Walking Up The Chapel’s Trail To Sacre Monte di Varese – Italy

The Sacre Monte di Varese (The sacred mountain of Varese) is one of the nine Sacri Monti (sacred mountains) located on the in regions of Lombardy and Piedmont in Northern Italy. The nine mounts which are settled on the foothill of the Alps are a series of nine cavalries or groups of chapels with devotional pathways that were created during the late 16th and 17th century. Due to the political events at this time the pilgrimages to the Holy Land were becoming more difficult hence these pilgrimage sites were offered as an alternative to the Holy Land and also as an evangelical structure to celebrate the dogma of the Catholic Church in opposition to the spread of the protestant reform in Europe. The pilgrimage sites were dedicated to various aspects of the Christian life harmoniously integrated with the surrounding natural landscapes of hills, lakes and forests. Along with their religious value the Sacri Monti have a rich artistic and architectural value and in consequence in year 2003 the nine Sacri Monti were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sacri Monte di Varese is located within the Campo dei Fiori Regional Park (Field of Flowers). The Via SarcaThe Sacred Pathway of the Rosemary commences at the foot of the Campo dei Fiori mountain range in Varese, in the Northern Italy. The 2 km long wide cobble stoned pathway consists of 14 chapels which are dedicated to the Mysteries of Rosary which depicts the stories of the life of Jesus and Mary. The Sacre Monte di Varese also contributed in highlighting the importance of prayers of Rosary as a peaceful instrument in repelling the influence of Protestant reformation spreading in Europe. The pilgrim trial winds up at the small medieval hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte, perched on the summit of the hill where the 15th Chapel, the Sanctuary, which is dedicated to Virgin Mary is located.

How To Get To Sacro Monte di Varese

It is quite easy to reach Varese and one can visit the pilgrim site as a day trip from Milan. You can travel to Varese by train or by private vehicle. From Milano Centrale there are regular trains to Varese which will reach Varese about an hour. From Varese Railway station you can take the City Bus C up to the Prima Cappella (First Chapel). The bus stop is located in a little piazza next to the beginning of the trail. You can drive also to the Prima Cappella and leave the car on the parking lot near the first chapel. Instead you can also drive up to the small village and park the vehicles in the Piazzale Pogliaghi. For the visitors who do not like the idea of walking all the way up to the summit there is a Funicular service available from the parking lot to the village Santa Maria del Monte.  

We planned our visit to Sacre Monte as a day trip from Milan and we took an early regional train to Varese. There onwards travelled with the City Bus C up to the beginning of the trail.

The Chapel’s Trail  (Via delle Cappelle)

The Pathway to the village is always accessible to the public. The trail begins with an arch, The Arch of Joyful Mysteries, ornated with pillars and on to the right you can see the Fountain of the Samaritana. Once you pass the arch you can spot the UNESCO World Heritage site plaque and information board with map on the trail and other details. The cobbled stoned pathway is quite serene and enclosed with chestnut and beach trees. We slowly started walking uphill passing the Chapels and enjoying the scenic views of the surrounding countryside.

Each of the 14 Chapels are dedicated to the Mysteries of Rosary. The Pilgrims Trail was set up by Giambattista Aguggiari, a Capuchin friar, allowing the Catholic pilgrims a clearer and a more challenging road, easing the strain which also provided religious exercise. The pilgrims could walk uphill reciting the rosary and meditating at the each chapel.

Inside of each Chapel is filled with dioramas and decorated with impressive 17th century frescos, paints and sculptures. The Chapels were designed by the eminent architect Giuseppe Bernascone from Varese. Each one of the Chapels has its own characteristic and an architectural design of its own. Unfortunately it is not possible to enter the Chapels and to admire the artwork inside we had to walk around the chapels tilting our heads to get a better view through the grated glass windows which has been installed to protect the artwork. Along the way we passed several Triumphal arches and fountains lined along the pathway.

After the 14th Chapel we came across a wide cobble stoned ramp leading to the small hamlet on the top of the hill.

It took us about two hours to complete the trail as we were halting at each Chapel to admire the artwork and also with frequent stops to admire the magnificent vistas of the surroundings.

Santa Maria del Monte

The small village of Santa Maria del Monte is located about 800 m from the sea level. It is a quite picturesque village with maze of cobbled stoned pathways, old houses and small arcades with flowered balconies. It was quite relaxing to walk through this enchanting small village with medieval structures.

We walked pass the small village piazza and reached a view point at the edge of the village. The panoramic view was breathtaking. The weather was quite good and we could see a large part of the Po Valley, on to the pre Alps, Alps and also the Lake Varese, Comabbio, Monate and Maggiore. We were even luck enough to see up to some outlines of Milan !

The Sanctuary of the Santa Maria del Monte

Overlooking the small Piazza Paolo VI stands the Campanile (bellower) and the most important landmark of the village, The Sanctuary of the Santa Maria del Monte, which is the 15th Chapel. The Sanctuary represents the Glorious Mystery of the Coronation of Mary and dates back to the Middle Ages. According to the legend in the 4th century Saint Ambrose built a chapel on the mountain and donated a wooden statue of the Madonna Nera (Black Madonna) after defeating followers of Arian heresy due the intercession by the Virgin.

For centuries the chapel underwent series of reconstructions and today the exterior is in Renaissance style and the interior with high ceilings is decorated in impressive baroque style high alter. The walls are adorned with carvings and magnificent frescos and framed by rich stucco decorations. On an 18th century display case we could see the ancient wooden statue of Virgin with the Child. This image is dear to the people of Varese and well known throughout the region which has always been the destination of the endless flow of pilgrims.

One of the interesting places you should not miss is the adjacent 11th century Romanesque Crypt which is carved into a wall. It is decorated with stunning frescos which dates back to 14th – 15th century. You need to pay a small fee to enter the crypt if you visiting before 17.30 hrs. Here you can see stratified archeological discoveries which dates back to the beginning of the Roman Empire and to the end of the Middles Ages.

Adjoining the Sanctuary lies the Convent of the Romite Ambrosiane which was founded in 1474. Next we visited the oratory of the Sanctuary where bodies of the monastery’s founders, the beatified Caterina of Pallanza and Giuliana Puricelli are conserved. The convent is still active and the nuns still live there in silence by vow. Since the nuns belong to a secluded order the convent is not accessible to the public.

Right next to the Sanctuary, on a little terrace overlooking the lakes is the Museo Baroffio e del Santuario created by a donation of the Baron Giuseppe Baroffio Dall’Aglio. It displays an interesting collection of 15th -18th century paintings, Romanesque sculptures and miniatures of valuable codices and antependia of the Sforza period.

Please make sure to allocate at least half an hour to admire the Sanctuary and its treasures which it has to offer.

After visiting the highlights of the trail finally it was time to fuel up ourselves. Even though the village is small there are a number of small restaurants and cafés. We took a break in a small café with a terrace overlooking the mountains. It was a sunny day so we sat on the terrace with a coffee, beer and focaccias enjoying the beauty of the surrounding landscapes.

Afterwards it was time for us to explore the medieval hamlet. We walked through the maze of narrow cobblestoned alley passing the small stone archways and stone façade houses with flowered balconies.

Finally we took the funicular to the reach to bus stop at the foot of the hill to catch our train back to Milan.

Useful Tips

  • If you are planning to take the hiking trail to the top of the hill, I suggest you to make an early start to enjoy the serene atmosphere along the way.
  • La Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi (The Lodovico Pogliaghi House Museum) is located in a villa at the end of the Chapels trail which is the museum home of the sculptor Lodovico Pogliaghi. It displays, archaeological findings, paintings, works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, unique Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental artefacts and contains examples of the artist’s eclectic life.
  • For more updated information check the official website : http://www.sacromontedivarese.it/home-en.html

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