Orta Lake & Surroundings

Lake Orta, known as one of the most romantic lakes in Italy, is situated in the Cusio area, which extends from the lower area of the Ossola valley to the western shore of the lower Lake Maggiore area. Its main centres are Omegna and Orta San Giulio.

Omegna lies at the northern end of the lake; it is famous for its production of quality kitchenware, and for the festival of its local patron saint, San Vito. 

From Omegna the road round the lake leads along the western shore to Nonio, then Cesara, where the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso (Virgin of the Rock) rises in a panoramic position. Continuing into the province of Novara, the road goes through Pella, a small holiday resort, San Maurizio d’Opaglio, with its Tap Museum, and Gozzano. 

The itinerary returns northwards to the ancient village of Orta San Giulio, which with its island is incontestably the prettiest place on the lake. A medieval burgh rich in history and art, Orta is a gem delighting visitors with its tall aristocratic houses and narrow cobbled streets. You can take a boat from the little harbour to the picturesque Island of San Giulio, dominated by its Romanesque church and an ancient monastery.

In the hills to the north-west of Omegna lies the valley of Val Strona, whose seven separate municipalities still conserve traditions and culture of the past such as making pewter - copper - and brassware, and especially woodworking. It is here that the famous Pinocchio dolls are made by expert craftsmen, and exported all over the world.

 

The Village of Orta San Giulio

 

Orta Village

 

In its location facing Lake Orta, the small town of Orta San Giulio is a one of the top destinations for tourists visiting the Verbano Cusio Ossola province.

A favourite place for romantic souls, the village is a maze of picturesque streets and narrow cobbled lanes, flanked by old stone walls with doorways topped with triangular architraves.

The little squares, reminiscent of the campielli of Venice, are enlivened by the presence of craft boutiques, antique shops and lively cafés.

There is a splendid view of Lake Orta from the 15th century Church of Maria Assunta, a favourite for weddings, from where a flight of broad granite steps leads to Piazza Motta, the main square of the village. You walk down between two rows of houses frescoed in the 16th century to arrive in the square with the 16th century Palazzo della Comunità (Town Hall), from which two side streets go off leading to Moccarolo and Villa.

The Moccarolo district in the southern part of the village has an elegant row of villas and townhouses, all with their little flower-filled gardens overlooking the lake. The houses in the Villa area are period townhouses embellished with pretty little wrought iron balconies; see them to best advantage along the narrow, picturesque Via Olina.

The finest view in the area is to be had from the Sacro Monte of Orta, a complex of chapels built between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, in the woodland setting of the Sacro Monte Special Nature Reserve. You can reach the complex via a path from Piazza Motta.

Saint Giulio Island

 

St. Giulio Island

Whoever comes to Lake Orta is drawn irresistibly to its most beautiful village: the ancient burgh of Orta San Giulio, which faces the spectacular Island of San Giulio, a short distance away. The distinctive appearance of the burgh derives from the Renaissance and Baroque art which is a feature of its fine townhouses and beautiful gardens. Attractions include the magnificent mansions of Villa Peroneand Villa Crespi, as well as the Palazzo della Comunità, which once hosted the “Consiglio della Riviera”.
The little Island of San Giulio is dominated by its Romanesque basilica, the bishop’s palace and the Benedictine abbey. You can reach it by a short crossing by boat or motor launch. Legend has it that the island, which lies not more than 400 metres from the lakefront of Orta, was once a bare rock inhabited by snakes and terrible monsters, until the day in 390 when San Giulio landed, crossing the lake on his cloak and guided in the storm by his staff. Here the Saint founded a church, which he later chose to be buried in, and transformed the island into a centre of evangelization of the whole area. After landing, you go up a short flight of steps leading to the atmospheric Romanesque Basilica, the island’s main attraction.
From the church you can walk along the narrow street that goes round the whole of the island: the “way of silence and meditation”, in an evocative blend of spirituality and architecture. Exploring the lanes you will come across the 19thcentury Bishop’s Palace, and the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine Abbey, a convent of cloistered nuns who live permanently on the island, devoting their days to prayer, study, restoring valuable old church vestments, making communion wafers and the famous “pane di San Giulio” (St Julius’ bread).

 Sacro Monte of Orta

Sacro Monte of Orta

 

The religious complex of the Sacro Monte of Orta lies on the hill above the village, looking out over Lake Orta.

The riches of its art and architecture, allied to the beauty and harmony of its natural setting, contribute to an atmosphere of indefinable spirituality which has a profound impact on visitors.

The history of the complex goes back to 1583, when the Community of Orta decided to found a convent near the Church of San Nicolao, all of which remains today is a 15th century wooden sculpture of Our Lady of Mercy. In 1591 the Capuchin Franciscans authorised the start of work to build chapels dedicated to the life of St Francis, beginning with what is now chapel number XX, the first to be founded but the last in the cycle.

The building work was concluded between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 18th.

The chapels were arranged on a spiralling path which exploited the slope of the hill, in an itinerary guided by the surrounding trees, which enabled pilgrims to pause on their upward journey to meditate for a while in the shade, emerging at the top to see the superb panorama of the lake. Prominent among the many artists who worked on the decoration of the chapels were il Morazzone, Stefano Maria Legnai and il Beretta, artists from different periods, resulting in a mixture of styles – Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical.

The purpose of every Sacro Monte was to give religious instruction the faithful (most of whom were illiterate) through the descriptive images of the frescoes and the tableaux of terracotta statues.

 The sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso

Madonna del Sasso

 

 

One of the most spectacular sacred places of Lake Orta is surely the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rock (Madonna del Sasso) built near the hamlet of the same name on a huge granite rock-face overhanging the lake below. From here, there is an unsurpassed view dominating Lake Orta and the mountains on the eastern shore of the lake, including Mount Mottarone.

This sacred complex, built in the early 1700s, on the site of a previous late medieval chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, is made up of the church, the bell-tower and the Priest’s House. The church, shaped like a Greek cross with circular apse is topped by a huge frescoed dome which projects an inlaid star onto the floor. The interior also houses a large pictorial cycle by Lorenzo Peracino, a painter and sculptor from Valsesia, who left evidence of his great talent in numerous churches in the Cusio and Ossola area.

The high altar has a splendid Deposition of Christ dating from 1547, painted by Fermo Stella da Caravaggio, a pupil of Gaudenzio Ferrari. Of particular interest is the monumental 16th century organ which has 700 pipes and a keyboard of 58 keys.

The Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso is the finishing point of the hiking trail called Le Valli della Fede (The Valleys of Faith), an itinerary which links the minor sanctuaries of the Central and Eastern Biella area with Lake Orta. This route is inspired by the one taken by Saint Charles Borromeo presumably several times during the years in which he was archbishop of Milan (1565-1584).

 Legro, the painted village

Legro

 

Since 1998 the little village of Legro has become an interesting tourist destination thanks to the splendid, colourful frescoes decorating the historic centre. The subjects of the murals painted on the walls of the village were inspired by the work of the local poet and writer Gianni Rodari, and by films made in the Lake Orta area.

A walk through the village streets brings to life in superb painted film frames scenes from famous movies set in the Lake Orta area: "Il balordo", "L'amante segreta", "Una spina nel cuore", "La voglia di vincere", "Il piatto piange" and "La stanza del Vescovo".

The murals were painted by established artists, both Italian and foreign, and students from local art schools.

 Buccione Tower

 

Buccione Tower

 

The Buccione Tower rises to a height of 23.20 m on top of a hill overlooking Lake Orta.

This massive granite and serizzo tower, with the two adjacent enclosures, is all that remains of an ancient fortified complex, documented since the early 13th century. Experts are divided as to its origins; it may have been built by the Romans, the Lombards or the Bishops of Novara.

The Buccione Tower was part of a dense network of fortifications designed to protect the independent burgh of Orta; it held a bell used to warn the people in the event of danger. You can see the last bell, which was used in the 17th century, in the gardens of Orta Town Hall.

Inside, the tower is divided into four floors by wooden platforms connected by ladders. The ceiling of the last floor is formed of a stone groin vault which supports the floor of the lookout. The present entrance, dating from the 19th century, opens into the bottom floor of the tower, whereas the original entrance is about seven metres from the ground. The second and third floors were occupied by the garrison, while the fourth floor contained the cell from which the entrance was defended by raining stones on assailants.

The other things to see while visiting the tower are the remains of a rectangular enclosure, the traces of a guardroom, the remains of another more recent wall, and an outpost.

 

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