This is one of those cases where you hesitate to write about a place so that more people don’t find out about it. However, Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta in the north of Italy is such a picturesque place that I can’t help but write about it. The only difficulty is trying to keep the number of photos to be just enough to give you a feel for why I love it!
Introduction to Orta San Giulio
Lake Maggiore or Lake Como in the north of Italy are talked about frequently, including in movies. Lake Orta (Lago d’Orta) is less well known. It is a small lake to the west of Lake Maggiore. The Lake is about 13km long and about 2.5km wide, so is much smaller than the other lakes in the area.
Orta San Giulio (often just referred to as “Orta”) is a town of about 1200 people on a peninsula on the east side of the lake. It is surrounded by lush green forested hills. Across the lake are tall mountains, often snow-capped.
Across from Orta, in the middle of the lake is Isola San Guilio, a small island consisting mainly of a Basilica.
Wandering Around Orta
Wherever you wander around Orta you see glimpses of the lake, and the island.
This is the entry to the Piazza Mario Motta, the main square in Orta:
Where the people are standing is a bakery, selling luscious breads and pastries. And now here is the main square, surrounded by restaurants, and a few hotels:
The Piazza is the centre of town life. Since 1228 markets have been held there every Wednesday. Boats to the Isola and for crossing the Lake can be hired on the Piazza’s lake edge.
Around every corner of Orta are picturesque scenes. I think it’s the combination of the age of the buildings, the colours, the textures that I love. And because Orta is small, there’s an intimacy to the place.
Even the Comune di Orta San Giulio, the municipal building is picturesque, with a pretty garden, overlooking the lake:
One of the churches in Orta, Chiesa dell’Assunta, dating back to 1485:
Leading from the Piazza are narrow winding walkways, closed to traffic (well to general traffic to be precise – delivery vehicles do occasionally use some of the roads).
This is Orta , taken from the boat on the way back from the Isola:
More restaurants around the Piazza:
We bought a risotto mix like this for one meal, to cook back in our apartment. It included herbs and dried porcini mushrooms, which made it easy!
The top picture here is the view from my bedroom, and the lower one just outside the apartment:
I’ll never forget the sounds of the sparrows and other little birds singing as they bounced around the bushes and flowers. And the sounds of the bells ringing across the lake from the Isola, and from the churches in Orta and beyond, that sound of Italy.
Up on the hill above Orta is Sacro Monte, a UNESCO-listed site dedicated to St Francis of Assissi, built in 1591. It’s quite a steep walk up there, past some lovely homes, but worth the effort. Dotted around the special nature reserve are 20 chapels, with terracotta scenes depicting the life of St Francis.
The visit to Sacro Monte is worth it for the views of the Lago alone:
On the hillsides around Orta are a number of small villages, dotted through the green, green forests. Makes for a good walk, exploring those on foot from Orta.
Around the Lake
Isola San Guilio
Isola San Giulio seems to be the reference point wherever you are around much of the lake. It’s only small, about 275 metres long and 140 metres wide, which makes for an easy stroll around the island. Most of the island is made up of the Basilica of San Guilio, built in the 12 century, now a Benedictine monastery.
The path around the island is called La Via del Silenzio (“The Way of Silence”), with signs suggesting meditations dotting the road along the way. The silence adds to the peaceful atmosphere.
Omegna is at the northernmost tip of Lago d’Orta. It is much bigger than Orta, with a population of about 16,000. It has developed as an industrial area for small home appliances. Around the lake the town has the colourful older buildings, and fanning out north from there the town extends into suburbs and factories. Of particular note is the Alessi factory, which has a shop with “seconds”, with things not often seen elsewhere, for generally excellent prices (so when you’re visiting Orta make sure you have space in your luggage for Alessi things!).
Across the lake from Orta is another small town, Pella, with a population of about 1,200. You can get there by car, or by boat from Orta. It’s a neat, pretty town, worth visiting, and walking around the streets there.
Some Final Thoughts
Orta San Giulio is a peaceful quiet place, picturesque. It does get busier on weekends, with people visiting from other parts of Italy, so it’s good to be there during the week to get a feel for more regular life. There are some lovely walks you can do, around the Orta peninsula, exploring the lane ways, up to Sacro Monte, around the lake edge, and to the villages on the hillside, so you don’t even have to get in your car while you’re there, unless you want to go further afield. You can get a boat from Orta to the Isola or Pella or Omegna.
Orta would be an excellent place for a quiet, restful vacation, reading some good books, wandering to one of the restaurants for a meal, and sipping prosecco as the sun goes down, overlooking the lake.
Spring was a lovely time to visit, with the new green leaves on the trees in abundance, and the flowers in fresh bloom. I’ve seen photos of Orta in other seasons, and even in the middle of winter it still has its own beauty.
Thinking about Orta again makes me want to get back there, a gem of a place.
Orta San Giulio is about 90km north-west of Milan. There are numerous ways of getting to Orta from Milan, including by car and by train. You can hire a car at the airport in Milan, or if coming from other parts of Europe by train, you can hire a car at the Milan station, too. The train station for Orta, Orta Miasino, is about 3km from the township of Orta San Giulio. During tourist season (March-October) there is a shuttle going from the station down to the town.
Here are some places with more information about Orta San Giulio:
Where is your favourite gem of a place that is usually off the tourist map?