The Alps meet Heaven*

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta, the Alps meet Heaven

*The poet, Robert Browning, described Orta as being where ‘the Alps meet heaven’, it’s not -of course- a personal definition…

Italian Lakes and me.

Italian lakes have grown a reputation as luxury retreats. Postcard-like landscapes and extreme relax have attracted visitors looking for a rest, inspiration, and its magnificent nature for decades. Sailing as well as stylish villas are an innate part of the atmosphere. Walking the cobblestone centennial promenades, the feeling I get is that a posh woman in a Gatsby dress and a cloche with a feather might come up directly from the Twenties, making me look completely out of place. That’s why I avoid the lakes. I never liked the lakes because that’s a recurrent feeling when I visit. And I don’t like recurrent feelings. Nor being out of place.

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta, the Alps meet Heaven

Isola di San Giulio, as seen from Orta San Giulio.

A long time ago, almost 15 years ago, I was awarded a grant. I wast meant to come to Italy, stay at a villa by lake Garda for over 30 days, have classes in the morning and culture lectures in the afternoon, those in another villa, also by the lake. I know what living by the lake looks like: Too stylish for my taste, too Italian. Two adjectives that, when combined in a sentence and after years of Italian life, I came to dislike. Passionately.

I also spent weeks living close to Como once, in a tiny village in front of the lake too. With the bell tower of the local church over my rooftop window… and the mountains as a frame to the toll. That hideous, persistent toll.

You see..? I’m a beach beast. There’s no sand in the lake (I guess I stand right opposite from the “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere.” line. I’m no Darth Vader after all). On a beach the sun looks different, the skin feels different, the waves bring constant energy. At the lake only drowsiness remains, dullness, extreme dullness… and that elegant environment that’s so not me.

Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta, the Alps meet Heaven

Isola San Giulio, Piedmont.

I somehow managed to stay away from lakes for a while. Yet, I decided to give it another try this last week. To face the lake with other eyes, and a mind a bit more open. Now that, after so many years, I’m only weeks away from leaving Italy, I thought it might look different.

Lake Orta is one of Italy’s lesser known lakes and it wasn’t exactly packed with tourists on an early Wednesday morning. After a walk down the path that faces the little marina, escorted by the ticking of the steel wires against the yacht poles, my boat sailed from Pella to reach the Lilliputian islet of Saint Giulio. It wasn’t certainly love at first sight, but I must admit that I liked it.

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta, the Alps meet Heaven

The Meaning of Silence.

Isola San Giulio is 275 metres long and 140 meters wide. And you can walk around it in about an hour. For the last thirty decades it’s been a Benedictine monastery. A suggestive path, La via del silenzio (Pathway of silence) goes in one direction; La via della meditazione (Pathway of meditation), in the opposite.

It’s all so tiny that obviously it remains traffic-free. There are just a few little cafés. The pace of life is slower than on the mainland, nuns holding books and families wandering the little port waiting for water-buses.

According to the legend, Saint Giulio (Julius of Novara) founded his church here in the fourth century AD. The island was the lair of a giant serpent, which used the island to attack nearby villages. But the saint, with his ability to command the waves, stood on his cloak over the water and managed to send the monter away.


If you’re looking for a place truly Italian, but with a slower pace than Lakes Como or Maggiore, you can’t miss Orta. A town itself is on a promontory on the eastern bank of the lake and it is famous for the Sacro Monte, a pilgrimage site part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta San Giulio

Church of San Rocco.


ORTA SAN GIULIO, with the family

We arrived on the market day, which means frenzy activities in the main square.

Bars and restaurants full of tourists and boats sailing the lake back and forth from the tiny island.


Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta San Giulio

Views of the village.

The town is quite worth a visit, after you leave the port behind, walk up the town paths leading to the church of San Rocco, a tiny example of Baroque architecture.

The path right at the angle of the church leads to the center of the village: ice cream parlours, traditional shops or botteghe, pizzerie, characteristic buildings and wide flocks of stairs populate the area, while the Palazzotto della Comunità imposes its presence to the visitors reaching Piazza Motta. The Palazzotto is an important central structure with impressive frescoes and a colonnade, dating back to the 1500s. The square, instead, faces the promenade and the marina, from where it’s also possible to navigate back to Pella.

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta San Giulio

Palazzotto Comunale.

Food, also for the soul

Lake Orta with the Family

Piazza Motta, the main square.

The culinary tradition is typical of the Piedmont region; for a simple yet genuine choice of tastes reach Edera, a small restaurant a few metres away from the square (Via Bersani 15, +39 0322-905534). Here you can try local mushrooms and rabbit as well as dishes made of fish. Kids will happily feast with huge hamburgers or simple dishes of pasta, and will be treated as guests of honor.

If you are looking for inspiration, the lake has always been loved by writers. Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning visited the lake and have referenced mentioned the surroundings in their works.

Lake Orta with the Family

For more information: Comune di Orta San Giulio (Town Hall)

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Lake Orta with the Family

Lake Orta, Italy.

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