Secret Little Sister of the Italian Lake
Like a siren, the beautiful little island called to us. And so we swam, like crazed Olympic sprinters, from a cobblestone Italian town square to a serene island monastery in the middle of glittering Lago d’Orta.
It started as a bet among three wine-happy men, one of whom was my husband. But I don’t blame them, really. The bewitching beauty of Orta, a secluded jewel of a lake just a mile wide and to the west of Maggiore, tucked in the Italian Lakes District, is well chronicled: Friedrich Nietzsche, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all wrote about how sublimely gorgeous the lake and its surroundings were (Balzac called Orta’s island “a spot coyly hidden and left to nature, a wild garden”). Was it any wonder we were drawn in, too?
These days, everyone flocks to flashy Lago di Como and Lago di Maggiore, but Lago d’Orta is the secret little sister. It’s popular as a weekend destination from Milan, but little known outside Italy. During the visits that my husband, Matt, and I made to the lake over the last two summers, we saw mostly Italians, a few Germans and Dutch, and a handful of British. And there are plenty of Italians who don’t know about its quiet, forested shores, peppered with sleepy medieval towns, or that distinctive monastery on the tiny island about a quarter-mile from Piazza Motta, the main square on the water in the town of Orta San Giulio.
The island, Isola San Giulio, is home to a 12th-century basilica and a 19th-century seminary-turned-monastery. The island and the town are largely pedestrian-only, which makes for romantic, leisurely daily life in umbrella-filled piazzas lined with cafes, markets and little family-owned restaurants. And the friendly, small-town vibe is a huge part of its charm.
“When I was growing up, we would drive up every school holiday,” said Yasmin Schwitzer, a Londoner whose parents fell in love with the lake two decades ago. They were looking for a weekend retreat from Turin, where they were living at the time.
Fluent in Italian, Ms. Schwitzer now lives in a small village just above Orta San Giulio and works in one of the few hotels in town. She loves the slower pace of life. “The people here are so much friendlier and so much less superficial than back in London,” she said. “I feel like I can make friends with everyone, old and young.”
There are sumptuous palazzi and old buildings, but Orta San Giulio’s most architecturally significant piece of history is the Sacro Monte di San Francesco, one of nine “sacred mountains” in northern Italy that are collectively designated a World Heritage Site. At 1,200 feet above sea level and perched on a hilltop, Orta San Giulio’s sacred mount is a complex that includes a series of 20 beautiful chapels built over two centuries and dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
A walk here is a lovely, meditative experience, with exceptional views over the town and lake. The frescoed chapels spiral out around a tranquil, wooded site — it holds “special nature reserve” status in Italy — and encompass a range of architectural styles, from the classical influence of the late Renaissance to the ornate rococo of the 18th century.
There is certainly a lot of history here, but Orta has some surprisingly avant-garde draws, too. Serious home-design aficionados make the pilgrimage to the northern end of the lake, where, amid the no-frills headquarters of other Italian cookware companies, they’ll find a temple to modern international design: the Alessi factory, whose namesake family set up shop here in 1921.
By BONNIE TSUI