After a short walk down a cobbled street and through a tunnel, we found ourselves in another world: magical, watery, tranquil, and very romantic. Terracotta-colored buildings tumbled down the hillside to a lake, sparkling like a jewel in the sun. A bride emerged from a sunflower yellow church. We stood there on the hill for some moments, taking it all in. I turned to my companion and said, “I think we’re in the right place.” Lured to Lake Orta by an article in The Guardian, I had no idea that when I arrived at the town of Orta San Giulio, every cell in my body would feel like I'd come home.
Not many people have heard of Lago d'Orta though it is a popular weekend getaway from Milan. It is visited mostly by Italians, but I was surprised how many Italians I’ve spoken to have never heard of it. If you’d like to get off the beaten path in Italy and places of great natural beauty and spirituality beckon you, Lago di Orta is the place.
Orta San Giulio is on the eastern side of Lake Orta and easily the prettiest town on the lake. It cast its spell on me and my Italian friend who agreed, Orta San Giulio must surely be one of the most romantic places in Italy. Pedestrian-friendly, it’s the kind of place where you are content doing nothing much at all. Spend a day or more strolling with a camera, exploring the shops, and sitting in a cafe on Piazza Motta gazing out at the lake and Isola San Giulio.
For the spiritual seeker and metaphysically inclined, a visit to Sacro Monte (spiritual mountain), a place of pilgrimage dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi is a must. There are twenty chapels illustrating the life of St. Francis along a clearly marked path with picnic and rest areas along the way. At Sacro Monte nature and architecture are carefully combined to enhance the feeling of devotion and encourage meditation. Towering over Orta San Giulio the view from Sacro Monte is spectacular. That alone is reason to climb the mountain.
What about Isola San Giulio - a tiny gem of an island? In the ninth century the Bishop of Novara built a basilica there which dominates the landscape. There’s also a Benedictine monastery built in the 1900s. It seems that even the island is a place for the religious and spiritual seeker, although you could simply enjoy the scenery and the architecture. From Piazza Motta, the main square in Orta San Giulio, you can take a ferry over to the island.
My dream is to rent an apartment above Piazza Motta where I can see the lake and the island from every window. I’d spend my days reading, writing, taking photographs, drinking wine, swimming and doing nothing much at all.
Coincidentally, not long after my visit to Lake Orta I discovered that my Italian ancestors are from this area. Perhaps this is why I felt so at home there?
IF YOU GO
Lake Orta is about a 45-minute drive from Milan but located in the region of Piemonte. The best time to visit Orta San Giulio and the lake is from late spring to early fall. The weekends and the month of August in particular will be very crowded. If you plan to spend more than a day, book your accommodation in advance.