Sacra di San Michele: No Stint of Stone

“Leave me alone! You’re a slave, you’re a slave!”

A woman shouting at the top of her lungs woke me from a deep sleep. I jumped out of bed and hurried to the balcony. The hoarse, slurred harangue seemed to be coming from around the corner and I couldn’t see a thing. A dozy round man in a white shirt and suspenders ambled along the street. Upon reaching the relevant intersection, he peered down in the voice’s direction but evidently whatever he saw was not enough to make him stop and gawp. The shouting stopped. Disappointed, I got dressed and went out to the living room, where John was already typing busily.

“I think I’ll go to the monastery today,” I said.

“San Michele? Yes, you must,” he said. “It’s amazing. But–listen–please consider taking a taxi up there.”

“That’s not how they did it in the old days,” I retorted. “What about the pilgrims who walked all the way from Canterbury or Paris? They couldn’t take a taxi!”

John paused, as if to reply, then put up his hands and shook his head. “I forbear.”

I put my running shoes on, packed the camera, water, snacks and a raincoat (there was a high chance of rain and thunderstorms) and set off for Porta Nuova train station. After getting a ticket for the 1.45 to Susa, it occurred to me I’d need cash for the museum ticket so I spent 40 minutes walking around trying to find an ATM. At 1.38 I finally found one at the post office on Via Sacchi (directly opposite the station), arrived at the platform just in time to catch the train.

The journey passed quickly as I had an interesting book to read about Medieval Life in the Susa Valley. It took me about half an hour to read the following paragraph:


In the lower and middle valleys there were a lot of oak forests in which people collected the bark for tanning animal skins. Leather came from the hides of sheep, goats, pigs (boar leather was especially prized), dogs and wild animals (chamois, deer and mountain goats). For the tanning process they mostly used cortex, also called rusca or rasca, made of chopped bark (sometimes also mulched and crushed leaves) of chestnut, English oak (their acorns were also used), Austrian oak, sessile oak and alder. Bark was stolen so often that counted among the infractions registered in the accounts of the Savoy castles was the theft of chestnut bark, even though it was the least useful in tanning the more delicate leathers. Perhaps it was used domestically for leather and furs for daily use and those who couldn’t afford to buy it acquired it in another way.


Young acorns


Ten minutes before the train pulled into Sant’ Ambrogio, rain began to darken the world. I pulled my rain jacket on, packed the book away and arranged a waterproof cover my pack. I got off the train feeling ready for any situation, then I looked up and saw this:




Suddenly I felt the need to pee. Also to drink lots of coffee. Luckily, a short distance along a quaint street festooned with medieval-style banners, I saw the answer to my prayers, a café called Cappuccino. A ten-minute stop there and I set out slightly more heartened.

I strode through a town that was all shut up for lunch. Reaching a church that loomed over a pretty little square, I turned left and followed a windy little street until I came to the beginning of my trail, the ‘Ancient Mule Road’. This would take me 2 kilometers up Mount Pirchiriano to the monastery.


The way ahead.


The most remarkable aspect of this trail is that it was cobbled. I noticed with interest that the cobbles were rather small and uneven, which meant that one had to pay close attention to where one put one’s foot. Luckily, the rain accentuated how beautiful the rocks were—iridescent, striated, colored with gold and peacock hues–so that there was at least some payoff for having to look at them constantly. On the other hand, the rain also made them extremely slippery; even if you were careful about foot-placement, you still risked falling over and splitting your head open on bumpy rocks. Ten minutes of climbing up this ankle-breaking path and I felt a twinge of regret about my decision.  Then I came to a sign that explained, in an irritatingly jolly tone, that the people who originally built this thing deliberately made it slippery so they could drag goods and people up it on sleds. It informed me that the stone was serpentine, created by an ancient glacier.




Every so often, usually at the point of a switchback, a stone cross appeared with a number on it. It occurred to me at about number seven, that these might possibly represent the Stations of the Cross. This idea helped reframe the trip as a form of penitential activity rather than a little day hike and (in spite of being an agnostic), helped lessen the discomfort. I tried to remember how many stations there were and decided it must be twelve. Twelve disciples, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve books in the Old Testament…As such, the low point of my climb was when I saw this:




Getting away from the cobbles, I came to a little village with (thank You Baby Jesus) a concrete path. It was a lovely little place but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the residents who lived all the way up on the side of a cliff. They can’t have been very bright. “Don’t you think it would be easier to have your house down there, on the nice, sensible plain?” I wanted to suggest to them.

Beyond the village there was a short stretch of cobbled path and then an asphalt drive, which told me I was getting close to my destination. At this point, I was soaked. Far from keeping the rain off, my ‘rain jacket’ enhanced the whole wetness experience, helping it reach every part of my torso. When I finally squelched up to the Monastery, an elderly man said something to me in a language I didn’t understand. I looked at him uncomprehendingly.

“Where are you from?” he asked in English.

“New Zealand,” I replied.

“Ah, Holland!” he said. I opened my mouth to correct him, but he cheerfully continued, “If you keep going up mountains like this,” he said, “You will be died!” He chuckled at his own joke.

“Huh, I suppose you’re right,” I said and shook some rain out of my hair.




Despite disgruntlement, I paused for a few moments to look at the awe-inspiring spectacle in front of me. An enormous stone monument built in the tenth century on the top of a whopping great mountain.

The climbing had not ended. The ticket office was at the end of a steep pathway, and almost everything after that involved stairs. This was a different kind of climbing, though. For one thing, the friendly woman at the ticket booth let me leave my bag in the shop. For another thing, the mood was contemplative, peaceful and interesting. Although much of the monastery complex was in the open air, I no longer felt oppressed by the elements. The wildness of the wet forest was replaced by massive geometry, order, a reassuringly static magnificence.




The lintel over the entrance gate caught my eye because of the animal carvings. It seems to show a lion pointing one way and a bull pointing the other. I showed this picture to John later and he wondered if the lion represented ‘Lyons’ and the bull ‘Torino’ since the Susa Valley essentially connected these two cities.






Once through the entrance, I found myself climbing the ‘Staircase of the Dead’, more accurately the ‘Staircase of the Mummies’. In this incredible place you can see the staircase is incorporated into the jagged mountain rock. There is a big tomb that still has some of the original painting on it. Large deep niches are reminders of ancient resting places of abbots whose corpses were embalmed and kept on display where the cold mountain breezes caressed their leathery cheeks.


The Stairway of the Dead (Mummy-Niche top right)


At the top of the stairs is the Zodiac Gate, which features carvings of the twelve signs of the zodiac. They were carved in the 12th century (1128-30) by Master Nicolao, who was well known at the time. There are also carvings of Cain and Abel, three angry people tearing out each other’s hair, a two women breastfeeding snakes, four falcons in a circle, a rampant lion, and three people with fishtails (tritons). According to a website, these carvings are ‘remarkable in their symbolism’—I would love to know more!!




There was an open-air platform there, more stairs under ‘flying buttresses’. At the top of these stairs was the door of the church, from which emanated Gregorian chant. There was a German couple hovering outside, which made me think there was a service in progress and I shouldn’t go in. The monastery is active, in the sense that Rosminian fathers still live and worship here. But the rain started up again and I decided I’d go in anyway.

The first sight in the chapel was a big fresco showing the disciples surrounding the body of Christ after he’d been taken down from the cross. It was a fascinating image. The figures are almost life-sized and their mournful expressions very moving. The hands were painted in such extraordinary detail that you can see their veins.






Around the corner were more frescos, including Saint Lucia with two eyes in a saucer, Mary offering Christ a small pear and a skeleton throwing a surprise party for members of the nobility.






There was a huge heavy door with the instruction ‘SPINGERE’ (push). I pushed it open and found myself on top of the world. Two crows were soaring far beneath me above the forest. You could see far along the valley towards Susa and nearly as far in the other direction towards Turin. It was easy to see why, before a monastery was ever built, the Romans had used this spot as a lookout point.


Looking west


Descending towards the exit, I passed a little room of ex-voto paintings. Recently I’ve learned that it used to be customary in this part of Italy to make an offering when a prayer was granted or when you were grateful for some bit of good fortune that implied God’s blessing. The offering was usually a painting that illustrated the thing you were grateful for. Here I saw a painting of a woman in bed inside a wooden cottage, with a man outside on his knees. I interpreted this as a rather a moving scene of a man praying his wife would recover from illness.

At this point it was about five o’clock, the light was getting low and I was conscious that I didn’t know when the last train back to Turin would arrive. I went quickly back down to the ticket office, grabbed my bag and found a trail that seemed to be a shortcut back down to the mule path. This was not cobbled but paved with slippery shingle and mud. It was somehow a relief to be back in the natural environment. There was something oppressive about the cool, changeless lines of the monastery and frescos, compared to which the breathing, changing forest was more interesting.





Halfway down the hill I stopped suddenly and saw a chamois grazing on the trail. It looked back at me with its striped white head and short curved horns. I was about 100 metres away but it was clearly nervous. I took two slow steps forward and it started, causing some busy-body raven to let out a warning cry. The chamois ran away. A little bit further on I saw a red squirrel, the first one I’ve ever seen up close, and that was just as shy.

I finally got back to Sant’ Ambrogio, ducked into a café to dry off a bit, then caught the train back to Turin. Halfway back the ticket collector arrived and my heart sank– I’d forgotten to verify the ticket. Sure enough, even though the ticket clearly stated I’d bought the ticket only half an hour earlier, I got a very serious lecture from the young lady about how validation at ‘the little green machine’ is absolutely necessary whenever one travels by train in Italy. I nodded, wide-eyed, playing the part of penitent foreigner. “Lady,” I was thinking in private, “I’m sopping wet and just spent half a day negotiating a slippery cliff. The ‘little green machine’ can go visit Turin’s robot bordello as far as I’m concerned.” 



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