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S.Michael abbey is located at the beginnning of the Susa Valley, few miles West of Turin. It is located on top of Mount Pirchiriano and for centuries it played a strategic role in the political and economic events of the Piemonte region. The tour of this abbey is a journey back in the medieval times, truly an evocative experience surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains and by impressive architecture and art. Here is a list of 7 top reasons why you should consider a tour of the Sacra. You'll find below directions on how to get there and other practical information. Complimentary tours are held regularly at set times, run in italian only by the volounteers of the abbey . For a more complete experience we invite you to contact us and book one of our tour guide who can escort you all the way up there and maybe including this experience in a longer itinerary.

the view driving up to the abbey


Once you get to the abbey you'll be standing at about 1000m (3280ft) above the sea level on top of the so called Mount Pirchiriano. This is one of the first highest peak of the Susa valley overlooking the flat plains of Turin. Looking East, it is easily visible the city of Turin with the slender shape of the Mole Antonelliana and the surrounding hills, dominated by the Shrine of Superga, once conceived as Mausoleum of the Savoy family. On a clear day the view goes all the way to the Apennine mountains bordering Liguria region. Facing West the visitor's eyes go to the upper part of the Susa valley all the way to the French border. The Cottian (South) and Graian (North) Alps have peaks with snow on, most of the year, reaching in this area elevation of almost 12000ft (3600m).

the views over the Susa valley


There are three main abbeys built in devotion of S.Michael all lined up on the same axis pointing to the Holy Land. S.Michael abbey in Piemonte is the central one, right in the middle between Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, France and the Grotto of Saint Michael in the town of Monte S'Angelo in Puglia region, Southern Italy.

Why the Archangel Michael?

The reason of such devotion toward the archangel Michael finds its roots in the Bible: Michael is mentioned three times in the Book of Daniel, once as a "great prince who stands up for the children of your people". The idea that Michael was the advocate of the Jews became so prevalent that in spite of the rabbinical prohibition against appealing to angels as intermediaries between God and his people, Michael came to occupy a certain place in the Jewish liturgy. In the New Testament Michael leads God's armies against Satan's forces in the Book of Revelation, where during the war in heaven he defeats Satan. Christian sanctuaries dedicated to Michael appeared as early as the 4th century, when he was first seen as a healing angel, and then over time as a protector and the leader of the army of God against the forces of evil.

the three abbeys lined up toward Jerusalem

Mont Saint Michel - Normandy, France

Called the Wonder of the Western World has been a pilgrim destination for centuries. According to the legend, the Bishop of Avranches founded a small church on the rock in 709 AD, following the order of the Archangel Michael, who had appeared to him. In the late 10th century a community of Benedictines settled at the place, building a bigger church and an abbey around it. During the Hundred Years’ War fortifications were built around the Abbey to protect it during the siege. Later, it was used as a prison, restored only by the end of the 19th century.

S. Michael Grotto - Monte Sant' Angelo, Puglia, Italy

According to the tradition St Michael appeared four times in the town of Monte S. Angelo, Northern Puglia region. The first time happened inside the grotto where a bull, owned by a local farmer, fell. An arrow was shot by the farmer to kill the poor animal stuck in the natural cavity of the Gargano platform but the arrow returned back and almost killed the man. The local population decided then to consult the bishop of the region who ordered three days of prayers. At the end of those three days the Archangel Michael appeared and the cave became a Holy site soon transformed into a church. Other apparitions occurred around the 7th century at the time of the battles between Byzantines and Longobards. The Northern population of the Longobards in facts considered S. Michael one of their most important protector, being an angel dressed as a warrior and they worshipped him in several location, being Monte S.Angelo the final destination of a long route that pilgrims would follow. Carlo d'Angio' who conquered in the 1200s most of Southern Italy, built the regal flight of steps that, still today, connect the street level with the original grotto.


stone walls and buttresses

The shape of the abbey is recognizable from far away because of the tall but still heavy architecture typical of the early medieval times. The main purpose of this kind of architecture was to reach God and the sky. Spirituality was identified with vertical lines, defying gravity and devotion was expressed with the efforts of building in places hard to get to, rocky, naturally not welcoming. The peak of Mount Pirchiriano had first to be deforested; the local rocks, precious under a geological point of view, had to be extracted and worked despite the hardness of the material. And so the construction began covering and including the peak of the mountain inside the building.

As one enter the abbey, from the ticket office to the entrance of the church there are 170 steps to be climbed. The long final flight of stairs up to the entrance is awesome - with the monastery becoming more threatening and eerie with each step. That's where you enter the Great Staircase of the Dead, so called for several skeletons of the monks displayed in the past on the rocky walls as a warning that death will affect everyone unexpectedly. The original rocky slopes of the Pirchiriano Mount are visible on the side of the staircase letting visitors appreciate even more the challenging architecture. A large massive pillar stands in the centre of this hall supporting above the main apse of the upper church, built around the mid 1100s when the previous one turned to be too small as the number of monks increased as well as the importance and profits of the abbey. Buttresses standing outside of the final entrance of the church are more recent, planned and originally sponsored in the 1800s by the Savoy family but finished only in the 1930s.


The Zodiac door

The Zodiac door, standing on top of the Staircase of the Death mentioned above, is a masterpiece of medieval sculpture created around 1120 by an artist, Nicolao, who later worked in Verona, Ferrara and Piacenza cathedrals. What will surprise you is the way this hard local stone has been modeled and carved like butter. Second, the feeling you'll get looking at figures, monsters, animated scenes that were represented in order to admonish, warn and teach Bible's stories to visitors who were, back in the day, illiterate. More in details, the capitals of the columns standing on both sides of the gate are decorated with the stories of Cain and Abel, Samson, women milking snakes, sirens and many other creatures half human, half animal.

details of the Zodiac door

Inside the church

At the end of the right nave stands the largest fresco of this church, divided in three scenes related to the life of the Virgin Mary who was venerated here as in any other Benedictine abbey: the Virgin Mary crying over the body of Jesus; the death of the Virgin Mary (not a very common subject, called the "sleeping" Mary), the Assumption. More than one hand worked over this masterpiece, probably the artist and one of his apprentice. Made around 1505 it has been attributed to a local painter from Poirino, near Turin.

details of the frescoes

La tomba dell'abate

The presence of the Savoy family in the region and the importance to have the control over this abbey come up to the attention of the visitor standing in front of the tomb or the abbot Guglielmo III. It is not surprising that a member of the Savoy family achieved such prestigious role. The father of Guglielmo, Tommaso III, was fighting at that time to conquer Turin, considered essential to get the power over the rest of the region: that's why the abbey was critical to progress from the Alps toward the plain of Turin. Guglielmo managed to be abbot from 1310 until 1325 and being the fifth son, he was designed at birth to become either a soldier or a monk. This was considered normal as only the first-born son had the right to continue the dinasty. No other abbot got such rich tomb on which we can spot the coats of arm of the Savoy family. The tomb is today empty.

tomb of the abbot


Since December 21st 1994 the Abbey of S. Michael was recognized as the symbol of the region for the century-long political and strategic role that this building played over the entire Piemonte. The high artistic and spiritual peculiarities of the abbey can perfectly match with the values of the land that this building dominates from its elevated position.

The Susa Valley - the key to Italy

This large Alpine valley has been for century an obligatory transit route for Catholic pilgrims (along the Via Francigena), and for merchants, soldiers and artists traveling to the Holy Land. The entire history of the Piemonte region, the events who led the Savoy family to finally move their capital from Chambery, in France, to Turin in 1563 have been strictly depending on the position of the Susa Valley and on the presence of some important abbeys who played a strategic role for a long time: one is S. Michael abbey, the other one of the Novalesa abbey located closer to today's French border. For these reasons the Valley was known as the "key to Italy", one of the most important corridor from which it was possible to climb the Alps even in wintertime through a couple of gentle Alpine passes: Montgenevre and Mont-Cenis.


S.Michael abbey is located at the beginnning of the Susa Valley, few miles West of Turin. It is located on top of Mount Pirchiriano in the municipality of S. Ambrogio, a small town served by the regional train service.

By Train (and a challenging hike)

While the Susa Valley is crossed by the high-speed railroad line Milan-Paris, to get to S. Ambrogio you need to take a local train from Turin Porta Nuova station departing about every hour. The ride takes only 30 minutes and the ticket costs less than 4 EUR each way.

From S. Ambrogio train station take the trail climbing the Pirchiriano mountain following the well displayed signs. The hike takes about ninety minutes and it is steep but the views over Piedmont, Val di Susa and Turin are worth the trouble.

By car

If you don’t have the energy for the whole walk and you have a car then you can drive up to just before the stairs leading to the monastery. From Turin take the highway A32 (Turin-Frejus) and exit to Avigliana. From this quaint and pretty town built between two small lakes, follow the signs up to the abbey. The narrow road climb the mountain crossing chestnuts and oak woods revealing breathtaking views over the the Valley and Avigliana's lakes. Only after passing the village of S. Pietro (S. Peter) - often related to the abbey's history - S. Michael abbey will appear with its imposing vertical architecture.

foto abbazia arrivo

Driving to/from France

Today Turin and the French border are less than one hour away. The two countries were first linked by the railway tunnel known as Frejus in 1871, the first of its size and kind in the Alps at the time. Later, another tunnel was built but for cars, taking the traffic from Bardonecchia (last Italian town) to Modane (first French town). Construction of the 13 km (8.1 mi) long tunnel started in 1974, and it came into service on 12 July 1980, leading to the closure of the motorail shuttle service in the Fréjus rail tunnel. It is the ninth longest road tunnel in the world (as of 2014).

entrance door to the church


Stepping inside S. Michael abbey it is not like going in a museum but the experience is enhanced knowing that someone is still living there. Only two are the "Fathers" of the Rosminian order who takes care of the abbey and in special occasion open their own rooms to visitors showing the library and other parts of the monastery normally not accessible on a regular tour.

The history of the abbey

In origin the Sacra was founded between 983 and 987. According to the historical evidences, in the end of the 10th century a monk of Camaldolese order (from the Benedictine family) settled on the Mount Pirchiriano as a hermit. His hermit life was interrupted by Count Hugh of Montboissier, who arrived with a task from the Pope of that time: building and abbey there, as a penance for his questionable past. Soon the Benedictine monks established their community there and the abbey started the period of maximum prosperity in terms of profits, political importance and number of monks that reached the number of 60 in 1211. By the end of the XIV century the Sacra started the period of decadence loosing the primacy in Piemonte. As the Savoy family by then made stronger its own presence in the region, they were now able to control directly the abbey selecting the person who would have been in charge of the entire complex. Not abbots anymore but bishops or noble men, sometimes members of the Royal family too who had to administrate the financial activities and the economic interests taking personal advantage of such treasure. This system was adopted until 1836 when finally the Savoy family decided to assign the abbey back to a new monastic order, even if in the meanwhile most of the profits accumulated by the abbey century after century were gone. These new monks are the Rosminian Fathers, who are still there today.

artistic decorations on the door


Practical information

Visiting hours

Winter timetable from October 16 to March 15.
Weekdays: 9.30-12.30, 14.30-17.00.
Sundays and public holidays: 9.30-12.00, 14.30-17.30.

Summer timetable from March 16 to October 15.
Weekdays: 9.30-12.30, 14.30-18.00.
Sundays and public holidays: 9.30-12.00, 14.30-18.30;

The last entry is allowed 30 minutes before closing

Closing days: Monday, except public holidays.
(During the months of June, July, August, September the Sacra remains open also on Monday with opening hours 9.30 - 12.30 and 14.30 - 18.00)

The ticket costs 5 EUROS.

Complimentary tours run by the volounteers of the abbey are held regularly at set times. For a complete guided tour it is recommended a licensed local guide. S. Michael abbey can be a perfect half-day excursion from Turin or a full-day if you plan the hike up and down from S. Ambrogio train station.

Written by Marco Scaglione.

Bibliography: Gaddo, La Sacra di San Michele in Val di Susa, Susa Libri.

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