Fireworks, Serpents and Silence…in and around this tiny Italian Lake set in the scenic north of Italy at the foot of the Alps in Piedmont. What to see, what to do and where to go.
Lake Orta, or Lago d’Orta in Italian, is a glacial lake in Piedmont, northern Italy lying some thousand feet above sea level to the west of Lake Maggiore. Hidden away behind Mottarone lies this little gem of a lake, a mere eight miles long and less than two miles wide. The lake sits in an area of outstanding and untouched natural beauty, from the low hills at its southern shore via its calm waters to the mountains at the end of the northern shore. The enchanting village of Orta San Giulio lies on the edge of a small peninsula facing the peaceful island of San Giulio. Car free cobblestone streets lead to the centre of the village and Piazza Mario Motta, known locally as Orta’s drawing room, this is a great place to sip a capuccino or an aperitivo, people watch, enjoy the glorious views across the calm waters to the almost ship like island whilst soaking up the lake’s serene and romantic atmosphere. An absolute MUST.
Lake Orta’s Top 10 Things to See and Do:
1. Explore the cobblestoned village of Orta San Giulio.
2. Climb the Scalineta della Motta to the parish church of Santa Maria della Assunta, first built in 1485.
2. See the Penotti Ubertini Palace in the centre of Orta San Giulio.
4. Walk up to the Sacro Monte and view the frescos and life-size statues dedicated to St Francis of Assisi.
5. See the twelfth century Romanesque Basilica on the island with the glass coffin of Saint Giulio.
6. Visit the Santuario della Bocciola, a beautiful baroque church in Vacciago overlooking the lake. (www.santuari.it/bocciola)
7. Enjoy the spectacular view of Lago d’Orta and Lago Maggiore from the summit of Mottarone. (www.neveazzurra.it)
8. In summer, take to the beaches between Gozzano and Pella.
9. Visit the Museo dell’Ombrello e del Parasole (Umbrella Museum) in nearby Gignese.
10. Don’t miss the Alessi factory outlet store at Crusinallo, just outside Omegna.
Lake Orta’s Local Events in and around Lake Orta:
Many of the local events take place lakeside or on the island, so travelling around by boat can be the best option. There are regular boat services connecting the town of Orta San Giulio with other lakeside towns and villages like Omegna and Pella. Motor boats and rowing boats can also be hired in Orta San Giulio.
June: Cusiano Festival of Musica Antica, evening concerts at Villa Tallone on the island.
August: “Fiori di Fuoco” (Flowers of Fire), World Fireworks Championship at which firework manufacturers from four continents demonstrate their pyrotechnic abilities and creativity.
September/October: Poetry on the Lake, featuring poetry readings, workshops and discussions all around the lake area. (www.poetryonthelake.org)
September: Sundays only: Piano Concerts of the “Settembre musicale di San Giulio”.
Local Food and Drink:
Must Try Food: The lake fish; Tapulon, a gastronomic speciality from nearby Borgomanero, is a blend of wine, garlic, herbs and chopped donkey meat. Orta Mortadella; the region is famed for its sausages which you can buy freshly made in some of the Orta San Giulio shops.
Must Try Wines: Reds: Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme and of course Nebbiolo.
Orta Must Do: The island of San Giulio.
Row yourself or take the launch from Piazza Mario Motta across to the island of San Giulio. There’s no timetable, its just a question of there being enough passengers on board to make the trip worth it! The island of San Giulio takes its name from the Saints Giulio and Giuliano, Greek missionaries, who came to this area in the 4th century. Legend has it that as no boatman was willing to take him across St. Giulio decided to surf over the waters on a cloak guided by his staff to drive out the serpent that plagued the island before building his one hundredth and last church dedicated to the Holy Apostles. The Basilica contains 14th and 16th century frescoes as well as carved likenesses of the Saint and is one of the most important sacred monuments in the province of Novara.
Today the island is known as the “Island of Silence” due to the Mater Ecclesiae, the largest monastery of enclosed Benedictine nuns in the world which lies at its centre. There is a short circular walk, signed La Via del Silenzio (The Way of Silence) and along this route there are small signs in several languages, ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’ states one, ‘If you can be yourself, you are everything’ states another, gentle hints to remind you that this is a place for reflection.
The Basilica di San Giulio is open on Mondays from 11:00 to 12:15 and on Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 to 12:15 and 14:00 to 18:00. In winter it remains open until 19:00.
Lake Orta, how to get there:
Lago d’Orta is about 60 km west of Milan and about 100 km northeast of Turin in the Province of Novara in the Italian region Piedmont.
By air: The closest airports are Malpensa (Milan) or Bergamo (Milan) which both have bus and/or train connections to the main Milan Central station.
By train: The Novara to Domodossola line winds along the east shore of the lake. Orta Miasino train station is about 3 Km from the center of Orta San Giulio. There is a tourist train to the centre of town between March and October (single €2 – return €3)
By car: From Milan, take the Autostrada A8 Milano – Varese Como, then take the A26 Gravellona Toce, following the signs to Orta San Giulio.
From Turin, take the Autostrada A4 Torino – Trieste, then take the A26 Gravellona Toce, follow the signs to Orta San Giulio.
From Genoa and Milan exit on the motorway A26 – Arona, follow the signs to Borgomanero, and then follow for Lago D’Orta; about 14 km.
From Switzerland and Valle d’Ossola, exit on the motorway A26 Gravellona Toce, follow signs to Omegna and then follow for Lago D’Orta San Giulio; about 11 km.