Sacro Monte di Ghiffa - UNESCO Site of the Sacred Mountains of Alps in Piedmont

This article first appeared in My Travelogue by Bhushavali
 
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy
SACRI MONTI OF PIEDMONT & LOMBARDY

When I recently visited Lake Maggiore in Piemonte (Piedmont) in Italy, I made sure to take a short detour to visit Sacri Monti of Ghiffa, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy. Here's all about the history of Sacri Monti of Piedmont & Lombardy, the architecture & chapels of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa, how to reach Sacro Monte of Ghiffa, & more. 
Here's your ultimate guide to visit Sacri Monti of Ghiffa, one of the top things to do at Lake Maggiore and one of the most important Christian Pilgrimage Sites in Piedmont.

Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Travel Guide


Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Lake Maggiore

Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Lake Maggiore

Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Lake Maggiore

Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Lake Maggiore

Sacri Monti of Ghiffa UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy

WHAT ARE SACRI MONTI (SACRED MOUNTAINS) OF PIEDMONT & LOMBARDY?
The concept of Sacri Monti came into being in 15th-16th C CE when the Christian holy site of Jerusalem became more and more difficult to reach for Christian pilgrims, as Islam became a more and more predominant religion in the region. At that point, various places across Europe were proposed to be set up & promoted as the 'New Jerusalem'. The top 3 contenders in this were Varallo in Valsesia, Montaione in Tuscany, and Braga in Northern Portugal, for their similarity to the topography of Jerusalem. 

WHY ARE THE SACRI MONTI OF PIEDMONT & LOMBARDY SPECIAL?
Finally, Varallo in Piedmont became the first ever site to be set up as the New Jerusalem, in 1480, as an Alpine Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains of the Alps). There are a whopping 44 chapels in Varello with hundreds of life-sized, polychrome terracotta sculptures combined with beautiful frescoes. The sculptures have extreme realism and the facial expressions & body gestures are exceptionally natural. Combined with the background frescoes, they are supposed to create a visual drama that has a powerful effect on the devotee (check the 'photos from other Sacri Monti' section below to understand what I'm talking about). In course of time, many more like these complexes were created all over the region.
The idea is to bring a meditative, spiritual experience to the pilgrim where they can walk on a path from one chapel to another (with these sculptures) through a route dedicated to nature (lakes or forests or panoramic views) while not having to go all the way to another country to visit Jerusalem! 

HOW MANY SACRED MOUNTAINS OF PIEDMONT & LOMBARDY ARE THERE?
There are a total of 9 Sacri Monti in Piemonte (Piedmont) and Lombardy. 7 in Piedmont - Varallo, Crea, Orta,  Oropa, Ghiffa, Domodossola, and Valperga; and 2 in Lombady - Varese and Ossuccio. During my trip to this region, I managed only to visit Ghiffa.

WHY ARE SACRI MONTI OF PIEDMONT & LOMBARDY A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE?
The idea was to recreate the Holy Mountains of Jerusalem while keeping in mind the nature of this region. These chapels blend with the forests & lakes around but have their own uniqueness with elaborate stories represented by hundreds of terracotta sculptures & frescoes. This unique blend of nature, history, art & culture, created in 15th-17th C CE is why the 9 Sacri Monti in Piedmont & Lombardy were awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site title in 2003.

ALL ABOUT SACRI MONTI OF GHIFFA
A BALCONY ON THE LANDSCAPE - HOLY MOUNTAINS ON THE ALPS

All that you need to know about Sacro Monte of Ghiffa 

Best places to visit at Lake Maggiore

Travel Guide to visit Sacri Monti di Ghiffa
Sanctuary of SS Trinita

Travel Guide to visit Sacri Monti di Ghiffa
Altar at the Sanctuary of SS Trinita with stucco sculptures around

Sanctuary of Holy Trinity Sacro Monte Ghiffa
Sanctuary of SS Trinita

Sanctuary of Holy Trinity Sacro Monte Ghiffa
The most important fresco of the Holy Trinity in the Sanctuary of SS Trinita

History of Sacro Monte Ghiffa
Foundations of the ancient Roman oratory under the current flooring!

WHY WAS GHIFFA MADE A SACRI MONTI?
The Chapel of the Holy Trinity existed here since medieval times. Even before the construction of various 'Sacre Monte sites', the Sanctuary of Holy Trinity in Ghiffa was a pilgrimage site and was considered sacred & even miraculous. Later, when the concept of Sacri Monti came into being, Ghiffa was one of the obvious choices. After 1647, the 3 chapels we see today were built to expand the already existing Sanctuary of Holy Trinity. Combined with the chestnut woods behind, and of course, the balcony of the landscape view of Lake Maggiore, it is no wonder that it was an obvious choice as a Sacri Monti. 

THE MAGIC OF GHIFFA & LAKE MAGGIORE
As soon as I reached the Sacri Monti of Ghiffa, after parking the car, as I walked towards the Sanctuary, I realized how magical the view was! I can share photos here, but it is nowhere near the actual feeling of being there. While the view could be comparable to that of Arona or Stresa, but being here in a sacred grove, surrounded by historical sites, almost in the middle of the Chestnut woods, with hardly another human being around, this is purely a paradise! 

SHRINES OF SACRI MONTI OF GHIFFA
Unlike the other Sacri Monti, the specialty here is the location, so much more by leaps and bounds than the architecture or sculptures. There are just 3 Chapels here in Sacri Monti of Ghiffa along with a Sanctuary and a Way of the Cross colonnade. From a pilgrimage point of view, this is much much lesser than the other sacred mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy like the Sacre Monte of Varallo or Sacre Monte of Crea, etc which have 20 to 45 chapels with hundreds of sculptures! That said, it is now believed that Sacri Monti of Ghiffa is a part of a larger project which was only partly completed!

Art Architecture of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of the Crowned Virgin (Our Lady Crowned)

Art Architecture of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of the Crowned Virgin (Our Lady Crowned)

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of the Crowned Virgin (Our Lady Crowned)

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of the Crowned Virgin (Our Lady Crowned)

Chapels of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of John the Baptist

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of John the Baptist

Sanctuary of Holy Trinity (Santissima Trinita): My first stop was the Sanctuary itself. This is the most historical site in the whole of Sacri Monti of Ghiffa. The earliest parts of the site date back to 12-13th C CE when it was an Ancient Roman Oratory! To date, it is possible to see the ancient masonry underground. In 16th C CE it was expanded and frescoes were painted. The more striking of them all is the Holy Trinity by an unknown artist. This is one of the very authentic representations of the Holy Trinity that's almost indistinguishable from one another. Very soon, thanks to this striking imagery of the Holy Trinity, Ghiffa became a pilgrimage site and was soon associated with miracles! Above this is the fresco of the crucifixion. 
By 1608, it was renovated and a bell tower was added in 1629. On the main altar, is the fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin, painted by Camillo Procaccini who is considered the Vasari of Lombardy. Around this altarpiece are stucco sculptures made in 17th C CE, depicting angels playing musical instruments in white & gold. Most of the other frescoes, especially on the ceiling, etc., are recent work during renovation.
 
Chapel of the Crowned Virgin (Incoronata): The first new shrine to be built after Ghiffa was included as one of the Sacre Monte, is the Shrine of the Crowned Virgin. This is the biggest of the 3 shrines in Sacro Monte of Ghiffa. This is an octagonal chapel built in 1647 by Pietro Giacomo Canetta. On the altar is the group sculpture depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, flying over the clouds, surrounded by angels, made of terracotta. On the niches of the walls are the sculptures depicting St.Thomas, St.Augustine, St.Jerome, St.Gregory, David, Daniel, Prophet Anna, and Prophet Isaiah; also made of terracotta. 

Chapel of St.John the Baptist: The next shrine is of St.John the Baptist. This is the smallest of the 3 shrines and was built in 1659. This is octagonal as well, but it is closed for the public to enter and can be seen only through the windows. There's a life-sized sculpture of St.John the baptist baptizing Jesus Christ (which belongs to a later era). On the wall is the terracotta sculpture of the Holy Father floating over the clouds surrounded by angels. Under this building is a cistern that was earlier used to bring up water atop the hill, so the pilgrims could quench their thirst. Now, this is defunct. 

Chapels at Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of Abraham

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of Abraham

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of Abraham

Sculptures of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Chapel of Abraham

Stations of the Cross of Sacro Monte of Ghiffa
Stations of the Cross

Chapel of Abraham: The last shrine is of Abraham. This is located a bit away from the other 2 shrines and was built in the early 18th C CE, between 1701-1703. The group of sculptures here was the largest of the 3. It depicts Abraham kneeling before 3 angles which are the personifications of the Trinity. Atop the scene is the passage from the bible that is interpreted - "Abraham sees 3 angels but worships 1 God". In the scene, there is a building beside, from where the patron and his wife are looking at Abraham. The stucco detailing here is the most detailed of the 3 chapels. The detailing on the tree with its leaves & pigeons is beautiful. 

Stations of the Cross: Apart from these 3, there's also the Via Cross that was built later in 1752 CE. In 1824, 14 frescoes with stuccos were painted on the passage.

PHOTOS FROM OTHER SACRI MONTI OF PIEDMONT

Earlier when I mentioned that the sculptures have extreme realism and when combined with the background frescoes, they are supposed to create a visual drama that has a powerful effect on the devotee, well, that wasn't really the case in Ghiffa. However, Sacri Monti of Ghiffa is not really known for its sculptures as much as for its surroundings. Here are some pictures from other Sacri Monti to explain what these sculptures at Sacri Monti are usually like!

Sacri Monti di Crea
Sacro Monte of Crea. Photo by Angela Laghi. Used here with permission Sacri Monti management.

Sacri Monti di Varallo
Sacro Monte of Varello. Photo by Mariano Dallago. Used here with permission Sacri Monti management.

Sacri Monti di Varallo
Sacro Monte of Varello. Photo by Marco Beck Peccoz. Used here with permission Sacri Monti management.

If you came down directly from the 'Why are the Sacri Monti special' section, click to Scroll up again

SACRO MONTE OF GHIFFA SPECIAL RESERVE FOREST
Apart from the religious sites, the forest behind, Sacro Monte of Ghiffa Special Natural Reserve, covering an area of 200 hectares is also a part of the protected area. A few centuries ago, when the chapels were being built, this was a timber forest (where trees were cut for construction & other purposes). Today, you could hike through this forest filled with Chestnut, Maples, Ashes, Alders, Birches & more. It is also possible to come across deer, foxes, moles, etc, apart from a variety of birds. The day I went, the soil around all the chapels was dug up and I was told that it was the work of wild boars!

PRACTICAL DETAILS & TIPS
Where is Sacro Monte of Ghiffa (on Google Maps)? Sacro Monte of SS. Trinity of Ghiffa
How to reach Sacro Monte di Ghiffa? More details below.
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa contact phone number: +39 0323 59870
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa opening hours: 10:00AM to 05:00PM everyday
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa tickets: Free
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa mass timings: Only in summer & the feast of the Holy Trinity. Call them to confirm timings
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa visiting tips:
Carry lunch! There is a very nice picnic area at the starting point of the natural reserve.
It is a functioning church, so wear appropriate clothing.


Ghiffa Reserve Forest Top Things to do at Lake Maggiore

Ghiffa Reserve Forest Top Things to do at Lake Maggiore

Ghiffa Reserve Forest Top Things to do at Lake Maggiore

HOW TO REACH SACRI MONTI OF GHIFFA?
Sacri Monti di Ghiffa is located about 20km from Stresa. It is rather impossible to reach Sacri Monte of Ghiffa depending on public transport. While you could hire a bike, keep in mind that this is in a very hilly region and it is an upward climb! I took a car to get here.

SHOULD YOU VISIT SACRI MONTI OF GHIFFA?
Of the 9 sites under Sacri Monti of Piemonte & Lombadie, this is the smallest with just 3 chapels. So, from a pilgrimage point of view, Ghiffa has much less to offer than, say, Varello or Crea. That said, this place is a paradise! It is perhaps the 3rd time I'm saying that in this article. It is truly a paradise. Tucked away on the balcony of Lake Maggiore, far away from the tourist spots, and surrounded by the chestnut woods, Sacri Monte of Ghiffa is one of the top places to visit on your trip to Lake Maggiore. It is so secluded,  peaceful, and so serene. 

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED TO VISIT SACRI MONTI OF GHIFFA?
If you're on a pilgrimage, just seeing these 3 chapels and an overview of the landscape would just take 30-45 mins. However, as the tagline suggests, Sacri Monti of Ghiffa is a balcony on the landscape of Lake Maggiore! The point of this place is to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the surroundings and you could easily spend half a day at least hiking around the reserve forest and just relaxing with the panoramic views of Lake Maggiore with hardly any tourists around. When I visited Sacri Monti of Ghiffa there were hardly 4-5 other people there. That is all! 

BEST DESTINATION WEDDING LOCATIONS IN PIEMONTE, ITALY
Being a chapel, a church, you could get married here! Weddings are conducted in the main chapel - the Sanctuary of Holy Trinity (Santissima Trinita). The location is perfect for a nice outdoor wedding in Italy. After the wedding, with the view of Lake Maggiore, the balcony on the landscape, this is just an incredible location for the wedding photoshoot in Piedmont. Just beside the chapels, is a tiny restaurant called Ristorante La Trinita Sacro Monte di Ghiffa which is perfect to feed the guests after the wedding. 

How to visit Sacro Monte of Ghiffa

How to visit Sacro Monte of Ghiffa

UNESCO Italy Sacro Monti of Ghiffa UNESCO Italy Sacro Monti of Ghiffa

UNESCO Italy Sacro Monti of Ghiffa UNESCO Italy Sacro Monti of Ghiffa

Bhushavali

An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 85 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of June 2022. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands

9 comments:

  1. We love to take side trip to visit interesting spots when we travel. If we got to the Piedmont area in Italy we would certainly want to see the Sacri Monti of Ghiffa. But I understand it is only one of the amazing Scary Monti sites in this UNESCO group. The sculptures combined with the frescos would be sure to capture our attention for a long visit through the 3 different spots. So cool to see the ancient Roman ruins under the floor. Good to know that we cannot visit by public transit so will plan accordingly.

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  2. Wow! The view is amazing. It is definitely worth the trip. Happy to know too that it's considered as one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Thank you for sharing a bit of history about Sacri Monti. We hope to have the opportunity to visit in the future.

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  3. One of nine, the smallest, but I already impressed with the sculptures and the frescos in Ghiffa. I like seeing how the artists (or based on the priests inputs?) interprets the people in the bible into the sculptures. The Holy Trinity fresco interested me in a way the artist depicted the Holy Ghost. I want to visit Sacro Monte di Ghiffa. I think I will enjoy my time here. Besides, the views are exceptionally beautiful.

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  4. It was so interesting to know about the historical facts of the place. I always believe that a place becomes more interesting because of its stories and people. In this case Ghiffa charmed me with its shrines, landscape and the history.
    I totally agree with your feeling that photographs can create only a part of the charm of an actual place. The feeling of seeing it with own eyes is always better. To be honest, I am falling in love with Italy. I would love to visit there soon.

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  5. The shrines and history as also the landscape of Sacro Monte de Ghiffa are interesting. I love places like this with history and architecture to admire. I find the location with the blue color of the water and mountains in the background so beautiful. It's good to know that Sacri Monte de Ghiffa is a 'UNESCO world heritage site'. I would love to visit this place and personally experience looking at the sculptures and learn the history someday.

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  6. Thanks for this wonderful post about the Sacri Monti. Last summer we spend some time in Lombardy (in Turino and at the Lago Machiore) and I actually researched a visit to Sacri Monti of Ghiffa. Sadly I found out, as you rightly mention in your post, that it is quite diffucult to reach on public transport. But seeing you pictures I wonder if we should have made an effort anyway. The picture of the cloister really draws me in - it looks so peaceful.

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  7. I haven't been to Sacri Monti of Ghiffa yet, as I have had no opportunity to visit this part of Italy. But Piedmont is on my Italian list, so I will surely add Sacri Monti to my itinerary, as it's on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The history of the beginning of Sacri Monti is fascinating when the original Jerusalem became challenging to reach for Christian pilgrims due to Islam's domination. The Sanctuary of SS Trinita is architectural perl, especially the fresco of the Holy Trinity. It's also great to know that it is possible to visit the ancient masonry underground. I would also like to see the Chapel of Abraham with all sculptures. It's excellent and beneficial as you also provide tips on ticket prices, opening hours, and more.

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  8. What a beautiful and tranquil place! I love visiting Unesco Heritage Sites and I don't think I have ever heard of this one. In overall I need to explore Italy more. The chapels are absolutely beautiful and I think I would enjoy the natural reserve. If I could combine hiking with seeing some historical places and a Unesco Site, what could be more perfect!

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  9. I had no idea there was a "New Jerusalem" at Sacri Monte! I would love to see all of the beautiful frescoes and statuary of the shrines, ensconced within the natural beauty of this region. The fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it even more appealing to me. When I visited Italy last, I didn't get a chance to visit the Lakes region - this gives me all the more reason to return!

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