We visited the Monastero di Torba on the same day as the Parco Archeologico di Castelseprio (Archaeological Park of Castelseprio), August 4th, 2013. Although they are owned and operated by different organizations, the Archaeological Park and the Monastery of Torba were originally part of the same Roman defensive network, and are best visited together.
To read reviews of Castelseprio: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g1931787-d4163361-Reviews-Parco_Archeologico_di_Castelseprio-Castelseprio_Province_of_Varese_Lombardy.html
The most fascinating aspect of visiting the Monastery of Torba is seeing the Sequence of History, the layers of habitation that have blanketed this place.
The Tower of Torba, around which the Monastery of Torba was later built, started its humble existence as the easternmost tower of a 5th century Roman castrum (fort); just one of many identical square towers jutting forth from the walls. The fort passed into Gothic hands, then back to the Romans (in the guise of the Byzantine Empire), before coming under Lombard control.
Under the Lombards, Sibrium (the fort's ancient name) was an important place. It was governed by a royal official, had stone buildings and churches, and minted coins. By the 8th century, the region was peaceful enough that the walls ceased to have military importance. The Tower of Torba was donated to an order of Benedictine Nuns, who lived and prayed in and around the tower until 1482.
It was at this time (the 8th century) that the most interesting frescoes were painted, in memory of the Benedictine Sisters who were laid to rest inside the tower. Yes, the first floor of the former Roman defensive tower became a Christian tomb. The name of one nun, Aliberga, can still be seen next to her portrait. The next level functioned as an oratory, and is adorned with the remains of more frescoes. Various layers, dating to different phases of decor, can be discerned. The oldest layer, including the famous faceless nuns, may also be 8th century.
In 1287, the Visconti family--embroiled in wars against its rivals for control of Milan and its hinterlands--leveled Sibrium's ancient walls and towers. Only the Tower of Torba was spared, on account of the nuns. A sturdy stone farmhouse now stands adjacent to the tower, right where the walls once stood.
Once the Benedictines left in 1482, the lonely old tower became part of a working farm until it was abandoned in turn in the 1970s. The remains of these fine old farm buildings remind the visitor of yet another era that has past and fled. Now a restaurant occupies the space.
Owned and restored by the FAI, visiting the Monastery of Torba costs 5 euros. There is the Tower, of course. A medieval church stands nearby, with a few scant bits of fresco inside. A large barn stands beside the farmhouse, along with other scattered rural outbuildings. A fair chunk of the Roman wall has been excavated (and perhaps reconstructed?) north and west of the tower.
From reading other reviews, it seems FAI gives guided tours, at least at certain times. We were just sent to explore on our own, and there was much less information available in English than there was at Castelseprio. (Which is another good reason to visit both sites--and the Archaeological Park first.)
I would have liked to explore the barn and farmhouse more, but felt a bit hesitant since it looked like the restaurant was getting ready for dinner service (we visited in the late afternoon). Probably would have been fine to do so, but ...
Actually, if we had not had to meet the rest of the family back in Stresa for dinner (and had not had a very tired young child in tow), we would have been very tempted to stay for dinner. It is a lovely countryside location, steeped in history and tradition.
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