THE spring presents Italy at its best. The lively and colorful celebrations of saints, ancient folkloric customs and traditional feasts build to a peak as the weather warms after Palm Sunday. But the inevitable corollary is that the season can also show the peninsula at its worst: thousands of tourists flock to the classic Venice-Florence-Rome triangle, Italians on vacation flood beaches and mountains, pilgrims swarm to Vatican City for papal Masses in St. Peter’s Square.
One alternative is to head north. Less than an hour from Milan is the less crowded but equally spiritual journey at the Sacro Monte di Varese, one of the nine Sacred Mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy to be named a Unesco World Heritage site.
A 1.6-mile sacred trail — Via Sacra — that was conceived in the 17th century wends through the mountain, passing 14 chapels devoted to the rosary and leading to the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte (built in the 1400s). The climb is gradual and the cobblestone pathway is wide, making it possible to reach the sanctuary at the top in less than two hours. (But looking at your watch would defeat the purpose.)
The chapels are often described as “theaters of the mountain” for their realistic and dramatic depiction of scenes of Christ’s life. They are adorned with works by some of the most renowned sculptors and painters in 17th-century Lombardy, who created full-scale multicolored terra-cotta statues inside each chapel and frescoes on the walls. The art is integrated into the surrounding natural environment, and the walk offers sweeping views of mountains, forests and lakes in the heart of the Campo di Fiori Regional Park.
Once at the sanctuary, those seeking a devotional experience can listen to the nuns performing Ambrosian chants in Latin at the nearby Center of Spirituality (Piazza Paolo VI; 39-0332-227-678). Next to the sanctuary is the Museo Baroffio (Piazzetta Monastero; 39-0332-212-042; www.museobaroffio.it/inglese.html), with paintings, liturgical objects, codices and a section dedicated to contemporary sacred art.
Hikers can pause for a proper Italian feast at the Ristorante Montorfano (via del Santuario, 74; 39-0332-227-027; ristomontorfano. it), which serves traditional local cuisine paired with a breathtaking view from the terrace.
One option for lodging is equally enrapturing. Varese, once a holiday destination for noble Milanese in the late 19th century, contains magnificent villas and gardens. One of them is home to the B&B Il Parco e gli Affreschi (via Fincarà 27; 39-0332-167-0943; ilparcoegliaffreschi.it), whose rooms start at 70 euros, or about $90 at $1.30 to the euro. This luxurious villa was built in 1902 under the direction of Ludovico Pogliaghi, who designed the central door of the Duomo in Milan. You can sleep in a 16th-century bed, take a shower in a bathroom built in a cave, and eat your homemade breakfast served on fine china in the dining room with a view of the lakes.
Locals and weekenders make a pilgrimage of a different kind to the historical hotel Al Borducan (Via Beata Caterina Moriggi 43; 39-0332-222-916; borducan.com), opened in 1872 and recently restored. They swear that the meals are divine and that not resting at the terrace to sip the Elixir, a liquor based on extract of orange and herbs whose secret recipe was passed down from generation to generation, is a sin.