Lake Orta is separated from the much larger Lake Maggiore by Monte Mottarone. Despite its enchanting mountain scenery and leafy shores, it was for a long time off the major tourist routes, which means that it has succeeded in keeping its original charm.
Lake and mountain together form an environment that has inspired poets and painters through the centuries.
Lake Orta covers an area of 18.15 sq km and is 143m deep at its deepest point off the village of Oira.
The Romans called the lake “Cusius”, which in its Italian form of “Cusio” is still used today to refer to the whole area. In the Middle Ages it was known as the “Lake of San Giulio”. Its present name of “Orta” was taken from the burgh of Orta San Giulio, once its most important administrative centre and unofficial capital.
The small town of Orta San Giulio is a one of the top destinations for tourists visiting the Verbano Cusio Ossola province.
A favourite place for romantic souls, the village is a maze of picturesque streets and little squares with craft boutiques, antique shops and lively cafés.
At the center of the town you will find Piazza Motta, pulsating heart of the life of the village, from which the connections for the Island of San Giulio begin; it overlooks the Broletto or Palace of the Community (on the facade you can admire the city crest), in which in the Middle Ages the power was exercised.
In front of the Broletto begins an uphill road called 'Motta' from which you reach the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta (1485).
Climbing to the hill you can reach the Sacro Monte of Orta: the sacred mountain is a complex of chapels built between the late 16th and early 17th centuries dedicated to Saint Francis's life.
The chapels were arranged on a spiralling path which exploited the slope of the hill, in an itinerary guided by the surrounding trees, which enabled pilgrims to pause on their upward journey to meditate for a while in the shade, emerging at the top to see the superb panorama of the lake.
But the pearl of Orta is the island of San Giulio:
The little Island of San Giulio is dominated by its Romanesque basilica, the bishop’s palace and the Benedictine abbey.
Legend has it that the island, which lies not more than 400 metres from the lakefront of Orta, was once a bare rock inhabited by snakes and terrible monsters, until the day in 390 when San Giulio landed, crossing the lake on his cloak and guided in the storm by his staff.
Here the Saint founded a church, which he later chose to be buried in, and transformed the island into a centre of evangelization of the whole area. After landing, you go up a short flight of steps leading to the atmospheric Romanesque Basilica, the island’s main attraction.
From the church you can walk along the narrow street that goes round the whole of the island: the “way of silence and meditation”, in an evocative blend of spirituality and architecture.
Exploring the lanes you will come across the 19th century Bishop’s Palace, and the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine Abbey, a convent of cloistered nuns who live permanently on the island, devoting their days to prayer, study, restoring valuable old church vestments, making communion wafers and the famous “pane di San Giulio” (St Julius’ bread).