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This itinerary describes a Longobard monumental complex which has been recovered and restored after decades of neglect and abandonment.
It is part of a larger archaeological park, and it’s immersed in a splendid natural environment, in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. The building includes a tower with frescoed interiors.
It is also defined by the Italian National Trust organisation, the F.A.I., as: “A little bit of the Middle Ages in the silence of Varese’s woods”.
Torba monastery is one of the sites protected by UNESCO since 2011 and it’s part of the “Longobards in Italy“ project. It deserves to be visited because it has a long history stretching back over centuries, from the beginnings of late Roman society to the present day.
After receiving the site as a gift, the F.A.I. undertook significant and splendid restoration work to preserve it for future generations. The monastery is located in the hamlet of Gornate Olona, in the province of Varese, at the foot of the Castelseprio archaeological park, which is only about 2.5 km away.
In fact, the two sites would actually be one and the same, but the walkway which connects the monastery with the upper part of the ancient fortification is closed.
It’s only visible in part and the remains of the walls are undergoing restoration. To visit the second part of the site (which takes over three hours) it’s best to return to your vehicle and continue towards Castelseprio.
I advise arriving early at Torba Monastery if you also want to visit the Santa Maria Foris Portas church and the Castelseprio archaeological site after a break for a meal.
From the outside you see a massive, imposing structure with a tower. This leaves you in no doubt about the these walls’ actual purpose; they weren’t built for religious purposes.
When you enter the monastery you can see the colonnade, the church, the courtyard, the tower, the stable, the ruins of the walls and the walkway.
The colonnade contains photos of the various phases of the complex’s recovery (note, Torba Monastery was the first site protected by the F.A.I.).
The church is from the 9th–13th century. It was commissioned by Benedictine nuns, established in the 7th century AD. You can still admire the frescoes and a tomb which was discovered under the floor. You can descend to a lower level below the apse where there is a small section of the vault which used to cover the crypt.
The courtyard has several rooms including the ticket office, an info point (where you can ask for a guided tour), a bookshop and the restaurant. This latter uses the ancient hall where the nuns used to eat as a dining room; it’s very evocative.
The tower is an integral part of the courtyard complex. It has a short staircase giving access to rooms where you can admire frescoes depicting the Benedictine nuns. From the top you can get a good view of the Olona river and take a look over the walls from a height of more than 20 metres.
The stable, which is separate from the rest of the courtyard, is small and has been restored to its original appearance.
The ruins of the walkway can be reached by crossing a small bridge over the area of archaeological excavations that are still open.
Visiting the village takes about an hour, and can be with a guided tour.
The Monastery was not actually built as such originally. You can tell from its massive, fortified appearance that it used to be part of a Roman military complex dating back to the 5th century AD known as the “castrum” (fortified camp).
It was a defensive outpost against barbarian incursions along the north-western strip of the Alps. Its position is due to the presence of the Olona river which was the main source of water and was strategically important.
After the Roman period the building was used in the centuries which followed by the Goths, the Byzantines and the Longobards. In the long period of the “Pax Logobard” the structure lost its military function permanently and was put to civil use.
In the 7th century AD it became a religious settlement. A group of Benedictine nuns arrived who had the church built inside the castrum itself in the 9th century.
Over time it became part of the Seprio countryside and was used as an agricultural-production facility. Peace reigned until the 8th century.
The site became a reason for clashes between the powerful Milanese families of the time, the Della Torre and the Visconti. In 1287, the latter emerged victorious and Ottone Visconti ordered the castrum destroyed, in order to eliminate all traces of their predecessors, with the exception of the religious buildings. A lot of their remains can still be seen near the Castelseprio excavations. Enjoy your visit!
How to reach Torba Monastery
There is a charge for access to the village. The site is under the protection of the F.A.I.: for further, more detailed information click here.
Address: Via stazione, 21040 Gornate Olona (VA)
How to get there from Varese:
Take the SS 233 to the junction for Lonate Ceppino, turn right at the roundabout and then go in the direction of Torba/Gornate Olona. When you arrive at the Gothic church at the end of the valley turn right, then turn left after about 220 metres for the car park.
How to get there from Milan:
A8 Milan—Varese Autostrada dei Laghi, Solbiate Arno exit, direction Carnago, and follow the directions for Castelseprio and Torba.
G.P.S.:45°- 43’46.46” N / 8°- 51’48.34” E / elev. 262
Monday and Tuesday: closed
Wednesday to Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Monday and Tuesday public holidays: 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
For special openings see this F.A.I. page