Pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo
A visit to the patroness of cyclists, the Madonna del Ghisallo Chapel and Museum
- Photo journal and travelogue
The legend goes something like this: Count Ghisallo was being haunted by
medieval bandits when he suddenly before him an image of the Virgin Mary
appeared at a church, to which he ran and was saved. This apparition apparently
took place on the shores of Lake Como and is known as the Madonna Del Ghisallo.
To this day she has become a patroness to passers by and in particular cyclists,
the latter of which has been confirmed by the Pope himself.
The chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo Photo ©
2009 Tim Lee
Set in the hills of Southern Lake Como, the Madonna Del Ghisallo enjoys
panoramic views of the surrounding area, including the lake itself. The Madonna
del Ghisallo is an incredibly moving place to be both as a cyclist and as a fan
of those who make this sport their lives. It is perhaps best described as a
shrine to all things cycling including celebrating victories of champions past
and present, paying tribute to those who have paid the ultimate price, and
generally recalling the moments and monuments on which the sport and its psyche
Entrance to the Chapel Photo © 2009 Tim
For such a small building there is quite an impressive amount of materials on
display. There are nine bikes hanging from either side of the ceiling as well as
another eight bikes stacked away from obvious view. These include victorious
weapons of choice from the 1949 Giro used by icon Fausto Coppi and the 1976 Giro
ridden Felice Gimondi. Moser's crazy 'hour bike' from 1984 is also quite
prominent. There is also a Merckx used by the great man himself but there is no
knowing what race victory it contributed to; chances are there were several
given Eddy's palmares...
There are numerous personally signed jerseys donated by the riders themselves
to the shrine. There is obviously a distinctly Italian theme with names from the
currently world champ Ballan stretching back through Cipollini, Bugno, Saronni,
Bartali, Coppi, and Binda but there are also donations signed specifically to
the shrine from 'foreign' champions including Indurain, Hinault, and even Connie
Carpenter. A tribute to South African cyclist Ryan Cox is also quite prominent.
Beyond this, there are literally hundreds of plaques, honour rolls, badges,
medals, and assorted artifacts that contribute to the authenticity of the whole
Inside the Chapel, the statue of the Madonna is behind wrought iron.
Photo © 2009 Tim Lee
The Virgin Mary for her part is cordoned of from public palpation by a
wrought iron barrier, behind which also lies a stained glass window portraying
worshipers looking up to her in prayer. Also housed within this shrine is an
eternal flame to honour and remember all of the cyclists that have lost their
The adjacent museum is contrastingly modern it its design and layout. It is
largely set on one level, save for a mezzanine level that has some interactive
attractions and a ramp leading down to the exhibits. The first thing noticed on
entering was the far wall which has a huge black and white photographic
decoupage of various champions from all eras starting from the beginning of 20th
century and working through each decade right up until the present.
Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi bikes Photo
© 2009 Tim Lee
The center piece of the showroom is a glass cabinet containing the very
jersey and bike that 1992 Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli crashed and
lost his life on in the 1995 Tour de France. The Caloi frame has surprisingly
little damage from afar but on closer inspection the forks and entire front end
of the frame are quite twisted and mangled which served a pretty chilling and
visual reminder of the dangers this sport has, especially at the top level. It
was a definitely a tasteful and fitting tribute to a champion who cycling is
still in debt to.
tragic memory, Olympic Champion Fabio Casartelli's bike and Motorola jersey.
Photo © 2009 Tim Lee
Among the exhibits is a massive array of bikes from wooden frames of the
1800s, early steel rides from the first editions of the Tour de France. There
are also numerous steeds from past champions used in the Giro di Lombardia,
world championships, and the Giro d'Italia. Continuing the Italian theme are two
current model Ferrari endorsed Colnagos as well another of Ernesto's creations
for Tony Rominger's successful attempts at the hour record in 1994. Breaking the
Italian trend was a Motorola cap and world champions jersey signed by a very
young Lance Armstrong, oh the memories...
Lance Armstrong's rainbow jersey
Photo © 2009 Tim Lee
It is not just bikes on display though, as the walls are covered in sketches,
paintings, and photos from all generations and all races. A cool touch is also a
collection of framed headline pages from L'Equipe and La Gazzetta Dello Sport
spanning several decades of cycling highlights.
From Milan, its an hour on the train to Como. From here take bus C30 from the
town centre to Bellagio and then the bus C36 from Bellagio has the Ghisallo as
one of its stops. It pays to plan ahead though, as there are only a few buses
that do the Bellagio-Ghisallo run each day and these annoyingly do not link up
with the buses that arrive from Como- ie our bus from Como arrived in Bellagio
on schedule at 2:30pm only to find that the 'connecting' bus to the Ghisallo had
departed at 2:25pm. This was not really a problem as Bellagio is a nice town to
spend an hour or two in but the best way to avoid such troubles would be to do
it in the morning when more buses run.
Panorama of champions across the decades lines the walls of the museum.
Photo © 2009 Tim Lee
If you prefer to ride, the hilly, but not mountainous, roads leading up to
the Ghisallo are in beautiful condition (probably thanks to the tour of Lombardy
being run here each year) and you definitely wont be alone as there are riders
aplenty that make their pilgrimage to this shrine. You can ride direct from Como
to the Ghisallo but be warned that if you ride via Bellagio the roads are
incredibly narrow for the amount of traffic they have.
In summary the Madonna del Ghisallo is a very worthwhile visit for anyone who
has even a vague interest in cycling, be it as a form of transport or commuting,
but it is an absolute must for anyone who considers themselves fans of pro
cycling. It is heavily influenced by Italian themes as you would expect in a
country that is so passionate about this sport but there is enough 'foreign'
content to keep anyone happy. The museum is as interesting as the church is
moving and as such I can highly recommend a visit if you are in this beautiful
part of Italy.
Giro di Lombardia 2008: World Champion Ballan leads over the summit of the
Ghisallo past the chapel of the Madonna.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti
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