The story of the “Sacred Mountain of Varese”

Living in an area in Italy which is in a strange sense similar to the Fish Hoek or Pinelands of Cape Town by looking at its inhabitants (those Fish Hoek and Pinelands locals will know what I mean a.k.a a community of elderly citizens, to put it nicely), does have some perks I’ve decided. For one, it pushes me to get out and about and keep myself busy by exploring the area. I’d otherwise probably die of boredom or fall into a slight depression. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore old people – they are after all the ones with the life experience and the cool stories. But if you’re only 26, you can deal only so much with the unfriendly, snobbish, elderly Italians that live here. You can also only tolerate as much disgusted looks if you ask someone if they speak or understand a little bit of English. I’m talking utter disgust on their faces, as if I’d just farted out loud in public.

What also struck me the other day while travelling on the bus is that most of them are always frowning – even if they aren’t frowning. All the years of frowning and angry looks have now settled in permanently on their faces. Maybe they hate the bus… or they really do think I fart in public. I don’t know but I do find it entertaining watching them and secretly rating their frowns.

Getting back to the point of this post, I have made a list of some pretty cool stuff to do and see in the Varese vicinity – and there are actually a lot. This week I finally grabbed the opportunity after a few days of sunshine (which meant most of the weekend’s snow had melted) to hike up Sacro Monte di Varese. Sacro Monte – literally translated to “Sacred Mountain of Varese” – is probably the first thing you notice when you start seeing the Varese area from a distance and is very iconic for this region.

Why is it sacred?

After getting slightly lost, I finally came to a big arch which marks the beginning of the pilgrimage up Sacro Monte. According to the info sign at the beginning of the walk “art as an expression of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and of devotion to Mary, his mother has made this mountain sacred.”

At the top of the mountain lies the medieval village of Santa Maria del Monte which has been described as ‘sacred’ since the first centuries of Christianity. Naturally I would find this extremely intriguing. The village’s position was a natural defence from the barbarian invasions. In April 1452 Caterina Moriggi from Pallanza reached the mountain, and later also Giuliana Puricelli from Busto-Verghera. These two founded a religious community there and the Monastery was built in 1474.

Via some locals, I found out that there are currently more than 20 nuns living in the monastery in Sacro Monte. In general, the monastery has quite a few young nuns as the older ones are starting to pass on. They apparently had a new intake recently of two 18-year-olds. Say whaaaat?! I didn’t know there are still young gals wanting to become nuns. I think it’s pretty honourable, actually. I also found out that even in a monastery, money matters… If you come from a rich family who’ll give lots of moola to the church, you’ll be accepted with open arms and you can sit, walk, and pray all day long. If you’re not that strong financially, you can still follow your calling to become a nun, but you’ll have to work inside the nunnery, doing something like cooking or gardening.

The chapels

I did the walk up the cobble stone path which is only about 3.2km long and takes you past 14 chapels – each one telling a little bit of the story of the life of Christ. It was Tecla Maria Cid, abbess in the Monastery’s idea to build path dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary. Architect Joseph Bernascone was committed to the task of overseeing the architecture of chapels, and the path along the slopes of the mountain. A pretty fine job you did Signor Bernascone!

Here are some pics of my lil ‘pilgrimage’ for your enjoyment:

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