Late last year, I thought I’d spend the winter season busy posting travel stories. I should have known better. A glance at the blog archive revealed a clear pattern: it’s only in March that I generally revive enough to return to any systematic endeavour. I’d better get going then.
There is much more to tell about our holiday in Northern Italy I posted about exactly a year ago. One day when we were staying at the gorgeous little castle I described here the forecast showed rain. We decided to play it safe and visit a place that would be beautiful whatever the weather. So we drove to Orta San Giulio, a small lakeside town facing the pretty little island Isola di San Giulio in Lake Orta. We weren’t disappointed.
Lago d’Orta in Piedmont is the westernmost of the lakes in Northern Italy. It is less familiar to tourists than the great lakes although I am sure the adorable Orta San Giulio is getting its fair share of visitors during high season. We happened to choose entrance via the hillside road instead of the lakeside one. We stopped at the lookout by the lovely little church of Madonna della Bocciola for some foggy scenes before entering the serpentine road down to the town.
The centro storico is practically only a narrow strip by the lake with a fishbone-like plan. There is a single long alley parallel to the shoreline with a few short traversing ones leading towards the lake. As soon as you’ve descended from the parking lot to the stone-roofed buildings and zigzagged your way down to the artery of the old town it will take you to the most important sites of the place, the square Piazza Motta and the magnificent views to the Isola di San Giulio.
The boatmen were pacing by the lake with their umbrellas. It was a rainy October afternoon but they hadn’t given up hope to find tourists anxious to be taken to the island. We settled for the view as we are – still in our sixties – suffering from this we-can-always-return-for-a-closer-look syndrome. Nevertheless, it was hard to turn your eyes away from the picturesque island. Its skyline is dominated by the tower of the basilica believed to have been built on the site where hermit San Giulio lived originating from the 9th century; and the huge 1840s seminary building now housing a Benedictine abbey with a dozen or so nuns founded in the 1970s.
The square itself is also most charming. Whenever the weather is fine it is a perfect place to sit back at a table in front of one of the cafés and study the details of the surroundings. I was particularly fascinated by the neglected potential of the deserted hotel and restaurant at the waterfront in desperate need of some serious restoration. It was shut down by an administrative order of some kind, presumably issued because of safety concerns.
The Renaissance Palazzotto, the former town hall, by the square dating from 1582 is an amazing piece of architectural history. It rests completely on arched porticoes providing a great meeting point or shelter underneath. The exterior of the building is decorated with fabulous trompe l’oeil windows and frescoes of coats of arms, religious themes, and other decorative motifs. Access is through an external staircase. We took the liberty to climb the stairs to admire the views from the top landing.
I’ve understood the best vistas in town would have been from the nearby Sacro Monte di Orta dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. A path with 20 chapels leads from the square to the top of the hill which is one of the nine sacred mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy having a joint entry in the UNESCO World Heritage listing. The German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche reportedly counted the site among “the most evocative places in the world”. Next time…
I must add a few words about a dilemma we always face when travelling in the Mediterranean: the mealtimes. By the hour we would be in need of some ‘bread breaking’ the restaurants are often either closed for lunch or not yet open for dinner. In Orta San Giulio, we were lucky to find Ristorante Edera, a rustic little family restaurant where we were served a nice late lunch of pasta and prawns while the staff were having their meal with their family around a long table by the kitchen. Their low-season ‘out-of-hours’ service couldn’t have been friendlier. We left the place most contented and ready for new experiences, that time a walk along the paved path circling the cape north of the old town but more about that here.