www.orta.net

 italiano  orta-see

il lago d'orta, the most romantic of italian lakes il pił romantico dei laghi italiani

 INFO

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 TOURIST INFO

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Orta is a place of mists and devotion. Morning mists come with the territory: this little jewel, just eight miles long and less than two wide, is the only one of the Italian lakes entirely in Piedmont. The devotion is figured plainly in the 20 small chapels of the Sacro Monte above Orta San Giulio, with their stirring and educational tableaux of terracotta sculptures - like Counter-Reformation television - illustrating scenes from the life of Saint Francis. It is there too on the island of San Giulio, dominated by an ancient basilica and more modern convent. But the devotion is also that of those who have been here, and been charmed, and secretly wished that nobody - or at least nobody else - should give the game away. Certainly not in print.

This is also the only Italian lake that has a single, must-stay base: the charming, car-free town of Orta San Giulio. There are some cheerful, historic villages elsewhere, and one extraordinary church - the Madonna del Sasso - perched on a rocky ledge high above the western shore. But it is Orta San Giulio that holds the attention, with its serious cream-coloured houses roofed with thick slate tiles arranged like a display of biscuits, its magnetic lakeside central square ovelooked by the Palazotto - a frescoed 16th century town hall borne up by the stilts of a cosy loggia - and its unforgettable view over the Isola San Giulio, lit up at night like a holy ocean liner.

San Giulio, or Julius, was an industrious founder of churches, born on the Greek island of Aegina. With the help of his brother Giuliano, or Julian, he had notched up 99 of them by the time he arrived on the shores of Orta. He liked the look of the island - which was, of course, a rocky wilderness inhabited by dragons and snakes; and it was, of course, more than any boatman’s job was worth to row him over. So Julian spread his cloak upon the waters and aquaplaned across, using his staff as a rudder. Once there he got rid of those beastly worms, planted flowers and trees, and built his hundredth church, which he dedicated to the Holy Apostles. The legend has it that he used to share tools with Julian, who was building church number 99 in Gozzano, just south of the lake. If Julius needed a trowel, for example, he would call to Julian, who would promptly throw it seven kilometres into his brother’s grip. Once, it is said, Julius fluffed the catch, and a pick-axe pierced his arm; the blood left an indelible stain on a nearby rock. And then some busybody of a scholar had to go and spoil it all by suggesting that Julius and Julian were in fact the same person, separated in the Middle Ages by a careless scribe. Miraculous cloaks are not for hire on the lakefront in Orta San Giulio; but rowing boats are. The old boatman is called Piero, and he knows very well - he told me, nodding his wooly hat gravely - how good the English are at rowing. I did my best to disabuse him, veering this way and that and catching enough crabs to start a colony before I got the hang of the thing.

By that time, it had started to rain, and the wind was up. Insidious waves over ten centimetres high swept across the lake, buffetting my fragile craft. I wondered if my friends would cremate me on the shore, like Shelley. And then I realised, turning round, that I was about to crash into the private jetty of one of the island’s desirable houses.

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There is something deeply satisfying about tying one’s boat up by the church while a tour group troops off the public ferry on the jetty above. Less satisfying is the sensation of having a hundred Belgian eyes on you while you try to remember the difference between a sheepshank and a half-hitch. But I ended up with a knot that looked, well, complicated enough, and made my way up into the old stone basilica, which is far and away the only church on the island.

The interior is a delight. A greeny-black marble pulpit has carved figures that - a rarity indeed in Italy - were influenced by Saxon models. There is a warrior saint, his jaw jutting out, and a centaur firing an arrow into a pagan swirl of tendrils. And covering walls, columns and ceiling are frescoes from four centuries. In some cases the overlay is literal; an early Rennaissance foot pokes out beneath a Mannerist leg. Below, in the crypt, in a crystal urn, are the remains of Saint Julius, or Julian, or Jules.

The rest is silence. Quite literally: the short circular lane that runs between the huge pile of the Benedictine monastery in the centre and the few privileged private villas that hog the shore has been baptised “The Way of Silence”; though if you follow it in the other direction it is “The Way of Meditation”. Aha! The message is brought home by a series of little signs in four languages at regular intervals along the path: “If you can be yourself, you are everything”; “Listen to the water, the wind, your steps”. As if to ward off the pernicious New Age influence of these mottoes, one of the villas has a more down-to-earth Venetian proverb by its door: “Protect this house from troubles - never may a lawyer or a doctor set foot here.”

Back in Orta San Giulio - and a calm crossing I had of it, this time - the town was going about its serious, cultured business. Tourist tack is almost absent; instead, there are a number of delicatessens, a good wine bar, an antiquarian bookshop and even a shop specialising in period jewellery. From a trompe l’oeil window on one side of the Palazzotto, a frescoed woman looks down, faintly mocking, faintly imperious.

Orta knows it is good-looking; but it also knows how to play hard to get.


Hotels and Restaurants
Orta San Giulio: Its many afficionados will be sad to hear that the Villa San Crespi - a little gem of a hotel and restaurant in a Moorish folly on the edge of town - closed down for good at the end of the 1998 season. This leaves the four-star Albergo San Rocco (Via Gippini 11) as the hotel of choice. Set in a seventeenth-century convent - origins which are perhaps over-stressed in the devotional decor of the public areas - the San Rocco has a wonderful lake frontage, with swimming pool, overlooking the island, which can be reached by the hotel’s private launch. It also has Orta’s best restaurant, with fine pasta courses, grilled vegetables and lake fish and a good wine list; only the uninspired desserts let the side down. The Hotel Orta on the main square is foursquare and old-fashioned, with great lake views from the rooms at the front. For something a little more bijoux, the Piccolo Hotel Olina (Via Olina 40) - which centres on the competent and cheerful restaurant of the same name - has a series of neat, bright rooms and apartments scattered around town, including a whole lakeside villa. Another good value hotel under the same management is the pretty peach-coloured Hotel Santa Caterina (Via Marconi); its only drawback is out-of-town location on the other side of the Sacro Monte. If the San Rocco restaurant feels too formal, head for the Taverna Antico Agnello (Via Olina 18), which is as rustic and family-run as anyone could wish for; they even have “horse with garlic and rosemary” (as close as you get in Orta San Giulio to minced donkey meat, a local speciality which for some reason never shows up on tourist menus). The Sacro Monte restaurant, up among the improving chapels, is less of a tourist trap than one might expect, with good pasta dishes and a decent selection of wine. And for a nightcap - or an aperitif, or a morning pick-me-up, as they start drinking early round here - dive into Maria Longhi’s cosy Enoteca Re di Coppe on the main square. The large selection of Italian wines - many available by the glass - includes a number of local Nebbiolos, one of those severe, reserved Piedmontese reds that takes a while to open up. Rather like the local people, in fact.

Isola San Giulio: there is one bar/restaurant on the island, the Ristorante San Giulio, in an 18th century building with ceiling frescoes and a pretty vine-covered lakeside terrace. The cooking is fairly average, but that’s hardly the point. (ndr: the restaurant now is closed)

Soriso: If you and your bank manager feel ready for a real no-holds-barred gourmet experience, make your way eight kms south from Orta San Giulio to Gozzano and then head right for this tiny village, which is really just an excuse for a restaurant. Al Sorriso (Via Roma 18) - with two R’s because sorriso means “smile” - is one of only three establishments in Italy to have three Michelin stars. It is also - perhaps not coincidentally - one of Italy’s most expensive restaurants. Feast on giant ravioli with goat cheese filling cooked in alpine butter, or crostini with polenta, onions, roses, foie gras and pomegranate seeds (and those are a couple of the simpler dishes) while you contemplate your credit limit. If it’s all too much, they also have a few rooms where you can sleep it off (the meal, not the credit limit).

By Lee Marshall, taken from Travelintellicence

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