A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a conference being held in Italy. When I asked where, the answer was Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta. I quickly agreed. Why? Because I had once been told by my Milanese friend Pier about La Cenerentola (Cinderella), the small lake that was secretly more appealing to discriminating Italians than its larger and better known cousins, Maggiore and Como. He had sworn me to secrecy, not wanting the area to be overrun by vacationing Americans.
For reference, Orta is the most western (and one of the smallest) of the laghi that comprise the Lakes District, which stretches from eastern Piedmont, through Lombardy, to the western edge of the Veneto. (Click on the map to get a larger perspective.) The lake is about 8 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, but like many glacial lakes, is quite deep: 470 feet at its deepest point.
On arriving, I quickly discovered why the place is so damn special. There is a dreaminess to the lakeside which is due to its stillness, the surrounding mountains, and the fog that rolls in and out at a moment’s notice.
This sense of quiet and introspection may be why writers have traditionally been attracted to the lake and its environs. Writing in The Guardian, Edward Docx comments that Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all came here.
The people in the masthead photo above are gazing serenely at the Isola San Giulio. (Can you catch the moodiness of the fog and the barely visible mountains behind the island?)
Among the complex of buildings, you can see the bell tower of the Basilica di San Giulio. While this current Benedictine monastery was built in the 19th Century, the original chapel upon which it stands was erected in the 5th Century.
The town of Orta San Giulio is tiny, with only around 1000 residents. It is built on a promontory that juts out from the eastern bank of the lake, creating a village of narrow, winding roads and small plazas.
There are plenty of reasonably priced hotels (and some that are not at all reasonably priced). There are also many rustic trattorias where you can eat simple meat and pasta dishes, and enjoy pizza and a good wine.
If you need a place to be alone so you can write, walk, or think, Orta may be just the ticket. It would also make a great destination for a surprise second honeymoon.
Masthead photo: Isola San Giulio on Lake Orta (Bob)