At first sight, coming down State road 229, it’s easy to see how our visit to Orta San Giulio will leave us speechless. The road, surrounded by trees and stonewalls at first, suddenly offers us a glimpse of Lake Orta, which gets wider and wider as we proceed to the village.
As we come into this northern Italian village, we’re welcomed by Villa Crespi; the magnificent palace which leaves tourists dismayed by its unexpected Moorish style in the midst of the mountains.
Today, Villa Crespi is a hotel and restaurant managed by well-known Italian chef, Antonino Cannavacciuolo (Master Chef and other tv programs).
Going down the road just beyond Villa Crespi, a surprise awaits. Right in front of your eyes, San Giulio Island appears in the middle of the lake; however, it is from Orta’s main square that you can best admire it in all its beauty and magnificence.
Just past the parking area, you’ll find a mini-golf course where tourists entertain themselves during their holidays while enjoying the view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
Walking through the cobblestone alleys and following Ettore Bossi Street, you’ll reach the main square, Piazza Mario Motta, which rewards you with a final surprise. In front of our eyes, you’ll have a perfect, unique view of the lake and San Giulio Island with all of its fascinating buildings and the monastery with its bell tower overlooking the island itself.
You cannot help but to sit by the pier and enjoy the view, perhaps while eating an ice cream from one of the various gelaterie along the main road.
However, it is in the morning that you can enjoy the quiet of this place. In the early morning, around 9 a.m., the visitors who will be coming for a day-trip have not yet arrived, and the rest of the tourists staying in the village are probably still sleeping or having breakfast in their hotel. The silence of this place is only interrupted by a few early visitors or by the shopkeepers and the restaurateurs who are opening their little shops and cafes.
In this exact moment, you can hear the gentle sound of the waves breaking against the pier or the ducks quacking. Why not have breakfast here and enjoy your cappuccino and croissant with this magnificent view? Perhaps at Venus Cafe, which places some tables outside by the water in the summertime. It’s the ideal time to enjoy some cool air before the heat of the day.
Sacro Monte Monastery
After breakfast, you can go for a walk uphill to Sacro Monte where you’ll have a spectacular view of the lake and the mountains. Sacro Monte, literally, the “sacred mountain”, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you prefer to take it easy, you can also reach it by car, taking the uphill road just after Villa Crespi. Here, you can take a walk surrounded by nature while observing the twenty chapels, all dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. If you want to, you can also have a picnic in the designated picnic areas.
Getting back to the village, you can stroll by the lake, take a rest, or walk through the alleys discovering new spots, restaurants, and gardens.
San Giulio Island
You can reach San Giulio Island by taking one of the ferries that depart from Orta throughout the day. On the remote island, you can stroll through the silent alleys and visit the monastery, inhabited by cloister nuns who never leave the island. You can also visit the church and admire its frescoes. You can also take the ferry to Pella, another quaint village, on the other side of the lake.
In short, Orta San Giulio is perfect for those who are looking to relax and experience nature and its beauty. It might seem that it’s a place for people of a certain age, but actually, it’s loved by the younger generation as well. Walks around the lake, as well as sunbathing and swimming are popular.
It’s a place for everyone where you can spend a relaxing weekend or longer in the company of good Italian cuisine and culture, and where you can immerse yourself in a timeless place, where nature and man co-exist in perfect harmony.
Article and photos by: Cristina Brovelli