How do you imagine the northern Italian lakes?
I picture clear blue waters, medieval fortress towns, soaring mountain ranges and grand baroque villas with colourful gardens. I also know that the pretty towns the sit on the shores of popular lakes Como, Maggiore and Garda are often crowded with tourists.
And then there is Lake Orta.
Lake Orta, Piedmont, Italy
Lying in the foothills of the Alps near the Swiss border, romantic Lake Orta is nestled among a dark green forest and rocky hills. One of the smallest and lesser known of the Italian lakes, its shimmering waters, ancient town of San Giulio and fascinating history stole my heart.
We visited the area driving en route to Lake Como from a summer alpine break in Switzerland. After descending from the Alps you head west away from Lake Maggiore along a winding road that hugs the lake. You pass colourful villas, small bathing inlets and park benches placed for quiet contemplation. As you gaze across the lake you notice the little island of San Giulio and hills further in the distance. We barely passed another car on the road the day we visited in late August. This is a place of quiet natural beauty without the crowds you expect on the Italian lakes.
Orta San Giulio
The lakeside town of Orta San Giulio is the focal point for the community of Lake Orta. Dating back to Roman times, the town claimed its place in history through its association with the Bishops of Novara from the 6th to 18th centuries and later under the rule of Victor Emmanuel Duke of Savoy and Aosta. The medieval and baroque architecture and colourful frescoes of the town reflect its relatively peaceful past and prosperity.
To reach the main square Piazza Motta on the banks of lake, you must wander through idyllic medieval streets and laneways. Make time to stop and admire the baroque Chiesa parrocchiale di Santa Maria Assunta that looks royally down over the town and the lake. The piazza is lined with relaxed restaurants, bars and gelaterie and is home to a delightful loggia and the tree lined waterfront. We enjoyed a delicious family lunch at Venus restaurant while the lake waters lapped at the shores just metres from our feet.
For those looking to experience local cuisine can try local delicacies such as tapulon (sausage made from donkey meat) in the weekly market in Piazza Motta. The market is held on Wednesdays. We also noticed several shops selling Piemonte specialties such as porcini mushrooms around the town. Apart from the hearty local food, Orta is also home to two starred Michelin restaurant – Villa Crespi.
It would be a hard hearted person who did not fall in love with beautiful Orta. Wandering the narrow cobbled streets overhung with wisteria and hydrangeas you catch glimpses of the lake and its mysterious island. Orta is an incredibly romantic place.
Isola San Giulio
The island in the middle of Orta is home to the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine monastery. The nuns who live on Isola San Giulio welcome visitors however ask that you do so in silence. The highlight of the island is the 12th century basilica with its Romanesque facade and purported remains of patron Saint Giulio. You can see the basilica rising up majestically on the island from the shores of Orta San Giulio.
I imagine visiting the island and spending some moments in quiet thought is an amazing way to experience the lake and tranquil beauty of the area. We decided our preschool children were not up to a silence challenge so will save that for another visit. Ferries leave Orta San Giulio regularly for the short trip to the island.
Good to know – tips for visiting Lake Orta
✪ Book well in advance if you want to stay on or near Lake Orta. I could not find accommodation even 2-3 months before our visit. The lake is an easy day trip from Stresa on Lake Maggiore if staying there is not possible.
✪ Weekends are the busiest times on the lake when day trippers from Milan visit Orta San Giulio for long leisurely lunches.
✪ Fans of design icon Alessi can visit the factory store at nearby Omegna
✪ A short walk from Orta San Giulio is the UNESCO heritage site Sacro Monte di Orta (Sacred Mountain of Orta) dedicated to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi
Why visit Lake Orta
Lake Orta may not have the movie star glamour of Como or the faded beauty of Lake Garda’s palazzi but it more than makes up for that with a unique, almost magical charm. Even in August, at the height of tourist season, the town seemed bustling but not crowded. It was easy to find a quiet park bench to relax and watch the activities on the lake. We even managed to secure a perfect lakeside position overlooking the island for lunch without a reservation.
Described as one of the prettiest towns in Italy, Orta was once the haunt of writers, poets and philosophers such as Browning, Balzac, Nietschke and the perennial traveler Lord Byron. I have to agree with their assessment and am already trying to find my way back to this magical spot on the Italian lakes
Thanks to my cousin Nikki for the fabulous tip to visit beautiful Lake Orta.
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