Orta San Giulio is a charming little town located on a peninsula jutting on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, to the west of Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.
Lake Orta is known as the “Cinderalla” of the Italian lakes; their most beautiful, but hidden, little sister so to speak, much less crowded than Lake Como and Lake Garda, but with stunning scenery.
Many visitors to Orta San Giulio are only there on a day excursion. You can tell from the fact that all shops close around 18:00 (which is fairly early by Italian standards), when the majority of the day tourists leave.
However, it is at night that Orta San Giulio is at its most enchanting, when the lovely little town is wrapped in a comforting silence, interrupted only by the sound of the lake’s water lapping by the shore. The ideal setting for a romantic getaway or just a peaceful, restorative break away from the hectic and pressure of city life!
In March, when we visited, the lake offers a beautiful scenery of different shades of grey colors.
The picturesque streets are lined with historic buildings with frescoed façades, charming storefronts and inviting wine bars and eateries (which do remain open at night!). The majority of the wine bars and restaurants are concentrated on the main square, Piazza Motta, named after the martyr Mario Motta, but there are also a few interesting ones in the adjacent streets.
The central area of the town that goes from the main square up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta (1485), is the oldest part of the town, dating back to medieval times.
Some of the buildings of interest here include the Palazzotto della Comunità (1582) built on top of a broad portico, Palazzo dei Gemelli and the so-called House of Gnomes, with its tiny little windows, in Salita della Motta.
The house with a fresco of the Pietà was probably the original site of the Monte di Pietà, the pawnbroker, founded by the authorities in the 16th century to assist the poor. Today it is converted into a shop selling houselinen and tableware.
The romanesque Church Santa Maria Assunta marks the beginning of the road to the Sacro Monte dominating Orta San Giulio. Orta’s Sacro Monte is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a site of pilgrimage. It contains 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1760.
From Piazza Motta you can also take a boat to the island of San Giulio. The ride only takes a few minutes.
Noteworthy on the island is the basilica of San Giulio, one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Piedmont, and… the silence.
Both the town and the small island opposite it, San Giulio island, are named after Julius of Novara, the patron saint of the Cusian region. Cusio is one of the other names of Lake Orta and by extension of the area surrounding it.
The lake has been popular with many writers. The 19th century intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé, who was befriended with Kafka, Freud and Rilke, visited Orta as a young girl together with Friedrich Nietzsche. She wrote in her memoirs about her visit to Orta’s Sacro Monte in 1882. Lord Byron and Honoré de Balzac also stayed here.
The best time to visit Orta San Giulio probably is May and June, when the temperature is not too hot, and flowering shrubs and trees add beautiful patches of colors to the scenery. The people of Orta, however, say it is in September that the lake is at its most beautiful.