Authored by Barbara Mazz
Discovering Italy is a unique experience, and whether you plan on visiting iconic cities like Rome, Milan, and Florence, or smaller towns by the lakes and the mountains, the list of attractions and things to see is truly endless.
But beyond its most famous sights, Italy is a patchwork of charming small towns. And this is an incredible opportunity to witness a more traditional side to an otherwise modern country, and experience some of its richest culture.
Situated 66km northwest of Vercelli in northern Piedmont, Varallo is a small mountain town set in a wild, remote region known for adventure sports; black skiing, rafting, canyoning, and fishing.
Famous for its pilgrimage site, the Sacro Monte, and the Sesia river which heads spectacularly north to the foot of the Monte Rosa (the second highest mountain in the Alps), there are plenty of incredible opportunities for sightseeing in this charming town on the Italian Alps.
Varallo Sightseeing: Things to Do in This Charming Town on The Italian Alps
Location and How to Get There
Varallo is located in the Piedmont region in the valley of Valsesia, at the foot of the mighty Monte Rosa. It can be easily reached from Milan and Turin by car (1.5 hour drive), train (2 – 3 hours), or bus (3 hours).
If you’re looking for things to do in Milan, this makes for a great day trip. But you might also consider a visit while in France or in Switzerland. The efficiency of public transport in the region makes it an easy excursion.
You may, however, find that this is one small town worthy of spending at least couple of days. Valsesia is a group of valleys and there are many major towns and important tourist villages to explore.
Images: Kogo / Barbara Mazz.
Varallo Railway Station and Historic Train
Varallo is a small town which is easily discovered by foot. It’s best to start your walking tour at the Varallo Sesia Railway Station; this opened in 1886 and is one of the town’s key landmarks.
A historic point of interest, the station is served only by historic trains, which occasionally run for tourists on planned date. If you want to go back in time, take a ride on the amazing steam locomotive available a few times a year from Milan to Varallo.
The on board experience includes a culinary tour / tasting of local produce typical to the region. However make sure you book your tickets well in advance as they sell out quickly.
Make sure you visit the Valsesia Railway Museum; located inside the former railway depot, you will find documents, photos, railway relics, and dioramas on display. In 2016, the museum was extended externally, with the recovery of the freight yard and locomotive shed.
Image credit: Gabriele Filippini
Rich in Art & Churches
One of the most important sights of Varallo is the Church of San Gaudenzio. It was built on a small rocky promontory in the center of the town to overlook the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.
The church dates back to the 15th century and is especially famous for the breathtaking Gaudenzio Ferrari wall. I could have spent an entire day admiring and analyzing those beautiful frescoes, and am in awe of the incredible talent of the artist.
Gaudenzio Ferrari was a 16th century painter from Varallo, who left his most important works to the community.
He was active over a wide area of Piedmont, and influenced by Bergognone, and the Milanese followers of Leonardo da Vinci, in particular Luini.
For those hoping to learn more about Gaudenzio Ferrari and other Italian artists, the Pinacoteca Civica offers a wide range of amazing works. I especially enjoyed the section dedicated to the 19th century, and landscape paintings located on the second floor.
The Church of San Gaudenzio
One of the most famous sites in Varallo is the Sacred Mountain (Il Sacro Monte). A UNESCO heritage site overlooking the historic center of town, this is a worship site which consists of one basilica and 44 chapels filled with historically significant statues and frescoes.
Founded in 1491 by Franciscan friar Bernardino Caimi, this is the oldest Sacro Monte, and a significant pilgrimage site. It is built on a natural terrace on the rocky slopes of Monte Tre Croci (“three crosses mountain”); I recommend reaching it with the Varallo cableway so that you get to enjoy the view of the town as well.
The chapels follow a numbered trail, each representing a scene from the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Pilate’s house, Calvary, Sepulchre and Parella’s house – these are all populated by more than 800 life size painted statues, in wood and terracotta, that dramatically narrate the event’s of Christ’s life.
Among the most important artists who helped to create this monument, are Gaudenzio Ferrari and Galeazzo Alessi.
L’Alpàa is a market exhibition which was founded in 1977. It is held for 10 days starting from the second week of July.
It was first created as a way to expand the “Valsesian summer”. Many cultural events are held in Varallo during this time such as concerts featuring the most famous Italian artists. It i a fabulous reason to visit Varallo.
The Carnival of Varallo
The carnival is one of the oldest traditions of the city of Varallo; events of which take place every year between January and March.
During this period the city is governed by the mask Marcantonio Carlavèe and his consort Cecca, who organize parties, dances, and dinners to cheer the people and bring joy and solidarity to all citizens, especially to children and the elderly.
The carnival of Varallo begins every year on the 6th of January (Epiphany day) with the parade of the “Veggia Pasquetta” and concludes the Wednesday of the ashes (beginning of Lent) with the Marcantonio Trial and the stake.
Interesting Places Nearby
There are some really interesting and beautiful places to visit near Varallo. One of them is San Giulio Island (Isola di San Giulio) which is a wonderful island within Lake Orta, steeped in history and fascinating legends.
San Giulio Island is surrounded by lovely small towns such as Omegna, Pella, and Pettenasco where you can stop for lunch and take a pleasant walk in the ancient valleys. From there you can also admire Lake Orta in all of its beauty, take great pictures or simply relax while enjoying a delicious Italian ice cream.
Another great place near Varallo worth visiting is the Sacro Monte di Orta; another Roman Catholic devotional complex, this time on the summit of a hill known as San Nicolao. It too is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, recognized for outstanding universal value.
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