Italian Lakes (2013)
Little Lake Orta is often described as a shimmering, sleeping beauty. Mystical and romantic, with its understated charm it plays Cinderella to the bigger lakes.
Ristorante Al Sorriso
Sacro Monte di San Francesco
Orta San Giulio
Isola di San Giulio
Santuario della Madonna del Sasso
Just over 10km (7 miles) west of Lake Maggiore, as the crow flies, this is the only one of the major lakes to lie totally in Piedmont. Orta is framed by low hills at the south end of the lake and higher mountains at the north end. Cradled between is this bewitching area, with probably the most picturesque medieval village of all the Italian lakes.
Honoré de Balzac described the surrounding Piedmontese hills as “a green treasure chest” enclosing this “pearl” of a lake. Still known as Cusio, from the Roman Lacus Cusius, referring to the Usii tribe – its modest dimensions of just 12km (8 miles) long and less than 3km (2 miles) wide – make it of manageable proportions.
Ristorante Venus on Piazza Motta, Orta San Giulio.
The lake’s main attraction, Isola di San Giulio, is a tiny island with passing steamers, a pretty harbour, porticoes, pergolas and slate-roofed houses. Dragons and serpents were said to have terrorised all who dared to venture across the waters, until the arrival of St Julius (Giulio) who cast them out 1,600 years ago and, in celebration, built his basilica. Now it is the jewel of the lake, with a reverential, peaceful air.
Looking across to the basilica on Isola di San Giulio.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
Standing opposite the little island, the medieval town of Orta San Giulio is utterly picturesque and the perfect base for exploring or just gazing and enjoying. The hub of activity is a charming lakeside piazza, overseen by the Palazzotto frescoed town hall and, from the waterfront, little boats ply back and forth across the lake.
Like the main lakes, there are built up areas and Omegna, at the head of Orta is a busy town as well as being the headquarters of Alessi, the guru of stylish Italian designer kitchenware.
The western shore is delightfully sleepy and untouristy, overseen by the towering Madonna del Sasso, perched high on a rocky ledge. And on the eastern shore is the Sacro Monte, a station on the Way of the Cross tracing the history of St Francis. Both look out from their respective sides to the Isola di San Giulio, bathed in mystical, soft light – the jewel of the lake.
The brothers Giulio and Giuliano built 100 churches in the area between them in the 4th century AD. Legend has it that they shared tools and would send them flying through the air. On one occasion Giuliano, who was building the 99th church in Gozzano, failed to catch a pick-axe that Giulio sent him which pierced his arm, and his blood caused an indelible stain on a nearby rock.
Interior of Villa Crespi, near Orta San Giulio.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
In the south
The gateway to Orta and its beauties is Gozzano 1 [map] , to the south of the lake. Of Roman origin when it was probably a military stopover, it stands at the intersection of the roads running up either side of the lake to Domodossola and the Simplon Pass. This is an industrialised area which contributed in the 1970s to the pollution of the lake and destruction of its fauna. Since then, however, the lake has been reoxygenated, the water is clean and teems with fish. The manufacture of textile fibres, especially artificial silk at the Bemberg factory, is today the chief industry in the area.
In the centre of town, the parish church of San Giuliano (the Greek brother of Giulio) has a pleasing Romanesque bell tower. Inside, there are some fine Baroque carved wood choir stalls, and in the crypt a silver and crystal urn is said to hold the saint’s skeleton.
Just to the west of Gozzano is the tiny village of Soriso , whose restaurant Al Sorriso (with two “r”s, meaning “smile”), has two Michelin stars.
On the eastern shore
A few kilometres to the north, on the eastern side of the lake, the old town of Ameno 2 [map] has been a tourist destination since the 18th century. Overlooking Monte Rosa, it lies at 500 metres (1,640ft) above sea level and is a great base for summer treks through beautiful scenery, or for enjoying winter sports in the cold months. It is peppered with lush gardens surrounding aristocratic villas, often second homes to wealthy families from Milan and Turin. In June and July a festival of blues music is a popular event on the social calendar.
Well worth a visit is the Casa Calderara, former home of the painter Antonio Calderara (1903–78), now a museum. The Collezione Calderara di Arte Contemporaneo (Via Bardelli 9, Vacciago di Ameno; tel: 0322-998 192; www.fondazionecalderara.it ; mid-May–mid-Oct Tue–Fri 3–7pm, Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 3–7pm; free) showcases paintings and sculptures by contemporary European, American, Chinese and Japanese artists, including many by Calderara himself. He drew great inspiration from the romantic, misty landscapes of Lake Orta and its surroundings.
Terracotta sculptures, Sacro Monte di San Francesco.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
Just to the west is the S acro Monte di San Francesco 3 [map] (Orta San Giulio; tel: 0322-911 960; daily Oct–May 9am–4.30pm; June–Sept 9.30am–6.30pm; free). Spectacularly set on wooded hillside above the lake, with views across to the Isola di San Giulio, this Unesco World Heritage site, one of several in the region, is a devotional path comprising a series of frescoed chapels illustrating the life of St Francis of Assisi. Twenty-one chapels built between 1591 and 1750 alternate Baroque and Renaissance styles with 376 terracotta sculptures and 900 frescoes depicting his life and times. Of all the Sacri Monti, this is the only one dedicated to St Francis – all the others are devoted to Christ.
The chiesa dei SS Francesco e Nicolao (church of SS Francis and Nicholas) is similar to the lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, built between 1602 and 1607. The original church of St Nicholas was built in the 10th century, and the wooden Pietà on the major altar dates from this time.
Within the reserve of the Sacro Monte are also Monte Mesma and the Torre di Buccione . The tower dates back to Roman times, but although little remains of the original, there is a splendid view over the lake and Monte Rosa from the 23-metre (75ft) -tall lookout.
The Trenino: this great little tourist train is a good way of negotiating Orta San Giulio’s steep terrain. It is also very useful for transporting luggage to hotels as the centre is traffic-free. The trenino runs daily Mar–Apr and Oct 9am–5.30pm, May–Sept until 7pm and Nov–Feb Sat–Sun 9.30am–5.30pm (€3.50) from Piazza Motta to the Sacro Monte and Legro.
Orta San Giulio
From the Sacro Monte, it is about a 15-minute walk down to Orta San Giulio 4 [map] on a lush promontory on the east bank. Frescoed peach and cappuccino-coloured houses with galleries, wrought-iron balconies and gates cluster along the cobbled alleyways of this gorgeous little medieval town. Romantic, peaceful and car-free, it oozes charm and, everywhere you go, you will hear the sound of lapping water.
The main lakeside square is the Piazza Motta – also known as Il Salotto (the drawing room), enclosed by arcades on three sides and lined with terrace cafés, restaurants, shops and traditional hotels. A market has been held here since 1228; according to city charters, Wednesday was the day that judgements were carried out and that remains market day. This is where you can catch the trenino up to the Sacro Monte.
Cliff-hanging villas, Orta San Giulio.
Opposite the Ristorante Venus, the 16th-century town hall, Palazzo della Comunità , is now a gallery with temporary exhibitions. A couple of minutes’ walk just to the north of the piazza along the main shopping street, Via Olina, Casa Bossi , now the town hall, has a beautiful garden overlooking the lake. Just on the left is the gourmet shop, Rovera (Largo de Gregori 15; tel: 0322-90123; closed Sun) – an Aladdin’s cave of salamis, local specialities and wines.
The Salità della Motta , a stepped lane, leads from the piazza past elegant palazzi including the late Renaissance Palazzo Gemelli and the Casa dei Nanni (House of Dwarfs). This is Orta’s oldest house, dating from the 14th century, and takes its name from the four dwarf-sized windows. You pass other houses in a variety of architectural styles leading up to the 15th-century Baroque church of Santa Maria Assunta (daily 9am–6pm).
Above the town, along the Via Panoramica (also known as the Strada Nuova), is the Moorish fantasy Villa Crespi , a luxurious hotel complete with minaret, with a two Michelin-starred restaurant (for more information, click here ).
Isola di San Giulio.
Isola di San Giulio
All roads lead to the water and views across to the pearl of the lake, Isola di San Giulio 5 [map] . From the water’s edge at Piazza Motta, rowing-boats and motor boats ply back and forth from 9.50am (Apr–early Oct). The lakeside walk to the south leads past beautiful villas in flower-filled gardens, arriving finally at La Spiaggia Miami (Miami Beach), Orta San Giulio’s only sandy little beach where you have to pay an admission charge for access. Sunloungers and parasols are for hire and the café bar/kiosk serves a delicious iced coffee – with or without a splash of Baileys liqueur.
As you approach the perfect little island, try to imagine how it appeared in the 4th century. Then it was a rocky wilderness, allegedly inhabited by dragons and hideous reptiles, to which no boatman would be persuaded to ferry the Christian preacher, Giulio, who wanted to build his 100th church here. Legend has it that Giulio spread his cloak over the water and, using his staff as a rudder, aquaplaned across the lake. He quickly dispatched the sea of hissing, venomous reptiles, built his church and became a saint.
Boats land just by the island’s centrepiece, the Basilica di San Giulio (daily 9.30am–noon, 2pm until last boat, closed Mon morning in summer, earlier closing in winter; free). Founded in 390 and modified over the centuries before being largely rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, this Romanesque church is sombre, the atmosphere hushed; the remains of San Giulio and his relics, including his staff and cup, are said to be in his sarcophagus in the crypt. The pulpit, sculpted from rich green-black serpentine stone from the nearby quarries of Oira, shows carved reliefs of winged creatures and monsters in deadly conflict, “Strife among Animals”, redeemed by the four Evangelists. Covering the walls, columns and ceiling are fine frescoes, the oldest dating back to the third century.
You would be wise to remember that this is a holy place and to dress modestly as shorts or short skirts won’t allow you access into the basilica. Bikinis are banned as is swimming from the landing-stage, as a way of protecting the nuns from “eyesores” when gazing down from the windows of their convent.
Silence and meditation
There is only one street on the island – the cobbled Via del Silenzio, which then becomes the Via della Meditazione. This picturesque route leads past the Benedictine convent (Palazzo dei Vescovi; closed to the public), which is the cloistered home to 60 or so nuns who devote themselves to prayer, work and contemplation. It is only on Sundays at 11am that the religious silence is broken, when the nuns arrive at the basilica for Mass to sing Gregorian chants.
The Ways of Silence and Meditation, created by the abbess, have signs at regular intervals to encourage contemplation and self-renewal on “the island within”: “In the silence you accept and understand”, “Silence is the language of love”, “Walls are in the mind”, “The wise man makes a mistake and smiles”.
The one shop on the island, housed in a 14th-century building, sells rosaries, ceramics, crafts and souvenirs, some crafted by the nuns.
Frescoes inside the basilica, Isola di San Giulio.
Along the eastern shore
About 2km (1 mile) to the east of Orta San Giulio is Legro 6 [map] , “the painted village”. Just over 40 murals painted by contemporary artists decorate the buildings, most portraying scenes from older Italian films shot around the lake. A set from Il Riso Amaro starring Gina Lollobrigida is on display, but the most famous is the risqué “beautiful Matilde”, played by Italian sex symbol Ornella Muti in The Bishop’s Bedroom (1977). However, she is not instantly recognisable in this mural painted by German Dietrich Blicker in 1999 as the portrayal is of her naked bottom.
On the bank of the lake just to the north, Pettenasco 7 [map] is a busy tourist resort in summer, with all kinds of accommodation ranging from campsites to hotels. It has Roman origins – Roman finds have been unearthed in the heart of town. But it is also known as a centre of woodcarving excellence, a tradition that has now been extended to include metal and plastic products. Worth a look for those interested in wood-turning tools and associated machinery is the Museo dell’Arte della Tornitura del Legno (Museum of the Art of Wood-Turning; Via Vittorio Veneto; mid-May–mid-June and Sept Fri–Sun 3–6pm, mid-June–Aug daily 10.30am–noon, 4–6.30pm; www.museotorniturapettenasco.it ; free).
To the east, Armeno 8 [map] is a lively, modern town, known for its tradition of hoteliers and restaurateurs. Thousands of people have left this area to work in the kitchens, hotels and restaurants of the world. The Museo degli Alberghieri (Museum of Hoteliers; Via dei Prati 3; July–Aug Fri–Sun, 2–7pm; free) charts the tools of the trade; hoteliers, simple cooks, grand chefs, unknown waiters and chefs’ assistants have brought back mementoes and souvenirs of their lives gathered during their travels throughout the world.
River Nigoglia, Omegna.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
Head of the lake
At the northern head of the lake, Omegna 9 [map] is a bustling town and the largest on Lake Orta. It lies on the two banks of the Nigoglia, one of the lake’s outflowing rivers. Curiously, this is the only river in Italy that flows north towards the mountains, joining the Strona River which then flows into the Toce and thence to Lake Maggiore, which is at a slightly lower altitude than Lake Orta. The feisty local people are nicknamed “the wolves” (the animal which appears on the old coat of arms) from the motto: “La Nigoglia la va in su e la legge la femo nu ” – the Nigoglia goes upriver and we make the laws.
The heart of the Old Town is the pedestrianised Via Felice Cavallotti, just around the corner from the well-stocked tourist information office (Piazza XXIV Aprile 17; tel: 0323-867 235). There are some good shops here and along Via Alberganti, also known as Via dal “Buter”, in memory of the traditional butter and cheese market that was held along this street.
Household articles are especially good buys in this area as the town is the home of design guru Alessi as well as Calderoni, Bialetti and Lagostina – all well-known names in an Italian kitchen – and the area around has several factory outlets. For an insight into local craftsmanship, look at the Fondazione Museo Arti e Industria “Forum” (Museum of Art and Industry; Parco Maulini 1; tel: 0323-866 141; www.forumomegna.org ; Tue–Sat 10.30am–12.30pm, 3–7pm, Sun 3–7pm; free), which showcases world-famous design objects like the Bialetti Moka, Lagostina pressure cooker, Calderoni cutlery, as well as Alessi’s distinctive designer household goods. The museum shop is hard to resist, and there is also a café.
Orta San Giulio
Via Panoramica; tel: 0322-905 614
Town hall: Via Bossi 11; tel: 0322-90155
Just to the north of Omegna is the Alessi headquarters and factory shop (Via Alessi 6, Crusinallo; tel: 0323-868 611; www.alessi.com ). The iconic designer of kitchen and home items began life in the 1920s as a humble metal workshop turning out nickel, aluminium and silver-plated brass utensils and dishes. By the 1970s, the workshop had been converted into an international design factory producing some of the world’s coolest and funkiest products. Alessi is now a global household name. Pasta pots, lemon squeezers like spaceships, fly swats, the original Alessi coffee pot – all pieces are designed to be fun as well as useful and are beautifully crafted. The vast factory shop sells the entire Alessi range. It’s worth noting that items designated with a green spot are available at a reduced, or “seconds”, price.
On the northwestern shore of the lake are the towns of Quarna (Sopra e Sotto) ) [map] . In the higher town (Sopra), there are splendid views over the mountain pastures from the castle. Quarna Sotto (Lower) is famous for its production of brass and wind instruments, which it has been producing since the middle of the 19th century. The Museo Etnografico e dello Strumento Musicale a Fiato (Ethnographic Museum of Musical Wind Instruments; Via Roma 7; tel: 032-382 6001; mid-June–mid-Sept Tue–Fri 2–7pm, Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 3–7pm) has a display of over 300 working wood and brass instruments and the tools used in their production. In the town, the workshops of Rampone & Cazzani (tel: 0323-826 134; www.ramponecazzani.it ) have been making highly prized, handmade Italian saxophones and other instruments such as flutes and clarinets since 1875.
The pretty village of Pella.
Going south on the less touristy western shores of the lake, you pass through the sleepy villages of Nonio and Cesara . The San Clemente church in Cesara is picturesque with its Romanesque bell tower. Inside on the walls of the choir is a painting of St Clement with St Peter and John the Baptist, which is attributed to a disciple of Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Opposite the Isola di San Giulio is the pretty lakeside village of Pella ! [map] . This is a pleasant place for a stroll and an ice cream, with views of Isola di San Giulio. You can take a boat trip across to the island and to Orta San Giulio (tel: 347-723 7854; Mon–Fri 10.10am–6.20pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–7.20pm).
Lake Orta Festivals
Since 2005, the Amenoblues Festival ( www.amenoblues.it ) has been held in Ameno in June and July – now a highlight on the calendar for everyone interested in Italian blues. In June, there are classical music concerts on the island – part of the Cusio music festival, Festival Cusiano di Musica Antica (Cusio Festival of Ancient Music; www.amicimusicacocito.it ). Throughout August, the world’s finest pyrotechnicians paint the night sky on Lake Orta, with the Fiori di Fuoco fireworks competition , perfectly mirrored in the lake. Two piers which jut out into the lake allow fireworks to be launched in total safety, as well as guaranteeing maximum visibility from all points around Orta San Giulio.
Fireworks on Lake Orta.
Madonna del Sasso
Towering above the village 2km (1 mile) away, perched on a granite outcrop, is the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso @ [map] (usually 3–6pm in summer, other times, tel: 0322-981 156). This sanctuary, which includes the Baroque church, bell tower and the hermitage, was built during the early 18th century. Inside the buildings there are some fine frescoes and a 17th-century crucifix; outside there is a version of Rome’s Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) where, so legend says, you are liable to lose your hand if you put it into the stone lion’s mouth and tell a lie. Truth to tell, the highlight is the view from here, encompassing almost the entire lake.
In the village of Pella on the western shore of the lake, try an ice cream from the Gelateria Antica Torre – the “Monte Rosa” is a delicious pink mixture of raspberry and grapefruit.
Inland to the south, San Maurizio d’Opaglio £ [map] , known as “tap city”, and the surrounding area are famous for an economy based on the manufacture of tap fittings and bathroom appliances. The Museo del Rubinetto e della sua Tecnologia (Tap Museum; Piazza Martiri 1; tel: 0323-89622; Fri–Sun 3–6pm) is mainly a homage to Giacomini, the area’s largest tap company.