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The ideal place for an easy autumn weekend in a campervan, Lake Orta is an out-of-the-way itinerary offering luxuriant nature, lively villages with ancient traditions and calm blue waters. An unusual, seductive corner of Piedmont.

Less large, famous and popular than the other northern Italian lakes, Lake Orta is one of the most fascinating. Whether it's the deep blue water, the gentle green hills surrounding it or the pleasant airy feeling in front of your eyes, the fact remains that this lake has maintained a special atmosphere for ages: calm, suspended in time, welcoming.

Here we are, ready to be smitten by timeless little hamlets along the shoreline, by the bright colours, the crisp air that permeates the air with a certain spirituality.

Off we go!

To get to the shoreline, we go along the A26 toll road our campervan towards Gravellona Toce, exiting at Borgomanero and going along the SR 229 in the direction of Gozzano and Lake Orta. The lake is about 135 km from Turin and 70 km from Milan, straddling the Piedmont provinces of Novara and Verbano, a little to the west of Lake Maggiore.

First stop: Omegna, between modern and traditional.

The main centre in the area is Omegna, in the lake's most northerly point.

It stretches along the Nigoglia river, the lake's only outflow towards the Alpine lakes to the north.

An industrial and artisan town, Omegna is the capital of household appliances: it was here that the moka espresso was invented and the first pressure cooker was manufactured.

When we get to the city, we park the campervan (parking is in Via Caduti di Bologna) and walk to the historic centre and its lovely waterfront.
The centre revolves around the Piazza XXIV Aprile, the narrow streets and alleys of the so-called Vatican Quarter old town are characteristic. Some of the houses are from medieval times, like the portico where once the valley cheeses were sold. The Ponte Antico is interesting, attributed to Roman times but going back to the 15th century, as does the Porta Romana, which despite its name goes back to 1100 and is all that remains of the 5 city gates that led to the city centre in medieval times.

The Collegiata S. Ambrogio is definitely worth a visit. According to ancient Omegna history, this church once had a pagan altar where today the Rosario chapel is. The building of late Romanesque, the interior is Baroque and houses the body of the martyr San Vito in its funerary urn; San Vito is the patron saint of Omegna.

We get back in the campervan and carry on southwards, to one of the "most beautiful villages in Italy" (according to the Italian Touring Club), and surely one of the most characteristic: Orta San Giulio.

We park at the entrance to the town on the Via Panoramica and continue on foot.

Second stop: Orta San Giulio, a surprising medieval hamlet.

Situated halfway along the lake's eastern shore, where the Sacro Monte peninsula is, Orta San Giulio has one very narrow street running through it, off which are various alleyways which on one side climb up the hill, twisting along or broken up by stairs and steps, and on the other side go down to the lake, with charming paths, each different from the other.

One of these, not to be missed, is the one visible from the Municipal Gardens, our first stop. Here we find a tiny, well kept green space and a typical example of 16th-17thcentury palace, with interior porticoes, fine ironwork balconies and elegant windows alternating with pastel-coloured façades. An ideal, romantic place to take some picturesque shots.

We get back on the main road, between snug, enclosed spaces where the light barely filters through, and go along until we reach the surprisingly open Piazza Motta.This sunny piazza is ours in all its splendour: an elegant living room facing the blue lake waters, with its old palazzos and long portico crowded with shops and cafés.
Just the place where both locals and tourists mingle. Vying for our attention are: the frescoed façades of the Palazzo della Comunità or "Broletto" (from 1582) with its porticoed ground floor used for a market and the elegant upper room that often houses conferences and exhibitions; the steep cobblestoned climb up to the Santa Maria Assunta church; and the enchanting view of the San Giulio Island, dominated by the Romanesque architecture of its Basilica of the same name, and the 19th century building of the former seminary, today housing a convent.

Small wooden jetties along the lake lead to boats which will carry you over to the island in a few minutes. This is an excursion we definitely recommend.

Third stop: San Giulio Island, an oasis of calm.

If it's a nice day, we can enjoy the clear lake air and a magnificent panoramic view of the lakeshore, but most of all a pleasant trip to the island.

Once disembarked at the tiny island, we find ourselves facing the San Giulio Basilica: it rises up out of an ancient church, founded by the saint in 390, according to lore. It tells of this being the one hundredth and last church founded by San Giulio, who, coming from Aegina Island in Greece, dedicated his later years to evangelising Lake Orta. According to legend, once the saint reached the island by riding on his own cape, he freed it from dragons (a symbol of pagan defeat) and built a small church, dedicated to the twelve apostles.
Over time, the church underwent several re-workings.

The magnificent local stone pulpit, whence we can see the inside of the church, dates back to the 13th century. Considered one of the most interesting examples of Italian Romanesque art, it features four different columns, surmounted by finely sculpted parapets.
In the early Middle Ages, its strategic position made the island an important defensive centre and seat of a Lombard duke; later it had a defensive castle belonging to King Berengario II of Italy.

From the church, we go along the path called the "street of silence and meditation" that goes around the island. It is dominated by the powerful former seminary (from 1842, after the old castle was demolished) and narrow low down among the small houses that frame the lake's romantic alleyways.
Here the vegetation's autumnal colours and the water's reflections intermingle, making the area calm and relaxing, lending an air of spirituality to the already evocative place.

Going back to Orta San Giulio

When we get back to Orta, we stop at one of the cafés or restaurants in Piazza Motta, where we can sample a few local specialities such as Orta "Fidighina", a tasty, spicy pork liver sausage.

Revived by a yummy snack, we now have enough energy to climb up the steep stone path leading us to the Santa Maria Assunta church.
With its medieval origins (1485) and yellow ochre façade, the church offers an incredible view of the town and lake Orta.

The climb is flanked by old houses and noble palazzos like the Palazzo Gemelli from the 17th century, adorned with paintings on its façade, and opposite, Palazzo Penotti Ubertini, basking in all its 18th century glory.

Going back down again to the main road, we can wander among the alleyways around the village or once more around Orta San Giulio's lakefront until we can enjoy a magnificent sunset.

With its natural and immensely fascinating cultural context, wild and romantic at the same time, we can breathe the air of a real holiday. We pass through wonderful, relaxing countryside, where the green vegetation blends with the blue water.

As we drive the campervan along the shore, it all seems effortless. A wonder for heart, mind and eyes, it's a perfect way to relax, far from the big cities.