Italian Alps - Olympic Mountains


Introduction to the Olympic Moutains

It seems that at one time or another in just about every historical period that’s been written about, everyman and his dog has wanted a piece of what is now Italy. Can’t say I blame them because it is a beautiful place to live, but in past times there really was no gain without pain because to get here often meant fighting your way over the Alps.

From earliest times the Olympic Mountains and their valleys have been traversed for purposes of war and commerce.

Allora! This means that this area is rich in historical paraphernalia from generations of men focused on territorial expansion or defending against the next would be invaders. No surprise then that the area bears the scars and the triumphs of human-kinds best and worst traits. Around every corner of this beautiful but often harsh environment, many things remind us of the duplicity between natures power and the power of mans nature. Thankfully, in among the many examples of mans propensity to war and unimaginable cruelty, you also find exemplary evidence of mans ingenuity, tenacity and artistic triumphs. A good example is the awesome abbey of Sacra di San Michele. See our page on this particular attraction.


Not actually in the mountains but situated at the junction of the Valle del Chisone and Val Pellice is the town of Pinerolo once known as the Nice of Piedmont because of its mild climate. Now a sprawling over modernised place it comes however with oodles of historical pedigree. It is home to the Palazzo dei Principi d’Acaja, a 14th century palace which belonged to the Savoy’s predecessors, the Princes of Acaja. Also interesting is the Duomo di San Donato built in the 1044 but restored in the 1800s. Supposedly Pinerolo is also the place where Louis X1V imprisoned the legendry ‘Iron Mask’. If you visit in early October you might catch the annual fair held in his honour. More recently the town gained notoriety as hosts to the 2006 Olympic curling championships. It is also well known for its ‘horsey’ connections and during the summer months the town hosts equestrian events. If weapons and general gear of the Italian cavalry tickles your interest then check out the Museo Nazionale dell’Arma di Cavalleria. The big modern day attraction is the Parco Ornitologico Martinat which can be found on the road to San Pietro Val Lamina. It is the world’s biggest aviary and Europe’s biggest collection of parrots. The sanctuary is dedicated to the preservation of endangered species; a home for birds, reptiles and some mammals.

The Town of Avigliana

Avigliana found 25 kms west of Turin, 352 m above the sea level and has a population of 10.720 inhabitants. It is connected to Turin by the A32 highway, E70 arterial road and by the international railway line, heading to France. Sitting at the entrance of the Susa Valley, on the right bank of the river Dora Riparia, it is in a natural basin and has two lakes of glacial origins.

The towns name derives from a Roman family (the Avilii family) who lived in the plain, near the area called "ad fines", now the village of Malano . From its earliest times the old village was important to the trade between Western Europe and Italy, since it was situated on the route leading to France. It is thought that Beato Umberto III (about 1127-1189), and the Conte Rosso (Amedeo VII, 1360-1391) were linked to Avigliana. It was known to be one of the favourite residences of the Counts of Savoy up until the beginning of the 15th century.

The cultural heritage of this town spans over centuries. The town proper sprawls around a medieval and very picturesque centre and offers various places to visit. Its ruined castle was constructed on the Puzzulano Mount in 942 by Arduino Globrione, Marquis of Turin. The defensive system of the castle was built to protect the town from the invasions of Arduino, called "il Glabro". However after Turin became the capital of the kingdom the castle lost its military importance and was transformed into a noble residence. Events of the 17th century led to its ruin: it was badly damaged in 1630, the year that the plague struck the town. One year later in 1631 the castle was conquered and destroyed by French troops led by French Marshal Catinat. Although the buildings may disappoint because they  are in a ruined state,  the elevation of castle site makes it a good platform for observation towards the Alps, the morainical hill, the lakes and the medieval abbey of San Michele della Chiesa.

In the medieval looking market square in the old town, The Piazza Conte Rosso, there is a group of buildings of extraordinary architectural worth. Notice in particular the old noble houses adorned with porticoes and mullioned windows and the town walls complete with their original gates. They preserve important traces of the 13th century.

The octagonal Clock Tower with brick decorations had its clock was placed in 1330. It was the first public clock in Piedmont and the second in Italy after the one in Milan. The 13th century Porta Ferrata house has an ogival door decorated by brick frames and carved capitals. The 14th century building of Beato Umberto was the centre of an ancient hospital, where pilgrims of the Via Francigena, a historical itinerary leading to Rome from Canterbury, stayed. This major route was used by thousands of northern European pilgrims on their way to Rome. The 14th century Bishop Palace or Senore house preserves the original Gothic style façade. Below the square is the Church of San Giovanni Battista. [John the Baptist Church]. This Romanesque-Gothic church with its beautiful façade was erected between 1284 and 1320 and then transformed over the course of the centuries; it has a preserved Romanesque bell tower. Works of art by Defendente Ferrari [including a painting of the Nativity] adorn the walls and a table by Gerolamo Giovenone can be viewed found inside. The carved 16th century wooden pulpit is valuable. The town walls were built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and are well preserved. Just outside the oldest walls you can find the ancient Church of S. Pietro [St Peter], probably founded prior to 1000 by Benedictine monks of Novalesa. It was restructured in the 14th and 15th centuries in Gothic style with the addition of the chapels on the sides. The three-nave interior preserves frescos of the 14th and 15th centuries. This ancient church can be found on the lake road leading to the Capuchin sanctuary of Saint Mary. Just out of the town you can visit the sanctuary of Madonna dei Laghi [Madonna of the Lakes] that contains a wooden altar, a 14th century fresco representing the Madonna with her Child, the Marquis Ludovico Provana's funeral monument, a polittico of the Annunciation supposedly by Defendente Ferrari and a decoration of the dome representing Mary’s Assumption, by the painter Bernardino Galliari.

Leave the town by the Corso Laghi [lake road], and arrive at the Avigliana Lakes Nature Park [Parco Naturale dei Laghi di Avigliana] situated at the foot of Mt. Pirchiriano. The park contains evidence of the glacier that covered much of the valley in the Pleistocene age. There are two glacial lakes, Grande Lake or Madonna Lake and Piccolo Lake or S. Bernardino Lake. Bird watchers should be happy spotting ardea cinerea together with marsh and hill falcons in the marshes that provide a typical habitat for these bird species. The park’s importance is primarily zoological since thousands of birds of various species converge on the water when they migrate through the area in spring and autumn.

The two lakes are popular with tourists and sportsmen. Grande Lake offers the best tourist services, including bars, hotels, sports facilities and boat rentals

A scenic road leads from Avigliana to the summit of Mount Pirchiriano, where the Monastery of San Michele della Chiusa, founded in 1000, is still visible and clings like a fortress to the rocky outcrop.

Sacra di San Michele

From Avigliana: follow the directions of the Lakes (Laghi) and then the directions of Sacra di San Michele (Saint Michael's Abbey). Parking area at Croce Nera square.

This ancient monument serves as a symbol of Piedmont but in true Italian fashion despite its fame and importance, it is unmarked from the road. It is one of the most interesting churches around so definitely worth finding.  This formidable structure was founded in 983 by Auvergnat Hugo de Montboissier. When the Saracens were driven out between 983 - 987 the oldest of the chapels was modified. Subsequent rebuilding was on top of these early 10th century crypts. The original more modest church was replaced by the current building around the 12th century when the locations of the earliest buildings were mainly incorporated into the new construction. Mostly they are under the floor of the main monastery church. During part of the extension the monks had to build part of the structure on supports more than 90 feet high, pretty impressive engineering for medieval men of the cloth. During the 12th century the abbey controlled 176 churches in Italy, France, and Spain but its strategic position lead to frequent attacks over the next five centuries. Before the Savoys established themselves as ‘alpha’ kings, the tombs of the early princes of Savoy-Carignano were buried here in rock-carved chapels under the partly frescoed main church interior.

In 1622 Sacra di San Michele was abandoned but after an earthquake in 1885 restoration commenced again and carried on into the early 20th century. The final configuration of the building by these works saw Gothic style ramparts added to the Romanesque structure. The fortified monastery where the monks were buried in a round building as modelled on the Holy Tomb in Jerusalem, can be found at the base of the hill top.

More recently it is known for being the inspiration for the setting of Umberto Eco's novel ‘The Name of the Rose’.

To see the church proper you must tackle the ‘Scalone dei Morti’ the ‘steps of the dead’ aptly named because it seems you take your life in your feet when you tackle the steep rock hewn steps. The name was attributed to staircase because it was the way by which deceased monks left the abbey and because some monks were entombed its walls. At the top you reach the wonders of the so called Zodiac door ‘Porto dello Zodiaco’. Sculpted in the 12th century by Master Niccolo it is decorated mermaids and cherubs capitals depicting the stories of Samson and Cain and Abel and jambs decorated with fantastic figures and the signs of the zodiac. The stairs are supposed to represent the ascent from Earthly death to stellar [Spiritual] life. The symbolism is simple once the meaning is explained but I am not sure if it was the symbolism intended by the architects. Apparently the archway was relocated to this place some centuries after the monastery was built: it was carried, stone by stone, from the baptistry, which had once been outside the monastic enclave, and which is now all but destroyed. The bas-relief images of the stars, which are passed on route to the monastery, are among the most fascinating in Europe. It is suggested by some who know about these things that they date back to the 11th century, and show signs of being derived from Arabic astrological lore.

After the last flight you come to the Church of S. Michele. The interior has a nave and two aisles set on cruciform pillars covered by cross vaults. The frescoes covering the walls include a 16th century portrayal of the Burial of Jesus and the Death and Assumption of the 'Virgin Mary. On the main altar is a triptych, by Defendente Ferrari, Madonna and Child, St Giovanni Vincenzo and St Michael. Near the bell tower door is the Gothic tomb of Abbot Guglieimo III. Opening at the back of the nave is the "old choir" with a flight of stairs leading to the crypt.

The Romanesque-Gothic abbatial church overlooks the complex and inside you can see Romanesque high relief sculptures and frescos from the 15th and 16th centuries. The crypt is made up of three ancient pre-Romanesque chapels [reshaped in 1830] and is remarkable. The entrance to the crypt is by way of a stairway found on the right side of the central nave. Find the viewpoint on the left side of the church for a great panorama of the entire Susa Valley.

Be aware that parking in Croce Nera Square leaves you about 10 mins from the Sacra, a good kilometer hike. If you are feeling fit then try the shortest route which can only be done on foot from Sant’ Ambrogio. Follow the old mule track that leads from the foot of the hill to the abbey – a pretty strenuous, steep 90 minute climb. The abbey is only open from March until October. Some parts appear to be open only at weekends and it is best to go on clear day for the best views. There are free concerts now held April through September, offering a range from Gregorian chants, Celtic music, classical pieces and gospel hymns.

The official web site has some information translated into English, French, Spanish and Dutch.


The Sacra di San Michele is situated exactly halfway between the Mont St-Michel in Normandy and the Monte Sant’Angelo [also dedicated to St Michael] in the Gargano in the heel of Italy.

Go to the Peaks In Piedmont page

Go to Introduction to Italian Mountains page


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