September 10 & 14, 2013: And so we have reached the final post on our Italian adventures. A randomly chosen spot on the map that yielded a beautiful destination full of surprises. And it wasn’t even mentioned in our guide book. The secret is out!
I picked Lago d’Orta because it was another one of the many lakes in the region between Sesto Calende and the Alps. Orta San Giulio, located on a little promontory on the eastern shore, looked promising. A quick check on Trip Advisor indicated plenty of restaurants in the area, so I took that as a good sign.
Chris navigated while I drove. Getting there was not straightforward through no fault of his. There just wasn’t a direct route. We zipped around and over the hills, meandered through the countryside, dashed through tiny little villages and finally were rewarded with a spectacular view of the lake stretching north before us towards the Alps.
From there it was just a short drive along the lake to reach Orta San Giulio and the Riserva Naturale del Sacro Monte di Orta (The Sacred Mountain of Orta). An incredibly peaceful spot with views out over Isola San Giulio. In 1590, work began on twenty chapels set throughout the park. They tell the story of St. Francis of Assisi’s life. (He’s the patron saint of animals and the environment.) Each one is decorated with frescos and scenes filled with life-size terracotta statues. Even though Sacro Monte is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and place of pilgrimage, on this day there were only a few souls wandering about.
On the shore far below the Sacred Mountain lies the actual town of Orta San Giulio. Small shops and restaurants lined the narrow cobbled streets, alleys and main piazza attracting tourists on their way to visit tiny Isola San Giulio and its Basilica, now a Benedictine monastery. At least here, tourism is on a smaller scale and the charm of the town still shines through. We literally stumbled upon the tiny Enoteca Al Boeuc, tucked away out of sight in an old stone building on a side street. The first guests to arrive but it was soon packed to the rafters. (We’ve often found ourselves first in a restaurant that very quickly afterwards would fill up. We’re not sure if we’re too early or if other people are being lemmings, afraid to be first. We choose to believe that our presence makes a place chic and draws in a crowd.)
Our evening at Lago d’Orta was such a hit that we decided to return there for our last day in Italy. It started out sunny and warm and we made quick work getting there after packing up and squeezing all our luggage into our Smartie. Not an easy feat, that.
This time we started up the eastern shore of the lake. Chris found us a twisty little road that led up to the Madonna del Sasso chapel that sits perched atop a cliff. It’s a popular wedding spot for good reason and as luck would have it, there was one of today. I took more than a few pictures of the couple’s decorated Fiat, but never saw them. It was a long ceremony. Loved the views from here. Of the lake, of the Alps and of Isola San Giulio.
Today’s drive took us around the lake with stretch breaks and photo stops in Pella, Ronco and Omegna at the northern tip before heading up and over Mottarone (the top of the gondola ride from Stresa, see part 1). From there it was a leisurely drive to Milan’s Malpensa airport and another fond farewell to Italy. At least we were leaving with plenty of memories (and some food). Bellissimo!