Just outside Milan, less than one hour by train, there are several beautiful cities full of amenities and worth a day trip. Varese, the so-called “city of gardens”, is definitely one of them. And Sacro Monte is a not-to-be-missed destination that will surprise you.


Rich in parks and sitting on gently sloping hills, it boasts an elegant city center with characteristic porticoes, stylish shops and cafès, and a religious complex that includes a baroque Basilica and a Romanesque baptistery with amazing frescoes. And do not miss the neoclassical Palazzo Estense with its spectacular Italian garden: it reminds of the Schönbrunn castle in Vienna, only on a much smaller scale, and just outside Milan!

Villa Panza in Varese
Villa Panza

But there is a place in Varese that will conquer your heart, and that is Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza – after the names of its three most important owners. It houses an amazing collection of contemporary art, including some site-specific installations, and it frequently hosts pathbreaking art exhibitions. Actually, I can still remember one by Bill Viola that drew me to Varese for five days in a row.


For a dive into nature and spirituality at the same time, take a city bus and in a few minutes you will get to the starting point of Via Sacra (Holy Road). It is a pedestrian cobbled road leading to the romantic, picturesque village of Santa Maria del Monte, yet this simple ascent is a unique experience in itself. Along its 2 km, you will encounter at roughly regular intervals 14 chapels, each of them representing the Mysteries of the Rosary, and each populated with crowds of realistic, life-size statues.  Enjoy the silence and the natural surroundings, and if you just turn around you will get a breathtaking view of the plain: on clear days, the modern skyline of Milan is perfectly visible.

A model of Via Sacra, the Holy Road in Sacro Monte
A model of Via Sacra

In 50 minutes you will get to the village and to the 15th chapel, that is the Sactuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its origins date back to the early Middle Ages, and I do recommend a visit to its crypt with its perfectly preserved frescoes (look at the graffitis left by visitors of the 15th century!). The whole complex, Holy Road and Sactuary, is named Sacro Monte, and became Unesco World Heritage in 2003.


Your efforts deserve a reward: quite recently I have been to Sacro Monte, and I enjoyed a generous serving of polenta and  porcini at Il Convivio del Sacro Monte. Yet a visit there cannot  be considered complete if it doesn’t include a stop at Borducan. It is a fine cafè (and hotel) where you can taste the famous eponymous Elixir, a liqueur whose recipe is a well-kept secret – for sure, it includes essential oil extracted from the orange peels. After all, the very name of the place and of the liqueur is the erroneous translitteration of the Algerian word for “orange”. Such name was chosen by the founder, Davide Bergonzio, who had travelled in Sicily and Algeria in the second half of the 18th century.

Plaster copy of Duomo main door by Ludovico Pogliaghi in Sacro Monte
Plaster copy of Duomo main door

Before you leave, don’t forget to visit the simply amazing Pogliaghi House Museum. Ludovico Pogliaghi was a painter, sculptor and decorator, and collected an incledible array of artworks and objects from all over the world. His house is a Wunderkammer: one of its rooms looks like the Pantheon in Rome, another is a 1:4 version of the bathroom of the Persian Shah, and you will simply gasp as you walk inside his atelier and stare at the real-size copy in plaster of one of his masterpieces: the central bronze door of Milan’s Duomo. Which is, by the way, a nice reminder: it is time to go back to modern, bustling, shining Milan.