Lovers of the great outdoors find a beautiful reward hiking in Piedmont, Italy
Unless you have a car, hiking in the northern Italian region of Piedmont means walking through vineyards and sampling wines at a cantina, or winery. The sunshine in the vineyards, the rolling hills, the colorful towns and the regional wines are all quite pleasurable and distinctly Italian during these hikes – but sometimes I itch to really hike. I want to be where there are trees, and where the trees aren’t grown in lines (which, oddly, is everywhere in Piedmont). I want to see the wilderness and know there’s nothing around me for miles except mountains and forest. Dear Italy, I love you, but you need more wilderness.
This is probably the West Virginian in me talking. I still haven’t found wilderness in Italy. Yes, the Alps are close if you have a car, but if you don’t, coordinating trains and finding the trailhead when you exit the station seems to be sort of a pain.
But I did discover a hike with an even better reward at the end than a glass of wine (although my friend and I regretted not picking up a bottle for lunchtime): The Sacra di San Michele.
The Sacra di San Michele is a monastery of awesome proportions. It’s right outside the small town of Sant’Ambrogio, quaintly decorated with centuries-old, crumbling churches. Its mountain-Mediterranean appearance is what you might imagine a cross between Italian and German architecture would look like. It’s only a 30-minute train ride from Turin, and signs clearly point the way to the trail, no more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. You see this monastery first from below. It juts out of the top of Mount Pirchiriano, which shadows the town, while a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped Alps reflects the sun behind it.
It was the day after Easter, called Pasquetta in Italy. On this holiday, if a town is too small to host a festival, everything is closed, as was the case with Sant’Ambrogio; or in a larger town, there are open-air markets, vendors and fairs going on up and down the streets. In either case, it’s often a day for barbecuing with family, as we agonizingly smelled during our hike.
We hiked for an hour and a half. The trail goes straight up with tantalizing glimpses of the Sacra di San Michele in the beginning, but then the monastery remains hidden from view until the very last corner. That’s when you see it in all its grey glory.
The Sacra di San Michele was built in the mid- to late 900s and still stands strong today but for a section half-way in ruins due to an earthquake in 1886. The monastery pushes out of the top of the mountain just like a triumphant iron fist might break through a wall of stone, scattering rock all around it. You can see it was built into and from the rock, as some rooms and areas are still not entirely carved out. I write “still” but, clearly, the monks who built this had centuries to change anything they wanted. The rock left there emphasizes that the monastery is part of the mountain and just as strong.
The structure inside makes it seem all the more like a continuation of the mountain. The first great room is high and grey and completely made of stone, with steep winding steps that go around a huge, solid stone pillar which supports the entire church above your head. Exit through broad, tall arches onto a sunlit, windy terrace that looks out over Piedmont, and then walk through wooden doors, hewn almost roughly with pictures of serpents, into the main church.
I was struck by the echoes in the room. Every sound bounced off the corners with a beautiful, haunting quality. A CD of monks singing was playing very quietly, yet even that resonated majestically. We sat and listened to an older man speak about the history of the church, his voice rising and falling like a natural storyteller. His voice was magnified a hundred times, giving him automatic authority. I would have loved to sing aloud (after emptying the pews of tourists).
The Sacra di San Michele is perhaps the oldest monastery or church I’ve ever been in. It also felt the most ancient, somehow. I could sense the stories and monks’ presence in the stone corners. It may have been my romantic imagination sparked by memories of Umberto Eco’s The Name of a Rose, the historical fiction murder mystery that takes place in this very monastery. Or maybe there really was a sort of presence about the place, which is what I like to think.
The Sacra di San Michele is far from wilderness, but this was one of my favorite hikes – OK, walks – of all time.
*Photos by and property of the author