No more than 18 kilometers long, Lake Orta, nestling in its emerald setting, is a sparkling gem in the gilded crown of the Piedmont Alps.
A medieval borgo with its enchanted isle and the Sacro Monte or Holy Mount , a UNESCO world heritage site: supreme charm and extremely fine scenery on the most romantic lake in Italy.
"Orta is like that: whether you are born there or grew up there, whether you arrived full of dreams and aspirations, passed a summer there as a young blood or got there later in life for a much deserved rest, it is always just that: fatally charming." Gabriele Galli (1941). A place for lovers of nature seeking peace and quiet, Orta ia also a perfectly captivating destination for the young and in love, those wishing to pledge eternal, undying love or say "I do" in the gorgeous gardens of Villa Bossi, a beautiful 17th century villa on the lakeshore.
No more than 18 kilometers long, Lake Orta, nestling in its emerald setting, is a sparkling gem in the gilded crown of the Piedmont Alps, the small, quietly tranquil neighbor to majestic Lake Maggiore. If over the centuries it has been much loved by poets, artists, royalty and captains of industry today it charms travelers with its beautifully preserved medieval “borgo” of Orta and a slightly mysterious, almost spiritual aura, doubtlessly a reflection of the solitary splendor of the Island of San Giulio, its magnificent Basilica and the imposing convent inhabited by a silent religious order benevolently watching over the Way of Silence which dispenses pearls of wisdom to interested readers as they tread the ancient flagstones.
The ancient village of Orta San Giulio itself is a delight of cobbled streets and stone roofs with colorful flowers tumbling from hundreds of window boxes. Open only to pedestrians and a few authorized vehicles, it is reached on foot by a number of picturesque stone stairways. The central stairway leads from a quaint church painted in ocher and cream, to the main piazza, lined with arcades, shops and outdoor cafés overlooking the calm blue waters if the lake.
On the wooded hill overlooking the stone roofs of the medieval village and the isle of San Giulio is the UNESCO site of Sacro Monte, or Holy Mount. In an idyllically pastoral setting in a lush shady park, this Renaissance masterpiece of art and architecture is an attraction for all seeking a truly relaxing walk while stimulating the senses with meditation on the fascinating array of art, history and architecture.
Lake Orta, a gem of Piedmontese natural scenery and countryside, thanks to its mild microclimate, is well-known for it gorgeous flowers and gardens: mimosa, camelias, azaleas, rododendra, wisteria, hydrangeas, gardenia and many other flowers that follow each other through the the seasons from spring into a well-advanced autumn . Orta is at its best in spring and summer, a must from April to October offering immense variety in al areas of activity, particularly for lovers of water sports and boating. Without forgetting, of course, the large number of golf courses within an hour's drive. For those who can think of nothing better than jumping into the crystal clear waters of the lake, there is an infinite amount of things to do: canoeing, water-skiing, sailing, swimming, windsurfing and ... long lazy sunbathing sessions on the beaches or around one of the pools along the lake.
Even winter with its clear blue skies and sunny days offers winter sports .. or just a few romantic walks along the lake shore. The Alpine winter has its own unique character, the snowy peaks reflected in the glass like waters of the lake - great photo opportunities - and sunny days for winter sightseeing trips are a great alternative to the winter sports on Mottarone 45 minutes drive away, a chance to explore local culinary delights in an area which historically and traditionally has produced top chefs, specialist products and equipment used in professional kitchens the world over.
Even Alagna Valsesia, much loved by extreme sports enthsiasts, with its fantastic skiing and freeriding on Monterosa is only 90 minutes away.
In the Basilica on the Island of an Giulio, opposite the charming village of Orta, is a bone said to belong to a large serpent or dragon that once dominated the island , destroying and terrifying the local fishermen and their families. But St Julius, an itinerant Saint who could tame the waves, storms, wild animals and men, arrived on the lake shore and spread his cloak over the waters and sailed on it to the island where he rid the land of a terrifyingly evil presence.
The short walk around the island is called the Way of Silence . If you walk in one direction around the island, there are notices hanging on the walls of the lovely villas which talk of silence and its strength and effectiveness in the quest for inner harmony and music.
Listen to the silence
Listen to the wind, listen to your footsteps
Silence is the language of love
Silence is music and harmony
In the opposite direction the messages talk of meditation:
When you realise your journey is over
If you have become what you really are, you are everything
The wise make mistakes and smile
Simply be yourself
These are the words of the Mother Superior Anna Maria Canopi, the Abbess in the Benedictine Convent Mater Ecclesiae, they induce a sense of silence and peace in the beholder, the silence and peace of the island itself, suggesting the visitor arriving by boat should observe this habit while there.
Lake Orta is the land of chefs and the tradition of excellent of cuisine is still alive and well there. Each year at Armeno just a few km from Orta there is a meeting of emigrant chefs from the great kitchens of the world. Tales are told of fantastically sumptuous banquets, dishes prepared for Ambassadors, Ministers and Kings. To listen is to hear of a world of dreams, to imagine is to feel the joy of the colour and to taste the flavor of the dishes. The areas surrounding Orta boast production of fine salami sausages and cheeses in the nearby Ossola valleys and the Mottarone and a treat for the palate is the Orta mortadella which is always fresh in the shops producing it in Orta.
There is a local dish called tapulon, which in fact is a speciality of Borgomanero, about 15 km from Orta. Apparently it was created by 13 country folk returning home from a pilgrimage to the island of San Giulio. They were travelling by donkey and cart and decided to settle in the comely Borgomanero rather than return home. In order to celebrate this momentous event, they killed the donkey and prepared the very first tapulon in history: the women minced the meat adding what was left of the wine they travelled with and left it to cook with garlic,bay leaf, salt and oil. Today tapulon is usually served with steaming yellow polenta and accompanied by excellent wines produced in the Novarese hills whose rich earth makes very fine wines: Boca, Sizzano e Ghemme, which will perfectly complement tasty dishes of roast and braised meats. porcini mushrooms from the wooded hills, salami and novarese cheeses, among which the magnificent Gorgonzola, where a fine example is produced locally near Orta in the village of Boca.
A holiday would not be a holiday if one could not bring something home from the local market or artisan's workshops. The weekly market in Orta is held on Wednesday, a mass of cheerful colour and folk in the main square just opposite the boats plying between the village and the island as well as the other villagees and towns along the lake. Omegna also has its lakeside market on the shore going owards Bagnella, every Thursday; it is the largest market on the lake and is a hustling and bustling affair.
Orta SAn Giulio has a good number of shops and boutiques where local products and crafts can be bought, herbalists and specialist food shops but lovers of design will not want to miss a trip to the Alessi factory store and passionate cooks may wish to invest in Ruffoni's copper cook pots in Omegna. Or the cashmere outlets at Romagnano- Ghemme where the world's top griffes can be acquired at discounted prices may attract fashionistas and high flyers.
The shopping malls in the area are located at Gravellona Toce, and Vicolungo (Biandate highway exit) are perfect solutions to the odd rainy day.
Orta is a fascinating place for lovers of art and history. The Sacro Monte, UNESCO world heritage site since 2003 together with the other Sacri Monti scattered across Piedmont and Lombardia, is not to be missed by those who are passionate about the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Orta boats the second Sacro Monte set in a park with magnificent views over the lake where twenty chapels provide the backdrop for episodes recounting the life of St Francis of Assisi. The first is in Varallo just 45 minutes drive from Orta.
Ancient legend has it that the Island of San Giulio was infested by a large ferocious serpent and other monsters and nobosy dared approach it until Giulio, an itinerant Saint who ahd escaped the persecution of the Christians in Greece in the 4th century, laid his cloak on the waters jumped on it and sailed over to the island, where he arrived perfectly dry and ready to take on the monsters which of course he defeated. Giulio decided the island would be his final resting place and he built a church there. In the 9th and 11th centuries new churches were built and the Basilica todays still carries his name. In the crypt of the Basilica (always open) sare the remains of the saint and in the Sacristy hangs abone said to belong to the dargon-serpent!
The Basilica is extremely fine with wonderful frescoes but above all there is a very rare and beautiful example of a medieval stone pulpit which is superbly preserved.
The borgoof Orta is stunningly beautiful and visitors should not miss the ancient omune in the main piazza, also the Palazzo Penotti Ubertini where fine exhibitions are held each year, the Maria Assunta Church, Villa Bossi and its lakeside garden,, the venue for many a wedding in this picturesque pace, and Villa Gemella.
The museums in the area are:
Arts and Crafts
• Museum of wood turning - Pettenasco
• Museum of brass musical instruments - Quarna Sotto
• Flour mill - Quarna sotto
• Umbrella and parasol Museum- Gignese
• "Forum"Arts and Industry Museum - Omegna
• Hotel industry museum - Armeno
• Museo dello Scalpellino - Boleto di Madonna del Sasso
• Canvas museum - Centonara di Madonna del Sasso
• Ancient press - Germagno
Arte and History
• Calderara Collection ofContemporary Art - Vacciago di Ameno
• Museum collection - Ameno
• Laboratorio di Arti Visive - Granerolo di Gravellona Toce
• Literary Itineraries of Lake Orta and Mottarone
Man and the environment
• Giardino Alpinia - Alpino di Stresa
• Alpe Selviana - Agrano di Omegna
• Parco della Fantasia - Omegna
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