A forbidding fortified abbey anchored atop a rocky hill, the Sacra di San Michele is best approached via the small town of Sant’Ambrogio. From here, the steep ninety-minute hike is well worth the effort, both for the views and for the opportunity to soak up the eerie atmosphere. Climbing up to the abbey and hewn into the rock, a long flight of stairs – the Scalone dei Morti (Stairs of the Dead) – sets a morbid tone, for it was here that the skeletons of the monks used to be laid out for local peasants to come and pay their respects and to remind them of human frailty. The Romanesque entrance arch to the Gothic-Romanesque abbey church is carved with signs of the zodiac. If you don’t fancy the clim, and have your own car, you can drive up to the abbey from the nearby town of Avigliana.

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