Less visited than Como and Maggiore is Lake Orta, so lovely the Milanese are a little reluctant to share it, writes Edward Docx.
There is a code of silence that surrounds Lake Orta in northern Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing - well, the number of visitors.
Indeed, it is astonishing how few people, even Italians, know about the place and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore.
But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty - though the place is absurdly pretty - but the lake's mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul here as well as for the eye.
This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre, but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting - the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk, never to lift again. Sometimes the sun burns for days as if no other climate were possible. And sometimes the fohn wind off the slopes of the Alps thrashes the lake into fury.
The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there's a mediaeval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended.
My association with the place began more than a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake's principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a place in London and bought an apartment here instead. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time working here on a novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer, when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter, I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate.
The lake has always been popular with writers. In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honore de Balzac and Robert Browning all came here. A British-run poetry festival in September has featured the likes of the national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Poets from all over the world come to read and replenish and indulge their imaginations.
Orta San Giulio is built on the slopes of a steep hill (the Sacro Monte) that forms a peninsula jutting into the lake. By day it looks longingly towards the beautiful island. By night, the gaze becomes even more amorous when the island is lit up and appears to float on dark water glistening with reflections.
Its narrow streets are all faded elegance and ochre charm, punctuated by sumptuous outbreaks of baroque. At one end of the square stands the town hall (1585); built on graceful columns, it looks like the sort of place Caravaggio might have his cupid retire to sleep. A little up the hill, overlooking the restaurants and cafes, stands the pale-peach parish church, the Chiesa dell'Assunta, founded in the 15th century. It looks like the sort of place where Monica Bellucci (playing a version of Mary Magdalene) would come to weep midway through an Italian film about an impossible affair.
The good news is that because Orta is far less developed than other lakes, there are a dozen small, inexpensive hotels. The less good news is that they are mainly homely, family-run places with scalding-then-freezing showers and grumpy aunts on reception. Expect authenticity rather than service. The one exception is the slightly crazy Villa Crespi (Via G Fava 18, hotelvillacrespi.it, doubles from €180 ($224) a night), a lavish, four-star, Turkish-inspired castle-hotel, which, if you're feeling flush, has to be worth the indulgence. I've never slept there - my advice is to go slightly out of season and rent an apartment (try lakeorta.com, which has two-bedroom apartments from €460 a week) - but I did once take my partner to the two-Michelin-star restaurant for her birthday. The food was exquisite.
Over the years, I must have eaten at every restaurant in town. Villa Crespi aside, my tip is to keep it inexpensive and simple - pasta, pizza, charcuterie, fish and unfussy antipasti. The more tourist-oriented cooking strains to deliver. I used to go to either Edera (Via Bersani 15, +39 0322 905534), the world's most uncomplicated trattoria, or Pizzeria La Campana (Via Giovanetti 43, +39 0322 90211), where the matriarch is straight out of an Emile Zola novel.
Another good place for simple grilled meats is Taverna Antico Agnello (Via Olina 18, +39 0322 905188), a rustic and atmospheric restaurant in an upper room.
And what of the enchanted Isola San Giulio? Well, you can catch a boat to it year round from the square, so it's an easy trip. The last time I was there, the villas and palazzos on the shore were lit by a low-slung evening sun in colours of pale sand and amber and terracotta and the lake was sparkling and swallows were wheeling on the water and I could smell the flowers hanging from the balconies and trailing in the lake. (No, honestly, it really is like that.)
I was there to arrange a supper at the island's only restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio (Via Basilica 4, ristorantesangiulio.it), in an
18th-century building with ceiling frescoes and a vine-covered lakeside terrace. Unfortunately, the food here is another modern Italian tragedy. Still, everybody goes - it is simply too beautiful a spot to pass up.
A circular interior path leads around the vast Benedictine monastery. In one direction, the signs say "the way of silence" and in the other "the way of meditation". The interior of the Romanesque basilica is an opulent and near-overwhelming feast of art and sculpture. There is a 12th-century pulpit carved out of serpentine marble from a quarry at nearby Oira; the figures on it are said to be influenced by Saxon carvings - I've never heard of this anywhere else in Italy.
I used to spend a lot of time looking across at the bell tower of this basilica and listening to its chimes drifting across the water. After I had lapped the peninsula, I would run up the Sacro Monte for the spectacular view. At 360 metres above sea level and 100 metres above the lake, the jog nearly killed me but it was worth it. The top of the hill was made a national park in 1980 and its woods and gardens, which hide a further 20 chapels, with more frescoes and statues, are the perfect place to get your breath back.
My favourite thing to do in Orta is to go skinny-dipping with my partner at night, then to take her to Al Boeuch (Via Bersani 28, +39 339 5840039), a candlelit old taverna on one of the backstreets where Andreas serves too many delicious wines and too many cheeses and platters of prosciutto and hot bruschetta.
Don't tell anyone.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Milan from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1890 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Milan (13hr 15min); see singaporeair.com.
- Guardian News & Media