The key to Italy
Natural parks, ancient abbeys, and dramatically beautiful mountains
The Susa Valley begins right at the gates of Turin. The entire length of the valley can be traversed via the SS 25 highway which winds slowly through the mountains and, after some 15 kms, leads the traveller to St. Antonio di Ranverso, a monastic complex and hospital founded in 1186 and subsequently enlarged in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the church, redecorated in the 15th century, frescoes by Giacomo Jaquerio (1401-1453) and an early 15th century Polyptic by Defendente Ferrari can be admired.
Travelling onwards towards Susa, we come to Avigliana. This, one of the valley's most important towns, was already inhabited by the Celtics in the 6th Century B.C.. During the period of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle ages, Avigliana occupied an extremely strategic position on what was then the principal passageway to France. Not to be missed: a tour of the Borgo Vecchio; the town's historic center which still conserves a great number of architectural masterpieces dating back to Medieval times; including the 13th century Casa della Porta Ferrata, with magnificent Ogival door complete with carved stone capitals, and the 14th century Palazzo del Vescovo, or Casa Senore, of which the original façade and rear portico characterised by pointed arches and extremely ornate capitals can still be observed.
A few kilometers away from town lies the Natural Park of the Lakes of Avigliana, at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano, mountain on the summit of which rises the Sacred Abbey Of San Michele, which inspired Umberto Eco's best selling novel "In the name of the rose". Here, skirting the shores of Lake Grande and Lake Piccolo, a number of attractive walks through the woods, reed thickets, and lush green meadows can be enjoyed.
Once past the lakes, the road climbs up as far the Abbey which, from a height of some 962 m above sea level, dominates the low Susa Valley. This Benedictine abbey founded just before the year 1000, reached the apex of power in the early 12th century, and it was at this time that the impressive Zodiac Portal at the entrance of the church was created. This masterpiece by the great sculptor Nicolò, whose works are also present in Ferrara, Verona and Piacenza, is considered to be the oldest surviving Romanesque zodiac cycle in Italy. From the door of the church one accesses a panoramic terrace with breathtaking view over the entire valley and its mountains.
Having completed our visit to the Sacred Abbey of San Michele we head back on to the SS 25 highway from where a brief detour takes us through the wild nature of the Chianocco gorge, a veritable miniature canyon, the formation of which dates back to the last ice age. From here numerous excursions lead through the thick woods of holm oaks which characterise the area.
Another 10 kms of highway and we arrive in the heart of the valley: in Susa, known as the "key to Italy" for its strategic position at the confluence of the roads from Savoia and Delfinato. Of truly ancient origin, the town conserves a number of monuments dating back to the Roman era, such as the Arch of Augustus (9-8 B.C.), the Terme Graziane, and the Arena. Another edifice of great historic and artistic value is the 13th century Church of San Francesco, the first Franciscan edifice in Piedmont, linked to the passing of the saint through Susa during his journey towards France in 1213-1214.
Another detour, in the direction of Venaus-Novalesa leads us to the Abbey of Novalesa, founded in 726. Of the original complex, almost entirely reconstructed in the 18th century, the splendid Chapel of Sant'Eldrado with 10th century apse and frescoes depicting the life and times of the Saint (dating back to the 12th century) can still be admired.
The road continues to climb as far as the Colle del Moncenisio (2081 m), in France, where a truly stunning panorama awaits the visitor. The immense artificial lake, which produces energy for both France and Italy, is encircled by enchanting pathways, glades and mountain pastures to explore by foot or mountain bike.
Travelling upwards in to the high Susa Valley, along the Colle del Monginevro highway, we have the opportunity to visit some of the places where the 2006 Turin winter Olympics were hosted. Before arriving at Bardonecchia, we should make time for a visit to the Natural Park of the Gran Bosco, rich in woods of white and red fir trees. Here, the pathways through the park meet with the legendary Franchi pathway, used by Carlo Magno to ambush Desiderio, King of the Franchi in the famous battle of 744.
Of the many excellent ski resorts located in the high Susa Valley, the Bardonecchia is perhaps the most worthy of mention; stage of the 2006 winter Olympics snowboard championship and, with its combination of strikingly beautiful alpine landscape and ultra modern sports facilities, is an extremely popular holiday destination throughout the year.