Magical Orta Steals Our Hearts Away

Isola San Guilio

We spent 10 days of our Italian idyll exploring the country’s Lakes Region. Much like the Finger Lakes in New York, the northwest corner of Italy near the Swiss border has a number of deep gashes in the landscape carved by the glaciers. Once the ice retreated, the lakes formed and remain today like jeweled slippers scattered at the feet of the Alps.

After sampling the tourist hot spots of Veranna and Bellagio on Lake Como, we headed to Lake Orta about 40 miles west. To get there, we needed to take the train south to Navarro and then take another train north to Orta. The station is about 2 miles from the old town, so a taxi ride was in order.

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Orta dates back to the 1500’s. Cars are excluded from its center, which is composed of many small passageways more suited to pedestrians and goats. We stayed at the Hotel Olina, which really isn’t a hotel at all. Instead, it is a collection of rooms scattered throughout the town. It has a dining room adjacent to the town square — the Piazza Motta — where a sumptuous breakfast is served every morning. It is also where guests can go to access the internet.

Like most Italian villages in this area, Orta is carved into the hillside above the lake. By local tradition, all the buildings have slate roofs, but not like the ones we are used to. Here, the slate is 2 to 3 inches thick and black as coal. Coming down from the train station above, the roofs are the first architectural feature a traveler notices.

 

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Once in town, the view is dominated by Isola San Guilio, an island just a few hundred yards offshore in the middle of the lake that has served as a monastery for many centuries. The view from the village is beyond stunning. San Guilio floats like a mirage on the water. It reminded me of the Emerald City in The Wizard Of Oz. I will take you on a guided tour of San Guilio in a separate post soon.

We lazed around in Orta for four days under bright sunshine and cloudless skies. It seemed as though summer in Italy would never end. We walked all the pathways and alleys. We even found a footpath that goes around the peninsular where the old town is located and went swimming at a public beach we chanced upon.

Our hotel room was on the second floor directly above the Piazza Motta. I have included a video of the intriguing walkway we needed to follow to get to it. There was entertainment every night that we could watch right from our window.

On our last day, we took a boat ride to a small city at the head of the lake called Omegna. It’s mostly modern apartment buildings, but has a core of older buildings dating back centuries. On Thursdays, the steamship company reduces its fares so locals can shop at the farmers market.

We had a gelato at a restaurant near the town dock and let all our cares slip away while we basked in the sun. On the boat ride home, we saw a house on the side of the lake miles from anywhere that had a real Alpine waterfall cascading into its back yard. Spectacular!

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We thought Orta was delightful. Little did we know there were other Italian treasures  that would be revealed to us as our trip continued. I promise to share all the adventures that followed with you. In the meantime, enjoy these photos from our time in Orta.

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About Steve Hanley

Totally enamored with my family, my grandkids, and seeing the world.
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