My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

Orta San Giulio: Northern Italy At Its Best

2010/12/27by Donna Hull

Updated 05.15.2013

Charming Orta San Giulio, Italy

Plaza Motta in Orta San Giulio

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.

parish-life-orta-san-giulio-italy

The parish priest saying hello in Orta San Giulio.

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.

sacro-monte-orta-guilio-italy

Chapel scene at Sacro Monte di Orta

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.

boomer-travel-isola-san-giulio

Isola San Giulio

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!


A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of My Itchy Travel Feet: Breathtaking Adventure Vacation Ideas.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

inka piegsa December 28, 2010 at 6:09 am

What a beautiful part of Italy. I’m going to the Carnival in Venice in February and have planned an extended Italy trip afterwards, so I will work my way up there. Thanks for your comment on the glamourgranny!

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Inka. Carnival in Venice sounds amazing. Good
luck with your glamourgranny blog.

Reply

Anonymous
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Love the photo of the island…gorgeous! These new more ‘educational’ tours are popping up all over now and I love it. I think getting a tour by someone with an art history degree is wonderful. It sounds like it was well worth it.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Viewing the artwork in the chapels was much more interesting with a
guide to explain it to us. Our tour provider, A La Carte Italy, hired
Elena for the day just for us (Alan, myself and our traveling
companions – another couple). Elena was delightful, as well as
knowledgeable. Even independent travelers can benefit from hiring a
local guide.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Just writing about Orta made me want to go back right away. It was so
lovely in October.

Reply

Michael Hodson December 28, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Ummmm…. just from the photo… love Isola San Giulio. Have never heard of it before. Now, I must go.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I’m a big fan of places that I’ve never heard of. What about you?

Reply

Anonymous December 28, 2010 at 5:48 pm

What an amazing photo! My husband loves Italy. Last time we were there, we visited Lago de Garda. We have never been to Orta San Giulio but I’m putting it on our list. Thanks!

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Sandy, I can see why your husband loves Italy. We fell in love with
the people and the food.

Reply

Info December 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I love that island! So gorgeous

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Not only is the island beautiful, it’s packed with history.

Reply

Stephanie - Wasabimon December 28, 2010 at 9:16 pm

I need to get to Italy this year. It’s on my short short short list. Thanks for this!

Reply

Sheryl December 28, 2010 at 9:39 pm

You are having such wonderful adventures – may you continue to enjoy and inform us all so we can covet your life :) I so adore Italy and can’t wait to return. Reading this is making me want to go much sooner than later.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Thanks, Sheryl. I’ll read your blog at Healthy Women, http://www.healthywomen.org/content/blog-entry/why-drink-tea
, so that I stay healthy, in shape and ready to travel.

Reply

Ruthpennebaker December 28, 2010 at 9:42 pm

We also had a wonderful trip to Lake Garda a couple of summers ago, staying at Torri del Benaco. I think northern Italy is my favorite part of the entire country.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Torri del Benaco – another northern Italian destination to add for our
return. Thanks, Ruth.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 28, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Thanks for the photo complements. It’s hard to make Italy look bad :-).

Reply

Kristen December 29, 2010 at 2:39 am

What a great review. I still remember stumbling through Italy and finding a tiny art museum around a corner featuring works by Picasso. I wish I could remember the name of the town, but it just felt magical. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 29, 2010 at 4:04 am

You’re welcome for the memories, Kristen. Italy is a magical country.

Reply

Adventurous Wench December 29, 2010 at 2:51 am

Wistful view…Sidney Sheldon has some of his powerful stories set in San Giulio. The tiny medieval villages and the island has a weird and wonderful history. It has inspired literary figures and artists… loved by mystics and magicians.There are legends of dragons, stories of saints.

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 29, 2010 at 4:06 am

I didn’t know that Sidney Sheldon also used San Giulio as a setting.
I’ll have to go back and read his books again. It is a magical place,
I agree. Thanks for the comments.

Reply

Jbarone2000 December 29, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Hi Donna, This sounds like a place I must visit. It’s got so many things I love: Medieval sights, island adventures, off-the-beaten-track travel. Must put it on my list.
jeanine

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 29, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Jeanine, you’ll be happy that you put it on your travel list. I know
it will result in a fascinating travel article from you.

Reply

Susan Johnston December 30, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I’ve always wanted to visit Italy, and this blog post and the accompanying photos make me want to go that much more!

Reply

Anil December 31, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Isola San Giulio looks like an irresistible place to have a home. What a view…!

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
December 31, 2010 at 3:09 pm

It is a beautiful place.

Reply

Barbara Weibel January 3, 2011 at 3:26 am

I really wanted to visit the lakes district when I was last in Italy, but got distracted by Cinque Terre. Looks like I’m going to have to make a return trip!

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
January 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Barbara, there’s so much to see in the lake district. We’ll be
returning, for sure. Isn’t Cinque Terre beautiful? Although we didn’t
hike the trail, our day visit was delightful. I’ll be writing about it
soon.

Reply

Mark H January 6, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Donna, this captures my idea of travel so well. Small town with wonderful history, interesting walks, great colour, bustling squares (good for people watching) with surprises around every corner, great scenery and fine food. What a discovery. And Italy has so much to offer in all its regions…

Reply

Donna Hull
Twitter:
January 7, 2011 at 3:05 am

You are right, Mark. We’ve much more exploring to do in Italy.

Reply

geoff.heaps April 29, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I have just posted some photos on PANORAMIO of our visit in 2009 see [murphy 2009] link
I must agree a most surprising area of Italy

Reply

Darla Reynlds July 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

This would be an amzing and well deserved vacation for my mother, son and myself. I am a sigle mother to an autistic four year old boy. My mother has been there for me throught thick and thin, she has given up everything for us and if iI could surprise her with this  it would be a miracle. This will bring us closer and help my son get the vacation he my never have in the future. Thank you, DarlaReynolds, luckyirishdarla@yahoo.com

Reply

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

This blog uses premium CommentLuv which allows you to put your keywords with your name if you have had 3 approved comments. Use your real name and then @ your keywords (maximum of 3)

{ 11 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post:

About Us

We're Donna & Alan Hull. We KNOW boomer travel.

Since 2008, we've published articles and photographs focusing solely on boomer travel: where to go, what to do and how to do it.

Partner with us

Did you know that baby boomers purchase 80% of luxury vacations and adults aged 55 + account for one-third of all trips in the U.S.? We can help you to reach an audience of active boomer travelers.

Learn more:


Have questions? Get in touch.

The fine print:

Media Mentions

We're the undeniable experts on boomer travel.


Need a boomer expert for your publication? Get in touch.