Do you want to have a nice walk in the nature, admiring some art and history? Your destination can be Varese, for a nice walk on the Sacro Monte.
A typical Sunday excursion, the path to Sacro Monte of Varese is very popular for people living nearby, but also a cultural jewel for tourists. It is mild walk, 2-km long, suitable for all: every time I come here I find young couple, lots of families with kids, elderly people reaxing on the way.
First of all, what is a “Sacro Monte”? It is a religious complex, built on a hill, destination for pilgrims who follow a devotional path, visiting chapels that tell the story of Christ, Holy Mary or saints, through frescoes and statues. In Northern Italy, between Lombardia and Piemonte, we have 9 “Sacro Monte” that have been declared world UNESCO heritage.
Sacro Monte in Varese was built during the 17th century, from the idea of Maria Tecla Cid, a nun who lived in the monastery already existing on the top of the hill. The legend says that the very first sanctuary here had been built by St. Ambrose, as a gift for the victory over the Arian heretics..
The trail and the chapels
The pilgrims’ trail includes 14 chapels, one for each mystery of the Rosary – the last one is represented in the Shrine on the top of the hill – a shrine and a crypt. It is really impressive to see how each chapel is unique in style, as the architect Giuseppe Bernascone designed it, to create harmony with the beautiful nature around: you can enjoy the path between green trees and flowers, having a look to Varese lake you can see from distance. Statues and frescoes have been created by lombard artists, some of them famous, like Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, known as Morazzone, and Francesco Silva. On the third chapel’s external wall there is the “Flight into Egypt”, painted in 1983 by the famous painter Renato Guttuso: bright, vivid colours give life to this sad scene, painted over an old cancelled fresco.
What I find fantastic is how the characters are vivid and expressive: from the peaceful face of Mary to the cruel grins of Christ’s torturers, it is like in a while they can become alive…
See below the full gallery of the 14 chapels (you can click on each to see in full size).
When you get to the top, after the 2 km-walk, the stunning view will reward you effort: Moses statue welcomes you and from Santa Maria del Monte, the small village on the hill, you can see the lake of Varese on your right and the Swiss snow-capped mountains on your left.
Still you have to complete your pilgrimage: you miss the fifteenth chapel!
The Shrine of Santa Maria del Monte
The Shrine is considered the fifteenth stop of the Rosary: the Coronation of Virgin Mary. It has a complex history, with different building phases: what you see now is the Romanesque church built in 15th century, but traces of the previous constructions still are visible. The crypt itself was probably the 9/10th century building.
Before entering you are welcomed by the statue of blessing Pope Paul VI surrounded by sheeps (look for the one with 5 legs!). The interior is currently adorned with magnificent frescoes by different painters: Giovan Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni Paolo Ghianda, Salvatore Bianchi, that are framed by rich Baroque stucco decorations. You have also two beautiful wooden altars, depicting the Nativity and the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple.
Inside the shrine, besides the altar, you can find an ossuary containing the holy earth from Russia, near the bones of Don Carlo Gnocchi, military chaplain of Alpini during the Second World War: it is a tribute to the tragic Russian campaign that led to death thousands of Italians sent to fight on the Eastern Front. Every 26th January, on Sacro Monte, Alpine section of Varese celebrates the Nikolajewka battle.
And in the end… some relax 🙂
My favourite conclusion of the walk is a hot chocolate, but here you can also have a good lunch in one of the hotels/restaurants of the village: my favourite one is Ristorante Montorfano, where you can enjoy some local typical food (like “polenta and bruscitt” or “pappardelle with porcini mushrooms”) on an balcony with an amazing view.
You can also buy a bottle of “Apollo 11”, the pink Varese aperitif, invented in 1969 by Piero Pirola, confectioner who wanted to celebrate the landing of man on the moon. Its recipe recipe and ingredients are still strictly top secret: the scent is that of orange blossom, with notes of vanilla and cloves.
Do you like night atmosphere? For New Year’s Eve you can also join the traditional torchlight procession: last year on Sunday 29 december, the Via Sacra has lit up with torches and songs, with thousand of people.
How to get to Sacro Monte
From Varese, well connected with Milan by trains (visit Trenord.it), you can take the “C line” direction Sacro Monte. Once on the main square piazzale Montanari, you can decide to walk to the top or also you can take the funicular (3-minutes ride), open every day.
If you come by car, you can park on piazzale Montanari (or if it’s full you can leave the car along the street).