Mist cloaks the mountainside. Tendrils of fog curl around the edges of the path, obscuring the lake below from view. Rising sharply out of the haze, there’s a path known as the Holy Way which rises a sharp 600 metres over the course of 2 km. This religious and penetance road has Christian roots dating back to the 4th-century and makes its way up the Sacro Monte di Varese.
For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘sacro monte’ can be translated as the ‘sacred mountain’ and that of Varese is often considered to be the most important of the Sacri Monti of Lombardy and Piedmont. In total there are nine such calvaries (groups of chapels culminating in a shrine) and together they are designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
A brief history of the Sacro Monte di Varese
In the very heart of Varese province in Northern Italy, in a place where there are glittering lakes, endless mountainscapes, and traditional food can be found in abundance, the Sacro Monte of Varese is the true gem of Lombardy. Situated in the middle of the Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers) Regional Park, and within the prealps, its roots date all the way back to the 4th-century.
People have flocked to the mountain as a relgious site for centuries, and it’s thought that a simple chapel was constructed in the 4th-century by Aurelio Ambrogio to celebrate a victory. Since the 17th-century, the Holy Way has started at the Prima Capella.
Each of the chapels along the cobbled lane represent a Mystery of the Rosary from Jesus’ life. Work began in creating the ‘Holy Way’ Calvary in 1604. By 1623, thirteen of the chapels had already been completed. En route, each chapel is constructed so as to be viewed from the outside, rather than within its interior.
At the end of the Holy Way, there’s a small mountaintop village by the name of Santa Maria del Monte, as well as the most ornate chapel of them all, the sanctuary (which is also named Santa Maria del Monte). This 15th ecclesiastical building is all Baroque in style and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Over the years, it’s thought that some sixty million pilgrims have walked the Holy Way of Varese!
Things to see at the Sacro Monte di Varese
Santa Maria del Monte
The small and yet quaint hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte sits high on the mountain, offering breathtakingly beautiful views onto the Alps, prealps, and the lake below. Located some 800 metres above sea level, it’s well worth dedicating an hour or so to exploring the maze of little cobbled lanes which form this Italian village.
The fourteen chapels
Leading up the winding Holy Way, these chapels are designed so as to be viewed from their exteriors. If you want to hike up the Sacro Monte for yourself, then I recommend allocating several hours so as to be able to take your time and make the most of viewing each chapel.
Opening of the Via Sacra: Church of the Immacolata Concezione
Chapel 1 – The Annunciation
Chapel 2 – The Visitation
Chapel 3 – The Nativity
Chapel 4 – The Presentation
Chapel 5 – The Finding of Jesus in the Temple
Chapel 6 – Jesus Praying in the Garden
Chapel 7 – The Scourging at the Pillar
Chapel 8 – The Crowning with the Thorns
Chapl 9 – Jesus Climbs the Calvary
Chapel 10 – The Crucifixion
Chapel 11 – The Resurrection
Chapeal 12 – The Ascension
Chapel 13 – Descent of the Holy Spirit
Chapel 14 – The Assumption
Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte
The Museo Baroffio e del Santuario & Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi
One of the museums to be found in the village of Santa Maria del Monte is dedicated to the history of the sanctuary, while the other is the house museum of the artist and sculptor, Pogliaghi. The Casa Museum is open on Saturdays, Sundays and is filled with beautiful art collections. On a clear and sunny day, it’s possible to see all the way to the Duomo of Milano!
The Cloister of Monache Romite Ambrosiane
Though the cloisters are closed to the public as they are still used by the nuns to this day, it’s worth noting that two windows overlooking the sanctuary can be seen. Known in Latin as “Eremitae Ordinis Sancti Ambrosii ad Nemus,” the Religious Order was founded in 1452 in Lombardy.
600 metres above sea level and filled with ornate carvings, highlights of the sanctuary include a 19th-century neo-classical organ and a Romanesque crypt dating all the way back to the 11th-century. The baptistry was created by Lodovico Pogliaghi. Be sure to dedicate at least half an hour to admiring the many treasures that the sanctuary has…
Practical Advice and Tips for Visiting the Sacro Monte di Varese
Best seen in the early morning or early evening so as to make the most of the light (i.e. golden hour), there are several ways by which to explore the Sacro Monte di Varese. Truth be told, you’ll want to dedicate at least half a day to seeing everything the sacred mountain has to offer.
You can either drive up the mountain, take the newly restored funcilar to the top of the mountain, or walk on your own two feet. While the funcilar functions on weekends, hiking will take several hours (if you truly want to see everything, including the mountain’s two museums).
While in the area, be sure not to miss out on a visit to Café del Borducan hotel and restaurant. For those looking for a romantic getaway, this accomodation offers breathtaking views over the alpine mountains around it. Even if you’ve not got enough time to stay, then be sure to head to the restaaurant as it’s here where you can sample a local liqueur, an orange flavoured ‘elixir’.
I visited La Provincia di Varese as part of the #inlombardia365 iAmbassador Campaign with Lombardia Tourism. This is a sponsored post. However, all opinions, photos, and words are my own (as always!)