Sacra di San Michele
Perched high atop Monte Pirchiriano -- part of it projecting over the precipice on an elaborate support system that was one of the engineering feats of the Middle Ages -- this dramatically situated abbey dedicated to Saint Michael provides views and an astonishing look at medieval religious life. It may well remind you of Mont Saint-Michel in France (both are laced with endless flights of stairs; the famous Mont Saint-Michel monastery and tourist site off the Normandy coast of France was one of the 176 religious institutions that once fell under the jurisdiction of Italy's San Michele, which today is all but forgotten). But with its dizzying views and scary drops, it just as easily may remind you of the abbey in the novel and film The Name of the Rose (probably because author Umberto Eco based his fictional abbey on this one). It was started in 983, but the extant church dates to the abbey's 12th-century heyday. A vast staircase hewn out of rock and clinging to the abbey's buttresses (known as Scalone dei Morti [Stairs of Death] because monks' corpses were once laid out here) leads to the massive carved doorway depicting the signs of the zodiac and the drafty Gothic and Romanesque church, decorated only with scraps of 16th-century frescoes by Secondo del Bosco. Another stairway leads down to three tiny chapels, carved into the rock, that contain tombs of some of the earliest members of the House of Savoy.
On Saturday evenings (and some Fri) from March to December, the atmospheric church hosts concerts of everything from chant and liturgical music to Renaissance chamber pieces, gospel, and traditional Celtic airs; check the website for schedules.
Outside Avigliana, 15km (9 1/4 miles) west of Turin's ring road. tel. 011-939-130. www.sacradisanmichele.com. Admission 4€ adults, 3€ children 6-14 and seniors over 65. Mon-Sat 9:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-5pm; Sun 9:30am-noon and 2:40-5pm.
Getting There -- Take one of 15 trains a day from Turin to Sant'Ambrogio Torinese (30 min.); from there, it's a stiff 1 1/2-hour trek up to the abbey. In summer only, call ahead to see about the once-daily bus that in past years has met trains from Torino at the Avigliana station (usually around 9am) to carry pilgrims up here. By car, follow the A32 from Turin's western ring highway toward Bardonecchia/Frejus. Get off at the Avigliana exit and follow the brown signs to the Sacra; the trip takes about an hour.
Savigliano & Saluzzo
Savigliano is one of those towns everyone dreams of stumbling upon in Italy -- it's filled with Renaissance riches, but it's still undiscovered. The town center is the broad expanse of the Piazza Santa Rosa, surrounded by arcades, overlooked by a medieval tower, and lined with many of the town's grand palaces, which once housed summering members of the Savoy clan. Unfortunately, these and another fine collection of palazzi along the Via Jerusalem are closed to the public, so you'll have to settle for a gander at their gorgeous facades.
The pride of Saluzzo is its sleepy upper town, huddled beneath its Castello di Manta. Along the warren of narrow lanes, you'll find the 13th-century Chiesa di San Giovanni and the Casa Cavassa, which is worth a look not for the musty civic museum it houses, but for its porticoed courtyard.
Getting There -- Savigliano is 54km (33 miles) south of Turin, from which there are two to four trains per hour (35-50 min.). From there, hourly trains make the 13-minute run to Saluzzo. Saluzzo is also connected with Turin by 15 buses a day. The most direct driving route to Savigliano from Turin follows Autostrada A6 for 34km (21 miles) south to the exit near Brà. From the exit, follow S231 west for 9.5km (6 miles). Saluzzo is another 13km (8 miles) west on S231. If you are making the sweep through the wine country via Asti and Alba , you can continue west from Alba for 34km (21 miles) on S231 to Savigliano.