A house in the mountains is something many people covet. A house inside the mountains….well, that’s a little bit more original. The Eremo di San Columbano is just that: a monastery in Trambileno, Italy famous for being a literal mountain home. It’s built into the side of a cliff, with a natural roof made of rock, and sits around 120 meters above the ground. Of course, no one actually lives there, but a lot of people visit.
According to lore, San Columbano (or Saint Columbanus) was an Irish Missionary who arrived in Trambileno sometime around 600 AD and went about doing normal missionary things. Mainly, founding monasteries and spreading the word of Celtic Christianity. He’s also rumored to have slain a child-killing dragon before establishing Eremo di San Columbano among the rocks, stones, and natural caves.
The first people who lived there were hermits. It was called the “Grotta Degli Eremiti,” which translates to “Cave of the Hermits.” While its exact age is unknown, the date 753 is engraved nearby, suggesting that hermitage (yes, that’s a thing) continued consistently long after San Columbano came and went. Sometime around the tenth or eleventh century, a tiny church was built and dedicated to its founding saint.
The Cave of the Hermits was true to its name and used mainly be hermits until the late 1700s; monks, however, used it too. When hermitage was abolished, the hermits serving as its guardians left and those living in the nearby valley took over the cave’s care for several decades.
In 1996, the Autonomous Province of Trento restored the church and opened it to the public. It’s now maintained by volunteers from Comitato Amici di San Columbano (or the Friends of Saint Columbanus Committee). Visitors wanting to experience it must be willing to climb: it’s only accessible via a 102 step staircase carved inside the rocks.
Mural paintings inside the cave are dedicated to the legend of its existence: they feature San Columbano fighting with the dragon he allegedly killed – a subtle nod to the never-ending battle between good and evil. Other paintings inside include those depicting Paradise and Madonna (the Virgin Mary, not the pop singer). The walls also contain graffiti from those who’ve visited on pilgrimage in centuries past.
In recent years, historians have argued over San Columbano’s impact on religion, though many agree that he was a virtuous man with a deep, undeniable love for all of God’s creatures. He was rumored to be almost Disney-like in his character, with animals running out of the forest to be touched by his hand. He was also a staunch defender of his Celtic traditions and his belief that the Holy Spirit had supreme authority.
Today, his legacy carries on. At the Eremo di San Columbano, Christmas is celebrated each year with a torch-lit procession followed by mass. Some of the other monasteries he founded are protected by law and many have showcased great influence. The Luxeli Abbey, in France, produced sixty-three apostles who carried the beliefs of San Columbano all throughout Europe.