For unknown reasons, my family has always been in love with Oropa: a small town in the mountains above Biella, famous for the homonym Sanctuary.
Almost every year my grandmother would spend at least a day visit at this place. Today it’s up to my mum and aunt to keep the tradition up. When I was a child I’ve often been taken there for a day trip. Now I drive them there, when I can, and I always discover something new! The botanical garden, the adventure park, the UNESCO chapels, the ski slopes…. This place, famous mainly for the sanctuary, has much more to offer that you could imagine!
I’ll start with what I enjoy the most: hiking in the mountains.
There are two parking lots in Oropa: the first one is at the entrance of the sanctuary, the other one is higher up, next to the cable car. From both of them, many paths starts, following different directions. There’s a path of everyone. Sentiero dei Preti is an almost flat circuit 2km long, suitable for disables. The Giro delle Cappelle, passing by Cimitero Monumentale, the Cemetery, shows you in just one hour the Sacro Monte, a UNESCO world heritage site. But for trained hikers there’s Giro del Cucco, 7 km in about 3.30h, or the way up to Lake Mucrone… which I’ve done with the cable car!
The cable car and Mount Mucrone
A handy cable car takes you from 1200 to 1870 metres high in 7 minutes. It costs 12.50 euro per adult both ways, but you can also buy a one way ticket.
The way up, otherwise, is 8 km long well kept path, usually done in about 2.5 hours. It starts in the woods, it becomes wider and it ends in a steep narrow path close to the top.
At the end of this path you’ll meet the upper station of the cable car. From here there are few possibilities: you can choose one of the few paths that starts here or you can take a trip on a sort of chairlift that looks like a metal basket for two standing passengers. It’s called “cestovia” and I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else! Sadly it was closed when I arrived and I didn’t have the chance to try this big toy!
Lake Mucrone is only 15 minutes away from the cable car. It’s fairly small, very cute, with clouds that come and go from the valley below, hiding and revealing the waters every few minutes!
From the Lake I went on to the top of Mount Mucrone (2335m), a good hour of walking uphill, between meadows, brooks and big rocks. When the clouds are not around, the landscape is beautiful.
Another option is to reach the top of Mount Camino at the highest point of the area, 2391m. If you don’t feel like waking all the way up from the cable car station, the “cestovia” takes you there for few euros.
You can discover all the tracks on this area in the portal of the Italian Parks, where you can read distances, times and brief descriptions.
The Sanctuary of Oropa and the museums
According to tradition, the Sanctuary of Oropa was built in the IV century by St. Eusebio, the first Archbishop of Vercelli. The heart of this place is the Black Virgin, in the main Basilica: a statue of the Virgin Mary that dates back to the XIII century. The latter was built in 1599 to replace the older chapel of Saint Mary by plague survivors of Biella. It contains a sacello from the IX century with frescoes from the XIV. The church is quite small but always visited by many pilgrims.
The Upper Basilica, or New Basilica, it’s been consecrated in 1960 after many years of constant works. It’s open only on specific dates and I’ve never managed to see the interiors.
The entire building complex of the Sanctuary of Oropa consists of 3 enclosed spacious terraces. The first one is the main entrance, looking down the valley though the large fence. You can find here the welcome office and the first accommodation rooms. In the second terrace there are the museums, more rooms, the spring water fountain and the Basilica in the center of it all. The third terrace opens with a large staircase that leads you to the Upper Basilica.
Here and there you can also find bars, few shops and, especially outside the walls of the sanctuary, many restaurants specialized in dishes of “polenta concia” and game meat.
The Treasure and the Royal Apartment
The Museum of the Treasures was opened in 1913 with a single room and slowly grew into what is now a 4 rooms exhibition centre. You can find jewellery, archaeological finds, paintings, altar-pieces, architectural plans and documents of the history of the Sanctuary.
There’s a plan to add an extra gallery with all the paintings the Sanctuary has collected during the centuries, currently stored away.
The royal apartment has an antechamber, a living room and two bedrooms with antique furniture. Old documents states that in the XVII century there were rooms reserved for the royal House of Savoy. The first to use the apartments have been king of Sardinia Carlo Emanuele III and King Vittorio Amerdeo III, as confirmed by some of the paintings displayed in the museum. Queen Maria Josè was the last person from the royal family to visit the sanctuary of Oropa, in 1989.
Both the museum and the Royal Apartments are open to the public all year around with a 3 euro entrance ticket. The opening hours are reduced in winter, you can find all the information on the website of the Sanctuary.
The centenary of the coronation
There’s a great event planned for 2020 at the Sanctuary of Oropa: the 5th centenary of the Virgin statue’s coronation.
On the 30th August 1620 for the first time a crown was placed on the head of the statue. The event was a huge success and was then repeated every 100 years in 1720, 1820 and 1920. This latest coronation happened just after WWI, when more than 150 thousands people took part in the celebration.
For the upcoming 2020, the Sanctuary is expecting about 20 thousands people for the single day of the coronation. All the rooms (about 550 beds) are all already booked with a long and growing waiting list. .
The plan is to place screens for the crowd in the parking areas, so that everybody will be able to follow the event. The main road will be probably be closed to private traffic, leaving shuttle buses the only way to reach the Sanctuary and police force will be in charge of security.
Summer activities: Botanic Garden, climbing walls and Adventure Park
Next to the lower station of the cable car, you can find the Botanical Garden and the Adventure Park, both beautifully placed in the woods and open to the public from May to October.
The Botanical Garden hosts plants and flowers from the area. It offers plenty of activities going on for schools and families and 3 thematic routes. The entrance costs a few euros and it’s already included in the cable car ticket.
The garden also supports a project to uncover the geology of Mount Mucrone, an area the scholars have been interested in since the 1800.
There are about a dozen climbing routes in the area. They are on Mount Camino, Mount Mucrone and mount Rosso, but also at lower altitudes near the base station of the Cable car. A climbing school offers lessons on these lower ones.
you can find a list of the routes portal of the Biellese Mountains. (Italian only)
On the same portal there are also information for the local Vie Ferratas (Italian only), some of the best ones are “Via del Limbo” and “Ciao Miki”.
The Adventure Park is built in the forest, I’ve only seen two suspended bridges from the cable car above the trees!
Winter activities: ski slopes, ski mountaineering and snowshoe walks
The cable car at the higher area of the Sanctuary replaced the earlier one from 1926, which back then was the highest in Italy. There are 2-3 ski slopes here coming down Mount Camino, plus another one that reaches the bottom of the cable car. We’re certainly not talking about a great ski complex, but they are decently served. Besides the cable car, the ski-lifts are the “cestovia” I talked about before and a conveyor belt for beginners.
There are also some routes for ski mountaineering and for walk in fresh snow with snowshoes. The gear can be rented locally and you can hire a guide to show you around the best places.
The tramway Biella-Oropa
One last historic curious note: there used to be a tramway the connected Biella to the Sanctuary of Oropa. From 1911 to 1958, a tram used to ride in the woods for 14 km, climbing more or less 800m. In 1945 it brought to the sanctuary its maximum yearly amount of passengers: 2 millions!
The tramway was closed to be replaced with buses, both because the maintenance would be easier and also because back then they thought that electric trams would soon become obsolete.
One of these trams is still exposed at the lower parking lot of the sanctuary.