Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Romance on the Italian Lakes

One of the many moods of Lago d'Orta
We stayed in a lakeside room on the absolutely gorgeous Lago d’Orta (Lake Orta), one of the smallest Italian Lakes. Since we loved Bellagio on Lake Como when we stayed there back in 2005, we were anxious to try another one of Italy’s exquisite lakes.  We were not disappointed.  This place is heavenly – the air is fresh and cool, and the only sounds are the ducks swimming by, and an occasional ferry boat shuttling passengers across the lake. 

Enjoying the lake from our hotel balcony
Our balcony gives us a view of tiny Isola d’Orta (Island of Orta) in one direction and snow-covered Alps in the other!  This combination of lovely lake, sweet little island, and impressive mountains is impossibly beautiful.




Orta San Guilio

Main square in charming Orta San Guilio
Orta San Guilio, just south of our hotel in the town of Pettenasco, is a tiny village right on the shores of Lago d’Orta.  When we parked our car in one of the visitor pay-parking lots, we weren’t even sure where the town was!  Then, we spotted a long flight of cement steps that took us down into this amazing medieval town hidden from view. 

Our first visit was at night and the town felt coldly deserted.  We found our way to the main square, and it was pure magic.  The square sits right on the waterfront with a fabulous view of the lights on Isola d’Orta which is a small island on the lake, beautifully illuminated at night.  We ate dinner at an outside café facing the waterfront where the ambiance might have given the restaurant an excuse for overcharging, but dinner was very reasonable and the food was superb.  A real night to remember!
We returned to Orta San Guilio during the day to check out the weekly market and the vendors who  sell their wares in hand-assembled tent-stalls set up on the main square.  The market was small but offered some of the best inexpensive shopping of the trip. 
Approaching Isola San Guilio
We hopped on a boat to get a good look at Isola San Guilio, that tiny island in the middle of the lake that we had been admiring from a distance.  Known as the island of silence, this tiny island (less than 2 football fields wide and maybe 3 long) consists mainly of a basilica and a monastery. 
Walking along the Path of Silence
The short walk around the tranquil island, called the Path of Silence, felt like a meditation, and thoughtful messages like “Walls are only in the mind” were posted along the way to promote a sense of mindfulness.

Death of St. Francis depicted in a chapel at Sacro Monte
Next we drove up the hill above Orta San Guilio to the Sacro Monte, a complex of chapels dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi in a pretty wooded area with gorgeous views of the lake far below.  The real wonder of Sacro Monte is displayed inside the 21 individual chapels here; painted statues from the 17th and 18th c. depict the story of the life of Saint Francis. The painted, earthenware statues merge with the mural paintings on the surrounding walls to create an amazingly lifelike tableaux.

Lake Maggiore and Stresa

Impressive hotel on the waterfront near Stresa
on Lake Maggiore
Although we stayed on Lake Orta, the touristy lakeside town of Stresa and Lake Maggiore were less than an hour’s drive away.  Stresa has some impressive old hotels lining the lakefront, but the best sights were out on the water.  We bought an all-day ferry ticket and had a fun time island-hopping to Isola Superiore and Isola Bella.
Riding the ferry on Lake Maggiore
First stop was Isola Superiore (aka Pescatori because of the number of fishermen who live here).  This is the only inhabited island and a perfect place for lunch.  We ate fish fresh from the lake of course, and drank a nice white wine on a terrace overlooking the water.
Amphitheater on Isola Bella 
Then we hopped on another ferry for the 5-minute ride to Isola Bella, a 17th c. island designed as a Baroque summer palace.  The palace contained sumptuous rooms and an interesting basement consisting of 6 grottos made from shells and stone pebbles.   Outside, an elabo-rate garden sits on 10 terraces and has an open-air amphitheater decorated with statue-filled niches.  Pure white peacocks strut the grounds adding to the glamorous atmosphere.
Lago d’Orta has definitely made our (long) list of favorite getaways.  We are so glad we made the last-minute decision to stay here instead of on larger Lake Maggiore in the busier town of Stresa.  We only wish we had more time because there are a lot of things to do in the vicinity.  It was hard to leave our magical Lago d’Orta, but Milan’s Malpensa Airport was less than an hour away, so we had an easy (relatively) departure.  More on the challenges of driving in Italy coming up!

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