Thursday, 21 April 2016

Clinging to a cliff

Back to last October and Stresa (my previous post here) from where we took a ferry across Lago Maggiore to the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, Saint Catherine of the Rock.

The hermitage is perched in the middle of a cliff clinging to it 18m above water level like a terrace carved in stone. Because of its unusual location it is only visible from the lake.

The sanctuary used to be accessible only by climbing about 60 steps from the lake or by descending a stairway of 51m or some 270 steps winding down the side of the cliff. Today, you can also take a less troublesome way to the site by an elevator that was dug into the rock a few years ago.

Needless to say, there is a singular legend behind a historical catholic shrine at such a spectacular location. According to it, a merchant by the name of Alberto Besozzi was shipwrecked in the region in the 12th century. He prayed to Saint Catherine of Alexandria  an early martyr who was one of the most popular saints in the late Middle Ages  vowing to dedicate the rest of his life to worship if he were saved. A wave washed him to a rock and he fulfilled his promise living the rest of his life at the location as a hermit.

Alberto had a simple chapel built to Saint Catherine. After his death in 1205, people continued to visit the place for prayer. The monastery with two more chapels – Santa Maria Nova and San Nicola – was built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The first residents were Dominicans, followed by more than 350 years of Ambrosians and finally Carmelites until the last brothers had to leave under suppression in 1770.

All through the following century, the hermitage was abandoned and almost lost to ruins until it was declared a national monument in 1914. Its current owners, the Lombardian Province of Varese, finally opened it to the public in 1986 after a period of extensive restoration.

The present church is a unique merger of the three chapels that were built separately at different times with traces of each one visible inside. Most of the interior, however, is in 16th and 17th-century baroque style, which was surprising to us. We were expecting something simpler and more down-to-earth at a secluded hermitage.

The church is rich in frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 19th century. There are also several frescoes visible on the exterior under the porticoes as well as some fascinating paintings, fragments of frescoes and ornamental murals in the so-called fireplace hall of the southern convent. Those were more pleasing to our eye than the rather confusing interior of the sanctuary, I must confess.

However, nothing could ever beat the spectacular location anyway. Compared with the natural beauty outside, the inside of the church is just too much to take in. You are bound to return to the courtyard sooner rather than later to admire the magnificent setting and the panoramic lake views. They will outbalance everything else there is to see at the hermitage for sure. Bellissimi!

Today, Benedictine oblates are managing this monument and the monastery shop located at the top of the cliff. Holy Mass is being held on Sundays and holidays at 4:30pm. More information including the opening hours under this link.


  1. It is incredible to think of the work involved in building in such difficult conditions and without any of the modern tools and conveniences that we have available. A beautiful building in a an incredible setting! xx

  2. Oh, this place takes my breath away! Love the extraordinary views and the beautiful art inside this incredible sanctuary. It must have been amazing to experience.....Love all your photos in this post and the last! x Karen

    1. Thanks, Karen. I would have liked to climb to the top of the cliff for the views but as usual we set off a bit too late in the afternoon so there was no time for that. A great experience nonetheless.

  3. It is such a stunning location and the views from between the arches is superb! Thank goodness the buildings were restored and opened to the public to enjoy! Sarah x

    1. That's exactly what I was thinking. The province has now clearly realised the full value of the site. It must have been quite an undertaking to build the elevator inside the rock. I wonder if they received any funding from the state or elsewhere.