park near the entrance to the abbey, and not using our legs whatsoever. There are a few steps once you get inside, but the Sacra can also be a very low-energy day trip destination if that’s what you want to make it. Inside the abbey, there are some very gothic staircases and flying buttresses, a cute church, and some big viewing terraces which promise stunning views over Turin and the Susa Valley. Well, as long as there isn’t any rain, or cloud, or smog to block the view… which admittedly is difficult at this time of year in the north of Italy. So moving swiftly on!
My second visit to the Sacra di San Michele was with Paula, this time in the height of summer. We’d managed to borrow a car (fun fact: insurance in Italy covers the vehicle, not the driver, so you can borrow literally anyone’s car if you want to) and somewhat miraculously driven 35km without incident and with only minimal cursing and gesticulating on my part. We parked – possibly less than legally – in the train station car park at Condove-Chiusa San Michele.
Trainers laced up, we started to walk. It was a hot, August day, so while we roasted on our way to the beginning of the trail up the mountain, once we got into the shade of the trees, it was honestly a joy. The hike up to the top takes about an hour and a half from the train station, and it’s not difficult apart from a couple of tiny steep bits. Paula and I managed to keep chatting all the way up, so it can’t have been that taxing. We were also practically the only people walking the trail, which made us feel like much more hardcore adventurers than we in fact are.
I was lucky that I’d been inside the abbey before, and that Paula had decided to come for the promise of a nice walk up a hill, and not to see what was at the top of it, because by the time we got there, the gate was actually shut (the abbey is closed to visitors at lunchtime every day, so check the opening times if you do decide to go, not like these geniuses). So we settled for a nice grassy spot instead, sat down, and tucked into our picnic, cooking in the sun for a little while before heading back to the welcome shade of the trees, back down the hill, and home.
I have to admit, this is one of a few places in Italy that makes me feel very smug. It’s the kind of place you probably won’t have heard of unless you’ve spent a while in the vicinity, or have been told about it by a local. It’s always nice to arrive at a “tourist” destination and discover that you’re the only foreigner there, and even nicer to go somewhere (anywhere) in Italy in August and not come across enormous crowds. What’s sure is that this reluctant city girl was happy to add another day trip destination to her list, to get some fresh mountain air, and to admire the Harry Potter beauty of this incredible place.