swimmers view of the hermitage of santa caterina del sasso built into the cliff face at lake maggiore, Lombardy, Italy

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, Lago Maggiore

Posted on: BY: Saga Svensson
Tags: Italy | Lake Maggiore | lake swims | Northern Italy | Swim-it-Yourself

This post is part of a multi-part guide to lake swimming in Northern Italy. All the routes are close together, so it’s possible to string together all the itineraries into one incredible trip, or to cherry pick your favourite parts to make a custom trip of your own.

This is the account of our self-guided open water swim to the very steps of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in the pristine waters of Lake Maggiore, Northern Italy. Perched impossibly on a cliff overhanging the water, with spectacular views over the lake, Santa Caterina is a surreal and magical destination. Access to the hermitage was for many years by boat only, and there is an entrance specially for those entering from the lake, so why not swim it?

The chapel at the hermitage Santa Caterina del Sasso, Lago Maggiore
The chapel perched precariously on the cliff at the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, Lago Maggiore

The Hermitage was originally built in the 12th Century by the Blessed Alberto Besozzi, a wealthy merchant who clung to these rocks in a terrible storm and prayed to Santa Caterina for salvation. After surviving the night, he honoured a promise to build a chapel on that very spot, and spent the rest of his life there in retreat and devotion to the saint.

How to swim to Santa Caterina del Sasso

There are a few different options for arriving at the hermitage, requiring varying degrees of intrepidness, but all pretty darn cool. You could leave from the Stresa side of the lake, crossing the Piedmont/Lombardy border in the process; you could put in at Spiaggia de Arolo, a pretty little sandless beach/park 2km to the south; or you could put in at Spiaggia Ceresol, or Spiaggia de Reno, a kilometer or so north of the hermitage, or and swim in that route. Like with everything in this part of the world, you can’t really make a wrong decision. Choose your own adventure.

View across Lake Maggiore from the sandless Arolo Beach
Spiaggia Arolo, 2km south of the hermitage

We opted for the Spiaggia Ceresol option in the end as the crossing was upwards of 3-4k one way (depending on where you put in on the Stresa coast) and also required one person to kayak, whereas along the coast we were both able to enjoy the bucket list moment of the approach to the hermitage. Gazing up from water level at the aspect of the medieval hermitage is a magical view that will be etched in our minds forever.

Spiaggia Ceresol (known locally as the beach of the germans) is a tiny but beautiful and tranquil little beach less than a kilometer up the beach from Reno. It was the perfect take off point for our expedition. The swimming distance to the hermitage is about 1.5-1.75km, depending on how tight you hug the shoreline. You can park just off the main road and take a little dirt path down to the beach. When we arrived, it was late morning and we had the place to ourselves. If you are only looking for a shorter swim, you can also leave from Spiaggia de Reno which is only 750 meters to the hermitage in one direction.

There is a ferry every 3 hours or so from Stresa, and other smaller water taxis arrive frequently from other parts of the lake, so we had planned to float around a bit if necessary in case we arrived at a time when the steps were crowded. It’s not a terribly awful place to float around. As it turned out, we got lucky and the front steps were empty, so we didn’t waste time and got out quickly, making the most of the privacy. Santa Caterina is a sacred place and we were careful not to do anything that might offend anyone. We were able to dry off discretely to the side of the entrance using towels from our dry bags and we put on dry clothes over the top of our half wet bathing suits and sandals, entering the building like we had just walked in off the street. If anyone noticed we weren’t just stragglers from the last boat, they didn’t let on.

Upon entering the hermitage, there is a profound sense of history and spirituality. The hermitage includes various churches and chapels, living quarters, and a refectory, all seamlessly integrated into the natural rock formations. The quiet ambiance and architectural details contribute to a deep sense of tranquility and contemplation.

The ancient remains of the Blessed Alberto Besozzi

Throughout this sacred space, including in the living quarters and refectory, artistic frescoes unfold, depicting biblical narratives and religious symbolism. There are several grottos of devotion carved seemingly ad hoc into the mountain following the natural contours of the rock and accommodating structures from previous centuries. Scattered viewpoints within the hermitage reveal breathtaking panoramas of Lake Maggiore and the surrounding landscapes, inviting moments of reflection and awe of a greater power.

View across Lake Maggiore through the Renaissance arches of the hermitage is spectacular

Swimming back, serene and contemplative, we were ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude for the lake, the hermitage, the beauty of this place.

The pretty local beach at Reno, Lake Maggiore

It was too much to swim past the sights and sounds echoing over the water from Reno Beach as the town began to shake off its slumber. We were starving. We ate a delicious lunch and wandered round the mellow streets for a while before swimming the last easy 500 meters or so to Ceresol beach.

Disclaimer: Our swimming adventure content is not intended to take the place of specific, current, local advice from qualified experts. We strongly recommend that you consult with professional safety experts and take all necessary precautions should you undertake any adventure activity, especially in open water. Swimming is a HAZARDOUS activity. Never swim alone or beyond your ability. There is the possibility of physical injury, emotional distress and/or death, and you assume the risk and responsibility for any such results.

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