The first time your eyes lock on the Sabiona Monastery set atop a jigsaw of crags and spurs high above the artists’ village of Chiusa, your fate is sealed. Embarking on a lofty adventure to the “Holy Mountain of South Tyrol” becomes a must.
The Sabiona Monastery (also known as Säben Abbey) is impossible to miss while cruising over the Brenner Pass between Brixen and Bolzano. Like so many sights along the ancient Roman passage, it looms with undeniable intrigue.
So much so that when we first spotted the historic landmark from the roadway it practically steered us to the next available exit. Letting this grand medieval mystery teasing the heavens remain unknown to us was not an option.
We found a public parking lot conveniently located on the edge of the town — almost directly underneath the steep rock face rising to the foot of the monastery. Gazing up we were at a loss on how to reach the site.
Fortunately, the tourist information center in Chiusa (also known as Klausen) was not far into town. A staff member kindly revealed the mountain top mystery to us and now we get to reveal it to you.
About the Sabiona Monastery
According to legend, Saint Cassian of Imola founded the monastery around the year 350 A.D. However, the rocky outcropping upon which it sits was historically significant even centuries before then.
Archaeological studies show evidence of dwellings on the “Acropolis of Tyrol” dating back to the age of Ötzi the Iceman. Ancient Romans also used the mountain likely as a military outpost. The rocky perch overlooking the narrowest point of Brenner Pass would have allowed Augustus, Caesar and the like to swiftly close southern Europe from northern threats.
Findings from excavations over the years indicate houses of Christian worship were present by the 5th century. A century later the Roman Catholic Church installed a bishop on Sabiona resulting in the spread of Christianity throughout the region. For this reason, faithful South Tyroleans consider it their “Holy Mountain”.
By the 1400s, additional churches and fortifications were built on the mountain creating much of the Gothic castle-like appearance of the monastery that is visible today. We were surprised to discover that since the late 1600s, it has been home to nuns under the Order of St. Benedict.
Even though the large parts of the monastery are not accessible to tourists due to Benedictine rules (nuns are not allowed to interact with guests), visitors can still trek to see the historic churches of the monastery including the Church of the Holy Cross, whose founding was more than 1,400 years ago.
How to Reach the Sabiona Monastery
The steep staircase to Sabiona begins on the western edge of Chiusa. This is a blessing. You will likely arrive in the town on the eastern end meaning you get to experience the fairy tale setting of Chiusa.
The town is tucked tightly between the mountainside and the Isarco River, which may at first seem a bit of an odd location for a thriving community. But when viewed through a historical lens it makes perfect sense. In the Middle Ages and before, Chiusa would have been an ideal defensive position not to mention a treasure trove of coin collecting as any travelers wishing to pass through had to pay a toll.
As you stroll over its cobbles amid the rush of the river, you will swiftly surmise Chiusa is one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy. The very definition of quaint and cozy paired with zest. The colorful pastels gracing many of the medieval facades will make you think you wandered onto a canvas.
Reaching the Sabiona stairs carries you directly through Chiusa’s old-world heart over a narrow street known as Via Città Alta. It is dotted by numerous shops, cafes and taverns prime for discovering the artisanal talents of local South Tyroleans.
The town prides itself as the “City of Artists” with an artful legacy that includes visits by greats such as Albrecht Dürer — one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance. In fact, Dürer was so enamored by Chiusa that he used the village as the backdrop for his famous copper-plate engraving of the Greek goddess Nemesis in 1502.
A Stairway to Heaven
By the following signs for Sabiona, you will find the staircase on a sleepy side alley to the right of the main street. Along this stretch, you will encounter a fascinating building known as the Mineralienecke (Mineral Store).
It appears as if from a Game of Thrones set. The building’s outer wall is clad with an assortment of medieval tools making it an iconic place to snap a photo.
We could not figure out how to visit the inside, but perhaps just as well. If the outside is any indication of what lies within, poor souls who enter may stumble upon a torture chamber.
The stairs begin around the corner under a large crucifix. Upon starting the climb, pause for a moment to consider the hallowed ground you are walking on. The stone beneath your feet has led pilgrims to Sabiona for centuries. The hike you are now embarking on is one of the oldest pilgrimages in Europe.
The stairs offer a steep ascent that shortly leads you past Branzoll Castle, a privately owned fortress towering above vineyards. The path then branches off allowing you to choose either the Sabiona Promenade — a rugged walk through the mountain’s forested slopes — or a gentler path called Via Cruxis that is decorated with the Stations of the Cross.
We chose to take the hiking trail up and return to Chiusa along the historic route. This option does make your Sabiona adventure a bit longer and certainly more sweat-inducing.
From here, the hike up takes around 30 minutes and rewards you with multiple points to enjoy sweeping views of Chiusa and the Isarco Valley. The trail is not dangerous, but if you are not accustomed to hiking we recommend taking the Via Cruxis path up and down.
The Church of the Holy Cross
The first sight to visit once arriving at the sprawling monastery grounds is its oldest structure — the Church of the Holy Cross. It sits on the highest point of the mountain. The origins of the church date back to the 500s when it was the cathedral for Bishop Ingenuinus who lies in eternal rest inside.
Bishop Ingenuinus or “Little Kneeling One” as his name suggests, was likely bishop of Sabiona from 577 until his death in 605. He is viewed as a patron saint of mountain people.
The outside of the church is captivating with a 40-foot painted cross gracing its outer apse. But it is the inside that rivets the imagination — especially if you can visit when sunlight is pouring through the windows.
In the 17th century, an unnamed artist painted striking frescoes throughout the interior. Many of these vivid biblical scenes evoke the feeling of being within a grand marbled hall.
In addition to the fantastical paintings, the church exhibits the carvings of Leonhard von Brixen — a sculptor and painter from the 15th century. His moving crucifix high in the apse is a historic gem of religious realism.
After absorbing the treasures of the church, we suggest sliding into a pew to allow the inspiring stillness of this space wash over you. Whether Sabiona is sacred to you or not, you will encounter the power born from the centuries of quiet contemplation held within its walls.
Atop South Tyrol’s Holy Mountain
Beyond visiting the Church of the Holy Cross, you can also walk around the complex admiring the age-old courtyard and tower, another small chapel, as well as other beautiful works of religious art set about the grounds.
If you want to take in more splendid panoramas while atop the mountain, hop on a trail that darts to the east of the monastery. You will be able to peer deep into the horizon like a Roman soldier scanning for a sign of the Gauls and Goths.
Once you have thoroughly worked up a thirst and appetite from all of the exploring and soulful reflection, take the Via Cruxis route back down to Chiusa. Besides the fact you are now going downhill, you will find this path easier as it is in better shape and a gentler grade.
In addition to the Stations of the Cross, an impressive castled wall will be your companion much of the way. It encircles the monastery grounds until the hill steepens into a terraced vineyard right beneath the octagonal church known as Liebfrauenkirche.
The Liebfrauenkirche church was added to the Sabiona Monastery in the 1650s. It is also open for visiting. Inside, you can study Baroque artwork of the Virgin Mary from several notable artists. While we did not have an opportunity to see it, a baptismal fountain dating to the 5th century is inside as well.
Explore the Charms of Chiusa
Once back in town we suggest spending the remainder of your day exploring Chiusa. If you’re not in the mood for a bite to eat yet, pay a visit to the boutiques you passed along the Via Città Alta. From browsing the wood carvings of Val Gardena to the paintings of local artists and more, you will undoubtedly discover a keepsake or gift for a loved one.
Additional sights you will find of interest is the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea near the town center. This picturesque church by the river was first mentioned in 1208.
After your visit, cross the nearby bridge and meander along the riverfront. The views of Chiusa from here may just ignite your inner artist.
For a deeper dive into the world of art, consider visiting the Museum of Chiusa. It holds the Treasure of Loreto, a priceless collection of religious objects and paintings from Spanish and Italian artists of the 16th and 17th century.
To appease your hunger and thirst immediately after visiting the monastery, we recommend venturing to Gassl Bräu. This craft brewery and tavern is situated just steps away from the staircase to Sabiona.
Gassl Bräu offers an idyllic indoor or outdoor dining setting and delicious fare that will suit the staunchest Tyrolean and the pickiest Italian. If you’re a beer enthusiast, be sure to enjoy a pint or two of Gassl Bräu’s beer, but also wander into the brewery. It is quite possibly the only one in the world with a trout stream running beneath the floor.
When to Visit the Sabiona Monastery
No matter the time of year you visit South Tyrol you can add a hike to the Sabiona Monastery to your trip plans. The site is open all year. If you go in the winter months, consider bringing a set of hiking poles and obviously the appropriate footwear.
The churches are open for visitation from 8 AM to 5 PM. It’s worth noting that if a door is locked it is likely Sabiona’s nuns are cleaning the interior. Simply wander to a different church and return later to see if it is unlocked.