The jet set cachet and celebrity residents of Lake Como are legendary. And the sporty of Milan, Verona and nearby Austria favour Lake Garda. But, proving that bigger isn’t always better, Lake Orta, the smallest of the lakes in the Swiss-Italian border region, offers something unique. A local open secret, Italians call her La Cenerentola. Cinderella.
Like the other lakes, Orta was carved from the Dolomites by glaciers millions of years ago, resulting in the steep wooded hills and occasional dramatic cliffs that drop steeply towards incredibly deep, pure water. Secluded little cove sandy beaches, lush gardens of grand villas and historic villages, punctuate the shoreline.
The most significant town – more of a village in size if not history – is Orta San Giulio, which is built on a small peninsular jutting into the lake. Proud stone houses, some of them dating back to the Middle Ages, slope down towards the main piazza on the lakeshore. On the way, picturesque cobbled streets reveal yellow baroque churches and charming shops selling artisan crafts and delicacies. Entering the square, you can’t help falling in love with the place. For example, there’s the broletto, the medieval town hall straddling an arched marketplace. Built on a very human scale, its detailed frescoes in the sunburnt colours of Italy are beautifully preserved.
The square itself is flanked by buildings of various ages clad in a patina of time; Renaissance to 19th century. Today most of them function as cafés and restaurants and not just the common or garden variety – some get a deserved mention in the Michelin Bib Gourmand. It’s the perfect place to kick back, for just a spritz or an unforgettable meal that clarifies why Piedmont’s slow food movement based on ingredients sourced locally has gained so much international buzz.
From here you get a great view of the lake’s other jewel across the glittering surface, the Isola San Giulio. Getting there is an easy and enjoyable experience. You can use the regular boat services or, better still, pay one of the jaunty inland sailors to whisk you over in a beautifully maintained 1950’s wooden speedboat. You’ll feel like Gregory Peck or Audrey Hepburn on an adventure in the era when travel was still brimming with understated glamour.
Settlements at Lake Orta date back to the Dark Ages when monks sought safety from marauding barbarians. Even today overlooked Lake Orta provides instant refuge from contemporary invading hordes of tourists.
On Isola San Giulio itself the architecture dates back to the very early Middle Ages. Its handsome 12th century Romanesque basilica and other buildings perch atop the tiny island. Manicured gardens and the monumental seminary built in the mid-nineteenth century – local folklore has it that it was built on the island to keep the young priests safely from the sins of the flesh on the mainland– offer a serene escape from daily realities. However, there are no hotels on the island and few dining options, so it’s usually only brief respite.
The lake, shore, surrounding hills and relatively nearby snowy peaks offer a range of activities from sailing and hill walking to biking and soaking up the sun on tiny, secluded beaches – be warned, swimming in Orta’s glacial waters is purely for the brave, even at the height of summer. The towns and the local shrines, some of them important places of pilgrimage for over a millennium, occasionally built on stupendously unlikely cliff-top sites, will fascinate history buffs. Exploring the local eateries and wine producers instantly teaches you why Piedmont is known all over Italy for the quality of its epicurean delights.
Accommodation options range from stylish and luxurious to far more modest. You could, for example, check in at the Hotel San Rocco, a converted 16th century monastery in Orta San Giulio remodelled in a sleek contemporary style complete with vast lakeside pool and terrace. You might prefer to rent a lavish Art Nouveau villa with numerous bedrooms and water’s edge gardens, ideal for a break with friends or family. Or, you could try a local agriturismo if you fancy staying on a working farm growing award-winning Italian produce.
One of the reasons that there are no large resorts is because transport links are tricky. From Turin or Milan, it’s easy enough if you rent a car. But local train services are not frequent and involve changing at Novara, putting the train journey at over two hours.
Without a car, Orta is better suited to planning more time on and around the lake. With one, it also makes a great stopover en route to exploring the hilltop towns and legendary wineries of the Barolo or the mountain splendour of the Aosta Valley bordering with Switzerland.