While recently in Europe, I took a trip to the Lombardy region of Italy and spent an afternoon exploring the Sacro Monte in Varese. It’s quite the hike but nicely broken up by lots of different chapels along the way so time passes quite quickly and before you know it, you’ve seen something incredible.
Below is some information about the site and it’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason, the place is stunning and if you find yourself there, be sure to visit The Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi, it’s an incredibly interesting spot. I could have easily spent more time there and the outside of this home is almost as impressive as what’s inside.
Sacro Monte di Varese is one of nine Christian mountaintop shrines that are part of the Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy UNESCO world heritage site. It is situated a few kilometers away from Varese in Campo dei Fiori regional park.
Sacro Monte di Varese may have been home to a church as early as the year 400, when it was rumored that St. Ambrose built a small chapel here.
The first buildings that now make up the shrine on this mountain were built in the 11th century. Word slowly spread about this shrine, leading to an increase in pilgrimages starting in the 15th century.
Visitations picked up in the 17th century, when the Via Sacra was built. Major renovations to the chapels and the sanctuary took place in the early 19th century, which changed their appearance to the baroque style.
Visited in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, Sacro Monte di Varese is a Christian holy site that is held in high regard by the church and many of its followers.
About the site
Sacro Monte di Varese consists of a holy road that is lined with 14 chapels, with a sanctuary and small medieval-era village sitting at the top of the mountain.
The displays inside the chapels focus on the events of the life of Jesus Christ, while those inside the sanctuary at the top are dedicated to the life of the Virgin Mary.
The chapels are located along the two kilometre Royal Road, which climbs the mountain to the small village of Santa Maria del Monte. It is estimated that over 60 million pilgrims have visited this shrine over the past 300 years.
The sanctuary itself dates back to the 11th century. The church in its present form has Renaissance-era design elements on its exterior, and Baroque style elements in its interior.
14th century frescoes created by Prestinari and Fiammenghino are the chief highlight within, while panoramic views from the balcony of the lakes of Varese, Comabbio and Monate can be enjoyed outside.
Apart from the sanctuary, Santa Maria del Monte contains additional visitor services and attractions. This includes the Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi, the Cloister of Monache Romite Ambrosiane, two museums, restaurants, bars, and accommodations.
The Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi is the most noteworthy attraction after the sanctuary, as it is home to the personal art collection of the sculptor and painter, Lodovico Pogliaghi. After working on the restoration of the chapels along the Royal Road, he bought land at the top of Sacro Monte to build a villa. Unfortunately he died before completely restoring the home to his liking.
Within, paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance and Baroque eras can be found, as can archeological artifacts from Egypt, and from the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman eras. We spent some time exploring his home turned museum and the place is stunning; one of the most interesting homes I’ve ever had the pleasure of setting foot in.
How to get there
A funicular operates from the parking lot of the first chapel, which takes passengers to the top of the Sacro Monte. To reach Sacro Monte from the centre of Varese without a car, take the city bus C: destination Prima Cappella – Sacro Monte.
These photos are just the tip of the iceberg, take a look at the video I made from the day.