Piemonte, crossroads of pilgrims

Versione in italiano

On the Via Francigena of Piemonte, especially in the crossing zone between France and Italy, can be found many signs of ancient stories of pilgrims and soldiers, merchants and men of God.

Like many border areas, the historical axis that connects Arles and Turin crosses valleys and mountain that, over the centuries, have been plagued by the vicissitudes of men: we retraced by car and on foot part of their journey between the Durance and Susa Valleys, discovering places built, destroyed and resurrected countless times, inhabited, first of all, by Ligurians, Celts and Romans.

Via Francigena Piemonte Itinerary

Our journey starts from here, from this charming fortified village at the junction of five valleys, which for centuries has been an important commercial hub of the Western Alps, where fairs and markets vital for the local mountain communities were regularly held.
Briançon, the highest town in France, is situated on a dry peak: in the Vauban citadel, wells, fountains, a moat and canals have ensured, through the centuries, its survival by saving it from fires and drought.
Inside the walls, the tall and narrow houses, the colorful balconies overlooking the valley, the corners where lovers used to meet, the alleys and the tiny restaurants, the antique doors and the Piazza d'Armi add poetry to this UNESCO site protected and surrounded by fortresses of great defensive and tactic importance in the alternation of leaders and rulers.

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We cross the border by car and we stop at Clavière, once a frontier post, today renowned winter resort.
Monginevro's pass, where we are, connects the two most famous pilgrimage roads in Europe: the Road of Santiago de Compostela and the Via Francigena that leads to Rome. The mountains here are full of spirit and human feelings. Since twenty years ago, on these slopes inhabited by pine, alder and larch, one of the most fascinating animals of these regions – the wolf - is back.
Near the Dora Riparia's riverbed, in the San Gervasio's canyon there is the longest suspension bridge in the world (408 + 70 m) built a few years ago in the heart of a ravine that sinks into the mountain. On the Mount Seguret there are still the Saracen's Cavern, where Arab troops settled for some time after having conquered Spain more than 1000 years ago.
For lunch we stop at the Gran Bouc, a restaurant that impresses us for Renata’s style, the landlady, and the her husband’s cooking. The balance between good taste and elegant hospitality makes us feel good and stay with us throughout the afternoon.

Sacra di San Michele Piemonte

Sacra di San Michele

On the way to Susa, the Eco-museum Combano-Romean, the Gran Bosco Natural Park, three mountain villages that preserve old houses and medieval fortifications - Gad, Exilles, Chiomonte - and the Avanà's vineyards, a native grape that is recently experiencing a prestigious rebirth.
The town that gives its name to one of the most beautiful valleys of the Piedmont is alive, teeming with people who buy panettone, focaccia bread, schnapps and wine walking among monuments and historic buildings. The Romans left significant traces of their passage, and you can still see part of the old walls, Porta Savoia, the Arch of Augustus, the aqueduct and the amphitheater. On the other hand, the Castle, the remains of a fort, abbeys and convents are a Middle Ages' inheritance.
We treated ourselves to a stop at the Favro's Bakery, that from 1870 has been producing the most delicious and popular sweet focaccia bread of the valley. Favros have been able to keep the recipe secret for four generations and, up to now, according to many, it is still the best one.

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Novalesa Abbey
The abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Andrew has a troubled history, which unfortunately caused the loss or deterioration of an important part of its heritage. The monastery was built around the 700, first Benedictine monastery in Piedmont and the second in Italy, on a territory already inhabited during the Iron Age. It went through periods of fervent spiritual and commercial activity, but the incursions of those who were fighting for dominance over the region, plagues and some decision taken by different authorities (from the Council of Trento to Napoleon) put a strain on the life of the monks that managed it, Benedictine first and then Cistercian.
After being abandoned for several decades, used as a hydrotherapy hub and then as a college, now the Province of Turin has given it back to the Benedictines who works on its preservation.
In this island of tranquility, that over the centuries has been both place of hermitage and hospitality, the chapel of St. Nicholas and Sant'Eldrado is definitely the part that captures most visitors and pilgrims' attention: the frescoes , dated between 1060 and 1070, wrap guests with bright colors and faraway stories, leaving stunned with their intensity.
We slept at the Mill of Mattie, a place surrounded by nature where we enjoyed dogs, horses, football table and a great Pilgrim's Menu.

Italian menu on Via Francigena

Pilgrim's menu

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Sacra of San Michele
In 983 Count Ugo of Montboissier was seeking redemption and chose to build an abbey. He chose the rocky spur of Mount Pirchiriano probably because of its eremitical tradition and cultural prestige, passage of top drawer pilgrims.
Legend has it that the angels brought the building material on top of the Mount Pirchiriano, making it clear to the Count that that was the place chosen by God: the consecration took place with fire. Michael, chief of the angels, is the warrior archangel that defeated the dragon (the evil) who wanted to fight against God, perfectly overlapping the combative deity of pagans who had inhabited these regions for ages.
The Sacra is built in an absolute verticality, just around and above the rocky mountain summit.
The abbey is not only the symbol of Piedmont and a very importan Via Francigena's point of interest, but it is also one of the main stops of St. Michael's Road from Jerusalem to Ireland on a perfect axis passing throught Monte Sant'Angelo in the Gargano area and Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.
Contemplating the valley below from the Sacra's terrace, you feel in a single breath the power, the energy and the pride of this place baptized with fire and chosen by the angels.


Sacra di San Michele

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St. Anthony of Ranverso's Preceptory
By walking along the ancient road to France from Avigliana, you walk through countryside until
Buttigliera Alta hamlet, up to St. Anthony of Ranverso's delicious Preceptory, a famous historic landmark for everyone traveling between Rome and Santiago de Compostela.
Here, in fact, a hospice for pilgrims wanted by Umberto III of Savoy turned into a place of care for those affected by shingles (in Italian called “St. Anthony’s fire”). The Antonians, also called "Knights of the Holy Fire", managed the Preceptory cultivating the land and raising animals: they somehow learned to use the pork fat as an emollient to ease the pain of the sores caused by herpes zoster. Thanks to this noble function, the pig became in the Turin region a kind of animal in the grace of God: he had the freedom to move off to towns and cities, fed and quenched by all.
Maybe to give grace to a place that hid a lot of sorrow within its walls (it was also a hospital for people affected by the plague), Preceptory’s exteriors have elegant terracotta decorations, pinnacles, an acute regularity of geometries that give an unexpected refinement to a place of this kind, enhanced by the beauty of Defendente Ferrari’s frescoes on the presbytery’s walls.

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Turin has little medieval charm.
Alessandra Masino, our guide, helps us to sharpen our eye to discover Turin under the skin.
A thousand years ago this city was a place of transit and the walls surrounded a small urban area of which little remains today. We walk through the narrow streets of the city where you can still feel an intimate atmosphere, in search of a state of mind that somehow binds us to the pilgrims of the past.
We are looking for walls, arches, brick, access doors, fords, churches, ancient courts, stake’s place: a world of images that in part we discover and in part recreate.
Lunch at the Quanto Basta restaurant, where everything is homemade, and we enjoy meats with delicate flavors: Piedmont smells of elegant quality.

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Our path was made of moments.
This tour, organized by the Province of Turin, gave us bites of culture, spirituality and hospitality that speak about the vocation of a territory to reward their tradition through tourist multilevel readings: food, religion, nature.
In the frenzy of our lives, it is not easy to find a dimension of travel able to put is in tune with distant worlds: for this reason, the clothes of a pilgrim must be worn only when you are ready to perceive the charisma of certain places, from the peaks to the gorges of the Val di Susa and beyond.

Chiesa della Consolata - Torino

Consolata church - Torino

2 Responses

  1. Paola
    Bello percorrere questo tratto di Via Alta con voi. I pellegrini cercano sé stessi nel cammino, ma spesso incontrano belle persone con cui camminare e con cui condividere un pezzetto di vita.
    • Elena Torresani
      Verissimo Paola, le energie in campo contano molto: se sono in sintonia, ancora di più.

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