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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Santa Caterina del Sasso

It was on a stormy night in 1170 that the story of the hermitage and monastery of Santa Catarina del Sasso begins. A rich trader, Alberto Besozzi, was washed from his boat and was saved from certain drowning by the intervention of Santa Caterina. In a gesture of thanks Alberto decides to live out his life as a hermit in the caves built into the rocks, and during his years there he builds the first chapel on the site. Santa Caterina intervened again centuries later, wiping out the plague that had been terrorizing the region. And again in 17th century, when she is said to have stopped a massive rockslide before it crushed the chapel containing the tomb of Alberto. Some like to say the evidence of this last miracle is in plain view inside the small chapel where, over the alter, a large boulder hangs dangerously, seemingly frozen in its fall by some invisible means. I won’t ruin the wonder by telling you geological reasons for the rock’s strange state; isn’t it still remarkable that, for whatever reason, here it is hanging impossibly. It’s the supernaturalness of the appearance that matters here after all.

Inside, the monastery has been recently renovated. Fragments of frescoes have been revealed. The beautiful arches and vaulted ceilings have been cleaned. Outside, fig trees, geranium, and oleander grow. Below, hundreds of feet below, the blue waters of Lago Maggiore wash up against the rocks. And far off in the distance is the snow-capped peak of Monte Rosa. Questa e’ la rara bellezza che c’e’ nel Santuario di Santa Caterina. This is the rare beauty that is Santa Caterina.

Santa Caterina del Sasso is in Leggiuno, across Lago Maggiore from Stresa. The best way to approach is from the water, where the visual impact is greater. Perched on a narrow precipice of rock cliff, the monastery looms above little boats mooring in Laveno’s small harbor. For many centuries in fact, this was the only way to approach and enter the monastery. Now you can also approach from the top of the cliff, where you can park your car and walk down almost 300 steps.

The current structure dates from the 16th century.


Frescoes have been beautifully restored.


Interior view of the main chapel.


Aerial view.

The monastery is currently run by a Dominican order of friars; they sell their produce in the shop on the premises. Entrance is free.

Hours: From March through October open every day, 8.30 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 17.00. From November through February open Saturdays and holidays.

From Stresa take the boat to Laveno.


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