While visiting with my family in Luino, we visited a beautiful heritage site not too far away. Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso is an old Roman Catholic monastery perched on the shore of Lago Maggiore, facing the Gulf of Borromean Islands. It is situated in the municipality of Leggiuno in Varese, Lombardia (see map). The monastery can be reached a few ways. We took the long winding stairway by foot. However, you can also take an elevator down or by ferry across the Lago Maggiore.
This monastery was founded by a wealthy merchant, Alberto Besozzi in 1170. The story goes that after his boat capsized in a storm he prayed to St Catherine to be saved. He declared that if he was saved he would give all his money to the poor and retire a hermit. After surviving the storm he did, in fact, live in a cave as a hermit. However, when a plague struck in 1195, the local people asked for his help. He agreed to help them in return for their help in building a votive chapel to St Catherine. After his death in 1205, Besozzi was buried near the chapel and people would come there to pray for cures to ailments.
The site was later documented as a hermitage 1301 after people began coming to live there as hermits. By the 1700’s the hermitage went into decline, due to Enlightenment reforms in Lombardia. The foundations of the site also became weak over time. It wasn’t until 1914 that the Italian government deemed it a national monument. However, after major restoration works in the 1970’s it was not open to the public until 1986.
The site consists of three buildings, the southern convent, the small convent and the main church. This church dates back to the end of the 16th century and is the artistic and spiritual heart of the Hermitage. On the altar-piece, there are scenes of St Catherine with the Virgin and child and St Nicholas with Blessed Alberto Besozzi. Besozzi body is also on display in a glass coffin.
If you are in the area, this site is worth the trip. It is truly a beautiful and spiritual place. It can be quite crowded though, as it is a tourist hotspot. You can visit it alone or do a guided tour, which would give great insight into its history. For more information on directions and opening times, see the official website.