ORTA, Piedmont, Italy. September 10th, 2020. PICTURED: A vision of the Isola San Giulio in the center of Lago d’Orta, from among the chapels on the sacred mountain of Orta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Northern Italy is famous for its lakes like Lago di Garda, Lago Maggiore, and Lago di Como. But nestled in the hillsides of Piedmont’s northern ranges, the sub-alpine lake of Orta is one of those rare destinations that has the honor of being one of the most beautiful and also the least known.
Situated in Novara province in the Piedmont region and surrounded by quaint little antique towns, Orta mixes classic Italian rusticity and charm with natural splendor to create a lovely excursion that could provide anywhere from 1 to several days worth of entertainment.
Orta San Giulio is the site of one of the lesser-known UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, known as the Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy, literally the sacred mountains. Founded by the Franciscan order in the 16th and 17th centuries, the monks found the mountains of Northern Italy an ideal place to build secluded places of worship, reflecting their appreciation of nature.
For locals, it’s a great way to enjoy the lake-blessed region with some sailing, architecture, and local ingredients with delicious Piedmont wine at Piedmont prices, which if one has never been there, are surprisingly budget-friendly in nature.
Visiting Orta San Giulio
* Around 50 KM northwest of MXP airport, 80 from Milan
* Best time to visit – May-June
* Days needed to see everything – 1-2
The lake, Lago d’Orta, plays host to a town known as Orta San Giulio, where it’s possible to see what civilization looked like somewhere between the times of Michelangelo, and Charles Dickinson.
Unlike other famous Northern Italian lake towns like Como, Stresa, Angera, and Arona, there are no boulevards or cars, there are no hoards of Italian sunbathers, and there are no garish lakefront hotels.
Instead you have the tranquility of nature almost entirely in your ears, eyes, and nose as even on the lakeside, the sounds of the lake and the waves can be heard over the market and the crowds. 50 meters down the streets on either side of the principle Piazza Motta, and the numbers of people dwindle rapidly, while after 100 meters they disappear almost entirely.
1 Day in Orta
*< €100 in cost
*Good walking shoes for uneven ground
Morning walk, breakfast, and Sacro Monte
Wake up early, and you can hike to Sacro Monte d’Orta. Enjoying the secluded chapels in the cool of post-dawn is a sublime way to see them, and the birds which congregate there in large numbers will reward you with a beautiful chorus. Rising in the east, the sun will shine upon the lake from behind you, making the hours of 9 to 10 the perfect opportunity to take advantage of Sacro Monte’s elevation for photographs of the beautiful monastery nestled on an island in the lake near the shore of Piazza Motta, as well as the church-decorated and forested hillsides on the other side of the valley.
After enjoying the forest’s calm, the birdsong, and the 20 chapels telling the story of St. Francis of Assisi in both painting and sculpture, descend back into the town for an Italian breakfast of coffee and a pastry – maybe at the Palace, located at N.1 Via Contrada dei Monti, where they work exceptionally hard to import single origin coffee beans and roast them in-house.
A prowl about town is perfect after you eat, as ever nook and cranny of Orta San Giulio is worth seeing. Since the town lies on a sort of peninsula, you’ll quickly figure out the lay of the land and whether you’ve seen everything.
Lunch, and Isola San Giulio
There are a number of inexpensive yet delicious eateries in Piazza Motta including several which serve bountiful seafood dishes with tables on decks over the lake.
One, just outside the piazza, was awarded a Michelin Star. Even still, it isn’t as expensive as the restaurants in Stresa or Ranco on Lago Maggiore.
After lunch, you can talk to the swarthy captains at the dock and ask for a €4,50 ticket to Isola San Giulio which you would have seen by now offshore — a small island cloaked in stone buildings. Once there you can enjoy a turn around the islet’s stone streets, relishing in great architecture and tremendous views of the valley and lake.
There’s not much to do on the lake, as it still primarily serves to accommodate a fraternity of monks. There is a basilica you can see, which is quite beautiful, and an antique shop that also makes soaps and other souvenirs to support the monks.
Extra-Orta excursions (2-3 Days)
*A clear day
The eastern slope of the valley in which lays Lago d’Orta, is flanked by another lake on the other side: the famous Lago Maggiore.
A bus leaves three-times a day for the town of Stresa, a famous spot on the lake from which one can take a cable car to Mottarone, a mountain resort overlooking most of the region’s lakes, including Orta. If you have a car, it’s much more convenient, and the road signs for Mottarone appear almost as soon as you leave Orta.
The views from the top are stunning, and there are brilliant hiking trails around the various peaks and valleys.
On a clear enough day, especially at dawn, one can see Monte Rosa, the second-highest mountain in Europe from almost anywhere on Mottarone; allowing you like the painter Hokusai making his 37 Views of Mount Fuji, to snap 37 views of Monte Rosa.
Santa Maria Maggiore
A 1-hour, mostly beautiful drive from Orta San Giulio is Santa Maria Maggiore, a popular hiking and shopping destination among west-Lombardians, and Piemontese. Up in the Italian alps, the scenery from Orta changes dramatically to waterfalls, bare pinnacles above pine woodland, and long green grass slopes veined by streams and flower meadows.
Follow Google Maps directions below for Cascata di Malesco, and enjoy a large waterfall and a bit of sunbathing/ice bathing — whichever temperature extreme you can handle. Above the waterfall are a network of great hiking trails through pine forests and mountain slopes.
In the distinctly alpine town of Santa Maria Maggiore, there are curiosities like the museum of chimney sweeps, and a great shop which I must mention called Robe di Legno, (Things of Wood). The craftsmanship on the pieces are really exquisite, and it’s a great place to buy gifts.
Finally, at Latteria Vigezzina, one can buy locally made, Piedmont cheese in alpine styles at affordable prices. If you like cheese this small wooden-walled cheese shop is a must-visit.
Orta and its surroundings are gorgeous places, and every additional day you would like to stay means you can visit another. But Orta should be high on the list of Piedmont sightseeing, as it’s reclusivity is only matched by its beauty.
If you had a different itinerary for Lago d’Orta, share some of it in the comments below!
Continue exploring this topic — Macugnaga – Trekking, Skiing, and Dining on Europe’s Second Highest Mountain
Note: All photos are taken by Andrew Corbley, who retains exclusive rights to all. The unauthorized reprinting of this article or any of the images is strictly prohibited.