The Chapels of Lombardy

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A wonderful way to combine recreation with culture is to hike to some of the many Alpine pilgrimage chapels. Clustered together in beautiful rural settings, these shrines are decorated with highly realistic tableaux vivants whose purpose was to narrate biblical stories to the often illiterate faithful as they proceeded from one shelter to the next. Today many of these shrines can be reached by car, but the fun is in leaving the modern world behind and going on foot through fields, past waterfalls, up steep mountain trails or along the shores of a lake, just as pilgrims have done for centuries. On Sundays you may find crowds; if possible, go during the week.
 
  • Varese: Since these 14 chapels were built 300 years ago, it is estimated that 60 million pilgrims have strolled the 2 km-route that connects them. Drive five miles north of town to Sacro Monte; leave the car and climb the hill or take the funicular to the site, where spectacular vistas across the mountains alternate with sculptures and frescoes illustrating the Mysteries of the Rosaries.
   
  • Biella: The Sanctuary of Oropa is the most commercialized, yet its setting amongst waterfalls and snow-capped mountain vistas is spectacular, and they have rooms where you can stay overnight.

 
  • Varallo: The Church of the Madonna of Loreto was the first of these shrines. The decorations in its 44 chapels are the most realistic, sometimes to a fault.  

  • Orta San Giulio: Overlooking beautiful Lake Orta, these chapels are technically in Piedmont, but the spot is so close to the Lombardy border that it's worth crossing the frontier. Embellished with frescoes and terra cotta statues, they tell the life story of St. Francis.
 
  • Castelseprio: The rough brick chapel of Santa Maria Foris Porta has frescoes that date from the 7th to 9th centuries and are probably Byzantine. Hidden for centuries, they were discovered only in 1944 and offer one of the most haunting spiritual destinations available to the devout pilgrim today.


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