This is how the Murray Guide, a reference book for English tourists in the Alps, described Varallo in the mid-nineteenth century. Even though more than a century has gone by, this brief presentation of the city still holds true today.
Varallo: a journey between art and culture
The Sacred Mount of Varallo
Varallo hosts the oldest (1491) Sacred Mount in northern Italy, recognized as a UNESCO heritage site since 2003. Designed and commissioned by Milan-based Franciscan priest Bernardino Caimi as a replica of the Holy Places of Palestine, at a time when the Crusades were an impediment to pilgrimage to distant lands, it was worked on until the seventeenth century.
The Sacred Mount of Varallo consists of 44 frescoed chapels and a Basilica, wonderfully embraced by a nature park.
Many local artists and artisans worked at the Sacred Mount. Some of these artists were famous beyond Valsesia, including Gaudenzio Ferrari, Giovanni d’Enrico, Antonio d’Enrico (aka "Tanzio” or "Tanzio da Varallo”), Tabacchetti, and Francesco Mazzucchetti (aka "il Morazzone”). Their artistic skills can be admired in the frescoed chapels located following a network of roads and small squares embellished by over 4,000 frescoed images and about 800 statues depicting evangelical scenes.
The Varallo Churches
When admiring the artistic masterpieces of the city of Varallo, one cannot fail to mention Gaudenzio Ferrari, the greatest master of the sixteenth-century Piedmont art school who had a special relationship with Varallo where he lived for a long time and where he was commissioned major works. Among his masterpieces, one can find the polyptych for the Collegiate Church of San Gaudenzio, a beautiful church built on a rocky promontory that can be reached via an imposing staircase overlooking the main square of the city dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II. Inside the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the vast frescoed wall (Parete Gaudenziana) boasts 21 scenes depicting the life of Christ. Several frescoes can also be found in the Church of the Madonna di Loreto, a small chapel at the beginning of the road heading to Civiasco, a few steps away from downtown Varallo.
In addition to hosting the Art Gallery, which holds examples of Piedmont and Valsesia artworks dating back from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, Palazzo dei Musei also hosts the Pietro Calderini Museum of Natural History, dedicated to the natural and geological history of Varallo and Valsesia. The city of Varallo offers additional museums too, such as the Cesare Scaglia House-Museum that collects works, furnishings, books, jewelry, and memories of the artist of the time; the Energy Museum that offers the opportunity to admire several examples of steam engines among the largest in Europe used in the cotton processing chain; the Museum of Fishery that houses vintage equipment representative of the various techniques practiced in the valley and unique characteristics of the local aquatic fauna; the Comola Museum built in honor of Ignazio Giovanni Comola, boasting several collections of oil portraits, Rome landscapes, various items, and family mementos; and finally, the Valsesia Railway Museum, whose purpose is to give value and maintain the historical memory of the local railway heritage.
Even contemporary art has its spot in Varallo: the WARAL Art Urban Project is an initiative that brought downtown famous artists’ murals as an ideal way to dialog with the rich cultural tradition of the place.
The historical city center boasts a network of commercial streets dating back to past centuries, the so-called Contrade Storiche, which still show off the remnants of the ancient urban planning, embellished by courtyards, arcades, frescoes, and balconies. There are several historical palaces that are a must-see when in town: in particular, Palazzo Scarognini D’Adda, dating back to the fifteenth century and renovated in the seventeenth century, and Palazzo Racchetti, now the headquarters of the Farinone-Centa Civic Library, bordering an ancient urban center that extends around the former Carceri Mandamentali. The area is characterized by narrow alleys where one can enjoy the ancient architecture, small workshops, and arcades. Corso Roma, in the city center, is home to the former convent of the Orsoline, dating back to the Renaissance but renovated over the centuries, and the majestic nineteenth-century villas that remind of the high level of education and culture reached by the city in the nineteenth century.
Crafts, Food, and Wine
Bottega dell’Artigianato groups together the traditional handicrafts and artisan products of Valsesia: from puncetto- a unique lace made using just a cotton thread and a needle - to scapin, a warm and sturdy type of Walser-heritage slippers, to ’wood carving and soapstone processing.
The local traditional cuisine is a combination of tastes and flavors hailing from the surrounding areas: rice originating from the plains of lower Vercelli; strong red wine from the lands of Gattinara, Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia and dairy products of Valsesia, including delicious alpine cheeses.
Sport and outdoor wellness enthusiasts will find in the city of Varallo and its surroundings fertile ground to enjoy what they love to do the most immersed in nature.
Trekking enthusiasts have at their disposal medium-altitude itineraries, well-marked by CAI Varallo and suitable for everyone.
There are also two geosites of the Sesia Supervolcano part of the UNESCO Geoparks International Network.
The valley is also renowned for its waterways: the stretches of the Sesia River are particularly suitable for those who wish to enjoy river sports such as river rafting, canoeing, and kayaking for the first time.
Moreover, the river is very rich in fish: part of the Sesia River and the Mastallone stream are safeguarded by the Società Valsesiana Pescatori Sportivi (Valsesian Sport Fishing Association) that preserve the fish heritage of the river and its tributaries unaltered while allowing fans of traditional fishing and fly fishing to practice it while enjoying the backdrop of beautiful landscapes.