Full of Roman and medieval majesty, Susa has occupied a strategic position for two millennia as the junction at which invading or retreating armies, pious or otherwise pilgrims and caravans of political marriage alliances were headed for the lands of France or, the other way, to Torino.
Cheerful and welcoming to two weary visitors the town revealed its pretty corners of towered churches, Romanesque archways, fresco-painted courtyards and cool arcaded market places.
Its remarkable Roman heritage includes a fully intact entrance gate built in 8BC for the first Emperor Augustus to mark an alliance between Rome and Cotius, a Celtic King.
A gigantic frieze depicts a procession of animals led to sacrifice in grisly honour to seal the pact.
Nearby the remains of a Roman aqueduct were built on an original Celtic alter and later became supporting walls for a 10th century castle, the home of romantic Contessa Adelaide of Torino. She founded the Savoy dynasty with her marriage to Odon of Maurienne-Savoy in 1046.
The Savoy dukes over time funded much of the Piemonte (Piedmont) region’s spectacular architecture and as supporters of Italian unification became the country’s first Kings in the 19th century.
We visited the amphitheatre which did indeed host violent ‘games’ involving gladiators, and animals. It fell into disuse as a public entertainment venue in the 19th century but was revived by archaeologists in the 1950s.
Today it’s an outdoor theatre space and the audience sits on original granite slabs that make for benches around the sandy circular floor.
A spectacular Roman four storey brick double-towered gate, Porta Savoia, dating from the third century, marks the entrance to what became the medieval quarter of the town. Just behind the gate, the San Guisto Cathedral is a lesson in layering different epochs of architecture.
Originally a Benedictine Abbey founded in 1029 it now has Gothic and neo-Gothic additions from between the 13th and 19th centuries. Its exterior features a fresco of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as well as a bell tower perched on top of its slender octagonal spire.
Nearby the striking and imposing Chiesa di S Maria Maggiorie is now a private house sporting a spectacular Romanesque four storey tower. Comparatively modern, as founded in 1244 by Beatrice of Savoy, the Chiesa and Convent of San Francisco were built to honour the Peruvian saint’s visit to the town in 1214.
Historical bounty aside, today’s town is cheerfully bustling and noisy with school children, shoppers, families and friends gathering at street-side cafes and in the many shaded piazzas. It was a treat to hear Italian chatter and to smell olive oil, garlic, herbs and fresh bread in the air which was now warming up to 30 degrees.
Arriving unwittingly on the night before the weekly market we woke to being surrounded by cars and sellers setting up gloriously provisioned local stalls packed with bright vegetables, fruits, cheeses, breads, honeys, fragrant oils, straw boaters and lacy underwear.
It was also the place in which we found Daniel, a thoughtful mechanic, who took charge of Bertha and fixed her up with two new rear brake cylinders.
Driving her out of Susa was a revelation in forgotten speed and powered steering control which underlined for us how tremendous an effort Bertha had made to travel 700 miles and across a mountain pass, to get this far.