The last glimpse of Milan fades away in the rear vision mirror of our rented Fiat. Cars zip by and trucks hurtle past along the highway. Our destination is the relatively unknown town of Varallo drawn by the Sacred Mountain of Varoolo or Sacro Monte di Varallo.
Driving in Vercelli
Varallo is a small town of 7800 in the province of Vercelli in Italy. Fortunately the directions are easy to follow: a turn onto the A26 then a detour off the highway at Romagnano.
The countryside gradually reveals itself.
Green fields flash past, interrupted every few kilometres by quaint towns with narrow cobblestone streets.
Our Fiat squeezes between ancient buildings; some streets are so narrow you could reach out and scrape the paint peeling off the walls of the houses.
Where is Varallo?
Varallo is at the southern end of Valsesia valley and is on the way to the ski resort of Alagna at the foot of Monte Rosa near the Swiss border.
The slopes of Monte Rosa, Western Europe’s second highest mountain, offer some of Italy’s best off-piste skiing.
But we haven’t come to ski; we’re here to soak up the region’s art and culture.
Scattered among the hills of Piedmont and Lombardy are a collection of Sacri Monti (sacred mountains) and Varallo has some of the best.
These Sacri Monti are a World Heritage-listed collection of 16th-century chapels.
Milan might be home to one of the world’s largest cathedrals, the Duomo, and the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper hangs. But the hundreds of chapels in Piedmont (located in Belmonte, Crea, Domodossola, Ghiffa, Oropa, Orta and Varallo) and Lombardy (Ossuccio and Varese) are located in picturesque countryside settings.
We’re staying at an albergo, a family-run hotel in an 18th-century Ursuline convent which once hosted Umberto I (Italy’s king from 1878 to 1900) and his brother Amedeo, the duke of Aosta.
Not a great deal has changed in Varallo since the Italian royals visited in 1856, except that the old convent cells are now rooms with clean and comfortable 80s-style decor.
And the austerity of the old-fashioned convent walls is brightened up by rows of colourful potted flowers hanging from balcony railings.
The adventure of rolling into a small country town where few people speak English is half the fun.
My Italian vocabulary consists of a handful of words, mostly to do with food. And the elderly man at the front desk understands less English than I do Italian.
Much of our communication is done with hand signals.
Varallo town centre
We stroll past pizzerias, trattorias, fruit shops and delis.
Shopkeepers speak little English but are expressive with their gestures. And ordering a meal is an adventure.
Varallo might be one Italian town where you won’t stack on the kilos. Here, losing weight is a serious business.
A few years ago, in an effort to beat rising obesity, the local government paid men €50 ($75) to lose four kilograms and women three kilograms within a month.
Dieters who kept the weight off for five months received a bonus of €200 ($300).
The main street, Corso Umberto I, winds through the town towards the Sesia River.
The street is lined with palaces with shutters and balconies that are centuries old.
Many of these old buildings are now museums and galleries such as Museo Scaglia, dedicated to artist Cesare Scaglia and the Pinacoteca Civica, which has a collection of art that includes a 17th-century painting of David and Goliath by local artist Tanzio da Varallo.
We stop to admire the church of San Gaudenzio, anchored to a creeper-covered cliff, and the church of Madonna delle Grazie.
Inside both churches are paintings and frescoes by artist Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Sacro Monte di Varallo
The chapels sit regally at the top of a rocky spur above the town.
Winding paths lead past cell-like enclosures where teams of architects, painters, and sculptors have created beautiful and unique works of art.
Each chapel is a kind of mini theatre set telling a story with elaborate wall and ceiling frescoes, and life-sized painted figurines (over 800 in total) sculptured from wood and terracotta.
Each chapel describes a biblical tale such as Joseph’s first dream, the baptism of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion.
Franciscan monk Bernardino Caimi came up with the idea of recording biblical scenes with the aim of building a New Jerusalem for pilgrims.
Although most of the chapels portray stories from the life and death of Jesus Christ, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the fine workmanship of the frescoes and sculptures.
The artistic skill employed in these chapels is certainly worth seeing. It’s like stepping into a time portal where stories are frozen in time and culture is preserved in terracotta, timber and paint.
We stayed at Albergo d’Italia (Corso Roma, 6, Varallo) from €80 ($120) a double, phone +39 0163 51106 or see.
What else is Varallo famous for?
Varallo was one of the first towns in Italy to ban the burqini, with fines of €500 euros ($750) for anyone spotted wearing one at swimming pools or in the river.
Looking for more ideas on where to go near Varallo? Turin’s Salone del Gusto is a massive food festival that promotes the concept of slow food.
If you can’t organise to get there during the festival there are plenty of culinary delights to discover in Turin. My favourite is Turin’s chocolates.
Find out more about visiting Switzerland, especially from Zurich to Jungfraujoch.