The romance of Lake Orta
- Written by Gabriele Pieroni
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Although less famous than its bigger brothers, Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, the splash of Lake Orta has nothing to envy; its smaller dimensions make it intimate and very romantic. Orta San Giulio, the island that rises up out of the center of the lake, has quiet trails that run along the beach and docks shaded by trees, where drowsy medieval citizens with their stone bell towers and water-front windows once crossed. Lake Orta is a charming destination out of the usual, well-trodden tourist path.
Visualizza Il romantico design del lago d'Orta in una mappa di dimensioni maggiori
The best period to organize a trip along its banks is during spring or early summer, when nature flowers and the lake vegetation blooms in all its glory. The weather is temperate but fresh, thanks to its southern border that rises up ten meters from the lake surface and preserves the cool kiss of the lake humidity. To the north rise the Alpine valleys from which the lake originates; this is the Ossola zone, with untouched nature and truly beautiful parks.
The point of departure is the town of Gattinara, its fame owed to its elegant wine of the same name, currently gaining in popularity in Italy and abroad. If you have extra time, we advise you to stay for a day or two to explore this small town and the osterias that inspired writer Mario Soldati in his short piece Un sorso di Gattinara (A Sip of Gattinara).
From here, continue in the direction North-East to reach Lake Orta by way of passing through the city of Gozzano. On the southernmost edge of the lake, this was a bishop’s residence of the diocese of Novara. When the bishop wanted to reach the island of San Giulio, he stopped in the community of Buccione, where a richly decorated bucintoro (a sort of Venetian galley) transported him to the island’s basilica. Testimony of the ancient splendor that decorated this small locale are the frescoes that adorn the walls of the oldest houses. Recently restored, they depict various bishops’ coats-of-arms.
From Buccione, proceed along the picturesque road that runs along the lake and arrive at the Orta San Giulio, an essential stop of a lake visit. Orta is a lovely, small, medieval hamlet on the eastern bank, situated in front of the magnificent island of San Giulio that, as Gianni Rodai of Omegna writes, “Seems to be built by hand with a set of building blocks. Meter by meter, century after century, each man changing it, its inhabitants have given it its form.”
To visit, stop at the Dock of Piazza Motta, and from here reach the island in a dinghy. Legend has it that on this patch of land, San Giulio defeated dragons and serpents in order to build the foundations of his one hundredth church. Not finding a boat to ferry across, he decided to do it himself. He planted his mantle in the water and navigated over it, the first saintly example of “surfing” in history.
On the island is the Benedictine abbey of the cloister Mater Ecclesiae (which offers its hospitality to those who wish to make their visit a religious experience) and the “Street of silence,” a cobblestoned way with placards inscribed with points of meditation. When the weather is nice, the water’s colors and reflections play on the surrounding vegetation that sneaks between the stone buildings, gardens, and tight, medieval alleyways.
To enjoy a beautiful view, you can reach the Sacro Monte (by foot, we advise) from Orta. In just 15 minutes you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views and a walk through a park marked with 17th century chapels with terracotta representations of the life of the saint of Assisi.
Passing from the sacred to the everyday, for that Italian-style “happy hour,” aperitivo, we advise the Leon d’Oro, known for its dinner on a lake-side terrace. If looking for an experience of gastronomic excellence, reserve a table at Hotel Villa Crespi: in the kitchens is chef Antonio Cannavacciuolo, Michelin starred and able to please the most critical of palates.
While at Lake Orta, don’t miss the chance to enjoy cultural events with the area’s seasonal program that gathers all of the Lake District. In Vacciago, it is worth a visit to the Calderara Museum, open from May 15-October 15. Dedicated to contemporary art in its magnificent, late Renaissance dwelling, this museum houses hundreds of works of art and sculpture, including the personal collection of painter Antonio Calderara (1903-1978), master of abstract Italian art of the 1900s.
The shopping is also very good in these parts. The last stop of this itinerary is, in fact, Omegna, a small municipality constructed on the north-western side of the lake. The shopping center is the biggest in the Cusio zone, and celebrated for developing a flourishing industry of household appliances. As proof, other than its numerous commercial centers, there is the Foundation of Art Museums and Industry Forums, and some of the most well-known names of the household appliance industry: Alessi, (check out Alessi Outlet for some great offers), Lagostina, Girmi, Piazza and Bialetti.