Cobblestone streets, a 1580’s era town hall with a frescoed facade, outdoor cafes on a plaza bordering a mountain lake, a fairy tale looking island in the middle of that lake—atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. This is exactly what Alan and I hoped to find on our road trip in Northern Italy.
When we told Claudio Fontana of A La Carte Italy about our desire to experience Italy off-the-beaten-path, Claudio delivered. And then some. He introduced us to Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta just west of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.
Accompanied by art historian guide, Elena Rame, we walked the pedestrian friendly streets of the small village that has inspired the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning. On this trip, it was the parish priest, dressed in a brown friar’s robe, who held court with local citizens.
Turning left for the uphill walk along Salita della Motta, we stopped to take photos of the pale yellow church that sits at the top of the cobblestone path. But our journey uphill wasn’t over. We trekked up another steep, but paved, lane to the beginning of the Sacro Monte di Orta, where a park-like setting plays host to twenty chapels dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The Sacro Monte was declared an Italian national park, or Riserva, in 1980 and added to the World Heritage List in 2003.
Built over a period of 200 years, starting in the late 1500’s, the chapels reflect a variety of architectural styles beginning with Renaissance influences then moving on to Baroque and Rocco. The scenes housed inside were intended to teach illiterate peasants, who couldn’t understand the Latin sermons they heard at mass, the virtues of religion through the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
The winding paths through a forested hillside bordered by hedges provide a birds-eye view of tiny Isola San Giulio (St Julius’s Island) in the middle of Lake Orta. But it’s the chapels that we’ve come to see. Inside the stone buildings, frescoes adorn the ceilings; while terra cotta figures seem to pop out from paintings, giving a three-dimensional feel to the scenes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Travelers to Orta could spend an entire day roaming the grounds while appreciating the artwork in the chapels.
After walking back down the hill, Claudio chose the outdoor cafe of Restorante ai deu Santi (Restaurant of the two saints), situated on the Piazza Motta for lunch—Italian style. A fizzy Barbarino wine and a fine view of Lake Orta accompanied the grilled porcine polenta. And of course a chocolaty desert, followed by a cappuccino that quickly marked us as tourists (Italians do not dring cappuccino after 10 a.m.), completed the meal.
Later, we boarded a motorboat for the brief ride to the island in the middle of the lake. Legend has it that San Giulio didn’t need a boat to cross to the island. He reportedly repelled a serpent before walking across the lake on his cloak to establish the basilica in 390 A.D.
Inside the Basilica of San Giulio, Elena put her art historian degree to work, explaining the significance of the furnishings, including an enormous pulpit carved from dark green serpentine mined from a nearby quarry. History was almost palpable when we entered the musty smelling crypt where the saint’s bones reside.
Back outside, we followed the path of silence that encircles Isola San Giulio. In the center of the island, a convent cloisters Benedictine nuns who have taken vows of silence. Iron grates provide glimpses into their secluded gardens and way of life.
Motoring back across the lake to Orta San Giulio, views of pale mansions crowding the shoreline sparked my imagination. Who lived there? What must it be like to live in this small Italian village?
Stepping out of the boat onto the Piazza Motta, it was tempting to rest on one of the benches under the shade of a row of chestnut trees.
Alan and I looked at each other but neither one of us needed to say anything. “We’ve got to come back” was already a given.
Have you visited Orta San Giulio? Post a comment to tell us about your experience. Alan and I dream about spending a week or two in this unassuming Italian town on Lake Orta.
Click road trip in Northern Italy to read more about our 10-day journey. Use our suggestions to plan your own Italian road trip!