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San Colombano hermitage: it’s carved into a cliff in northern Italy, and it is named after the saint who killed a dragon.

4 min read

We are lost in the Leno Valley, of Trento Province in northern Italy, near to the San Colombano lake, where the solitude is taken to another level and isolation literally to new heights! It is somewhat expected for a hermitage to be hard to reach, and San Colombano is partly a natural cave, and partly excavated into the rock-face and it’s located over 120 meters above the ground right in the middle of the valley’s vertical cliff face. It’s been there since the 8th century and climbing is the only way to get to it. But it’s worth it. Do you remember Saint Beatus Höhlen in Switzerland? San Colombano is particular because, of all the countless churches and monasteries in Italy, a country regarded as a cradle of Christianity, only this one has a legend of a vicious dragon to tell and is named after a heroic saint who defeated the beast. Well-preserved drawings inside depict the epic battle from back in the day.

A signpost that says “Eremo di San Colombano” on the road from Rovereto to Vallarsa, marks the path (if a long line through the narrow Leno gorge, with huge cliffs looming on both sides could be even described as a path…). Then follows a short bridge that makes possible swift passage over the Leno di Vallarsa River, and after remains only a deadly cliff to climb, a couple of rocks, and 102 precarious steps to climb. The place was definitely built to provide isolated spiritual contemplation, for people that want to be left alone, of course. Arrived at your destination, there is nothing to see, except for incredible huge rocks and a flowing river below. But it seems, that it wasn’t all that quiet 12 centuries ago. If the church over the years offered refuge and solitude to men who wished to be left alone, according to the legend, in these caves lived a dragon.

The beast would wreak havoc through the area and below, the beauty of the Leno river was not just a feast for the beast’s eyes. The area has been a holy land, and the river a place where every child was baptized: easy prey for the dragon who would snatch them up and carry them off to its lair. Many tried to slay the terrible beast, but all attempts are failed. Crushed to pieces, their bodies were just another full plate for the dragon to devour. Luckily, an Irish missionary from the Kingdom of Meath was in northern Italy to meet the royal family, and when he heard some rumors about this menace, rushed to see what’s what. With God’s will, he helped the people who were suffering, and despite no one knows how exactly, St. Columban (the white dove) came out as the victor and a savior.

The dragon’s lair was than declared sacred and within a few years, the Leno Valley became a pilgrimage site. The saint died just a few years later, but it took almost a century and a half for the first daring pilgrim to set foot inside the sacred cave and become its hermit. And so, around 750, what was a dragon’s lair became a shrine, the “Cave of the Hermits”, and the church appears like a framed picture hanging on a straight wall. Inside, on its walls, among the many drawings and frescoes, is one made by the first pilgrim, a drawing that shows the epic battle of the saint and the dragon. The Hermitage in its current form was created around 1319, and abandoned since 1782 when the Catholic Church banned the practice of solitary retreat, but the local people never left the place to rot and for over two centuries they preserve it. Each Christmas, the stairs are lit with torches as a homage to all the pilgrims and their last few steps in a long and hard walk, in honor of a dragon-slaying saint.

Today, the Eremo di San Colombano is the starting point of a beautiful trekking route called “The Treasures of Trambileno.” The trek ends where the Leno River flows in Lago di San Colombano, and right after, as a reward, the trekkers can enjoy the local cuisine at Bosco Dei Pini Neri restaurant in Trambileno.

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