Lake Orta, Orta San Giulio and Miasino

Between freshwater baths and sacred meditations on the mountains (and having as a background the island of a Saint)

At some point, you will also have lost the pace, running between the commitments and the obligations of everyday life. Our habits are punctuated by chaotic and recurring time: by fulfilling the needs of a routine that gets out of hand we end up not being able to pick ourselves up. We stagger looking for the right pace, trying to keep up with a routine that is no longer ours.

That’s why it’s time to take a break and go on holiday: a journey that will become a precious gift and a special story made up of places and meetings to tell those who will begin the same journey following our steps.

And it will certainly not be a glamourous holiday for exhibitionists with a compulsive need to take pictures and post them on their social media that will satisfy their vanity. It will not be some kind of touristic novelty that will guide us but the need to give ourselves an experience full of those values that no longer belong to everyday life such as: slowness, beauty and spirituality. These are the ingredients we need for the health of our soul: we, who are lost seekers of all ages of a different lifestyle. And what better gift for such travelers than to come across places and lively people which can awaken that inner freedom and spirit of innovation weakened by the temptations of modernity? Ancient but dynamic places: functional and without any wish to fade away in the lifeless memory of the long bygone past. Their strength and dignity are still there, coming from the past to a present built thanks to the energy and intelligence of the people who live there today. And there’s no need to cross continents to find these places: you just need to learn to watch and feel, to get to the root of what surrounds us, you need to cherish those territories that have so much to tell us without any kind of statements or celebrations. When we finally land on these areas, we will certainly find people who are completely detached and deaf to the calls coming from these lands, lands which were shaped by the wise and creative hands of nature, and which are full of echoes of the long history of the people who inhabited them. Despite this, we do not regret it: what matters is to gratefully welcome the moment of grace given by the destiny, be won over by these shelters full of meaning and value to avoid the logics of the spiritual desert in which many let themselves be dragged along by. Or at least, to prove, once back to our usual lives, how even at home we can live at our own pace and nobody else’s.

About such paradisaic places: there’s a lake, located in the Novara area, in Piedmont, that, like many other lakes in northern Italy, is born from ancient disappeared glaciers and lays down between mountain chains and hills of various shapes and sizes. We are talking about Lake Orta: the westernmost of the great lakes of the Italian Pre-Alps. Lake Orta is separated from the majestic Lake Maggiore by the Mottarone massif; on the other hand, the Cusiane Alps separate Lake Orta from the Valsesia valley. Unlike its more famous and impressive neighbor, Lake Orta is a small and quiet marvel of nature that – with its gentle profile and the placid beauty of its landscapes – invites its guests to contemplation and recollection. Its banks are sprinkled by ancient villages, small ports, free or equipped beaches, small coves where you can take refreshing baths in a suspended and enchanted atmosphere, especially due to the presence of an enchanted island, the only one of the lake, that since the first of the countless looks allowed to the walkers and bathers of the two sides, captures our attention with its timeless charm, in its perfect union between nature and ancient buildings. The Island of San Giulio owes its name to the Saint who – according to the legend, at the time of the Roman emperor Theodosius – spread Christianity in this enchanted place defeating dragons and snakes that infested it. He had faith and a magical cloak with which sailed to reach the island and establish his church. We become aware of the blend between the history and the fairy tale when coming at the present day on this precious island by ferry. In fact, there are the Basilica of San Giulio and the cloistered Benedictine Abbey Mater Ecclesiae (which once was a bishop’s seminary and before it was a castle) which have been present since the Romanesque age (XI/XII century A.D.). However, the refined inlays and the other marble decorations kept in the crypt of the church (they are kept together with the remains of Saint Giulio and four other Saints) date the place back to a period between the fifth and sixth centuries a.D.. Thanks to its location, the island – in the tormented centuries of the Middle Ages – was immediately appropriate to be not only a place of election for holy evangelizers and industrious monks but also a natural defensive bulwark, a shelter for the local populations who were disputed among the great powerful men of those times. Today we may find it difficult to imagine that battles and long sieges, fear and screams arrived here too since this place appears to us as a smiling and healthy treasure kissed by beauty. Indeed, the place is immersed in a peaceful and quiet light creating a magic with colors and lights that vary depending on the time of the day and the position from which we observe its grey roofs, the paved path that crosses the ring and the ancient houses – houses that were of the canons of the church in the past and now of the very few inhabitants who mostly live there only in the summer months.

The island of San Giulio is no more than 400 meters from Orta and is daily connected to the small town by ferries in the summer period. The village of Orta San Giulio appears to us as a spell of beauty, with its river pebbles streets and pinky porphyry slabs which is the same stone of the columns that mark the arcades and loggias of the ancient palaces – whether they are simple dwellings or aristocratic dwellings – according to the financial means and the styles of every age. Looking up, we can see light grey stone slabs that cover the roofs of houses and church (we call them “beole” or “piode” here) and creating a landscape that amazes for its uniformity but that never bores. In fact, there are some bright-colored frescoed palaces with mythological scenes, with Christ and the Madonna’s stories, and with the emblems of the families and bishops who ruled the entire shore. Some churches are painted with delicate colors simply plastered with exposed stone whereas others have more moved and articulated rococo facades. And what about the Town Hall? Nothing could be further from the modern multifunctional steel and glass centers of our metropolises. Entering Villa Bossi, in fact, will not make you think of the processing of practices and documents; on the contrary, this charming three-storey porticoed building will lead you, past the atrium, to a garden directly overlooking the lake; you will find yourself among a vegetal gallery where to rest on comfortable benches, flowerbeds, a small reading room and annexed view. A superb wrought iron gate nobly concludes the view on the side facing the island. This is a heavenly harmony freely accessible to everybody where the life of the small community of Orta is run. However, the authentic heart of Orta San Giulio is another one and is open in two directions: one embraces water and the other rises to heaven, both united in the sign of spirituality. You have to go to Piazza Motta (from the name of the Turin partisan Mario Motta) to notice it opens on the one hand, as in a love rush, towards the lake and the island, which from here seems to be its natural extension towards the water; on the other hand, it climbs in a wonderful perspective, that of the “Salita della Motta” which begins on its pavement of stone steps, its most beautiful buildings, it continues upwards in a soft curve and ends in in front of the soft pink facade of the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta. Now try to close your eyes turning your back on the church and turn towards the just crossed village along the climb: the feeling of wonder you will feel will be full and embracing, it will descend like a joyful melody following the descending line of the road, jolting to the rhythms of the steps, along the noble palaces with their features of a sober elegance and a solid local simplicity, aristocratic and popular together. You will focus on the colors of the walls, frescoes and fresh flowers on the balconies, to end up looking at the blue of the lake. From “Chiesa dell’Assunta”, going on the right, the road will change its appearance and it will assume a new aspect: the village and the lake will be visible – in beautiful views – only between the free spaces and the wider curves of a path protected by the high walls of houses and private gardens, up to the crossroads with the cemetery of San Quirico from which begins the path of the “Sacro Monte of Orta”, dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. And it’s here where the village, the island and the “Sacro Monte” come together ideally and physically, in the sign of a spirituality renewed over the centuries according to different forms and expressive codes but always aimed at seeking a possible synthesis between man and nature. The Sacro Monte of Orta is a miracle of harmonious balance among the nature of the woods in which it develops, the almost two centuries long history of its realization, the art that has found expression in it and the simple and direct religiousness that inspired it. The Sacro Monte was conceived at the end of the 16th century by the Abbot Amico Canobio from Novara and the Capuchin architect Cleto from Castelletto Ticino with the aim of strengthening faith in the Church of Rome among the local population in the difficult years of the Protestant Reformation that, on this side of the nearby Alps, increasingly received wider support. The Sacro Monte is a devotional path twisting and turning through the woods above the village: it is made up of a park and twenty chapels surrounded by nature which illustrate – with life-size painted terracotta sculptures and frescoes – the episodes of the life of Saint Francis.

The chapels are all different from each other since they were built over a period of about two centuries, but they always have a classic aesthetic with circular or square shapes, sometimes provided with porches or loggias, with finely wrought iron gratings aimed at separating visitors from the sculptural groups. A proper sacred representation of the history of the Saint of Assisi was made possible by the characters’ extreme expressive realism and the accentuated theatrical character of the scenes that in the chapels of the 18th century are becoming increasingly impressive and complex (because of the number of figures, their distribution in space and the overall dynamism of the narrative). Gestures and personalities are definitely more marked and the dialogue between painted figures and statues becomes more evident; in this way the visitors’ emotional involvement becomes more and more intense step by step and chapel after chapel. The Sacro Monte thus becomes for us an invitation to dwell on this inseparable union of nature, spirituality and art. Like and more than a modern architect and urban planner, Padre Cleto was an authentic landscape monk who thought of this wooded promontory as an integral part of the path of faith and inner search offered by the chapels. It was in fact chosen to preserve and not alter the plant layout that was already present on the high ground before the realization of the work. It was decided to harmoniously insert trees and plants along the way to create an environment that facilitates identification in the mystical and charitable experience of the “poor man” of Assisi, who embodies the figure of Jesus Christ. At the end of the itinerary, you will find the church of San Nicolao, completely renovated in the 17th century, which safeguards a much more ancient and venerated wooden Pietà, made in Germany and dating back to the X and XI century. The finishing point of this incredible and unexpected adventure of the soul ends on the panoramic terrace in front of the church from which you can find the village and the island from which we started. There’s a constant but silent dialogue between the starting point and the finishing one that has long united them: we can only be grateful witnesses who are ready to receive this message of peace and harmony.

But our story still has something to tell and that surprises us: in all the villages overlooking the lake there are many opportunities to do physical activity or practice organized sports, obviously linked to the water. In addition to the relaxation offered by the small and enchanting beaches of Orta, Pettenasco, San Maurizio d’Opaglio and furthermore, the equipped beaches of Gozzano which is on its southern tip; walking on the lakeside of Orta we notice that there are many centers where you can rent canoes and kayaks or enroll in specific courses.

But our story still has something to tell and that surprises us: in all the villages overlooking the lake there are many opportunities to do physical activity or practice organized sports, obviously linked to the water. In addition to the relaxation offered by the small and enchanting beaches of Orta, Pettenasco, San Maurizio d’Opaglio and furthermore, the equipped beaches of Gozzano which is on its southern tip; walking on the lakeside of Orta we notice that there are many centers where you can rent canoes and kayaks or enroll in specific courses.

And among the memorable walks, we face with joy about two hours or a little more that lead from the southern shore of Gozzano to Pella, on the western side: there we can find reeds, villages like Lagna with its streams between the gardens and its old wash house, beaches like that of Prarolo, with a shady grove facing the lake, pebbles and clear water, romantic lakesides like that of the hamlet of Roncallo, with a soft and sinuous line, churches of a remote essentiality like that of San Filiberto, with the oldest bell tower of the lake and its crown of chapels illustrating the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis). Once in Pella, another charming coastal town, we can take a boat that will make us discover the northern shore of the lake, where it narrows in the small harbor of the town of Omegna, the most populous of the coast, which several times in its history has been faced with the flooding of the only emissary of the lake: the river Nigoglia. Contrary to what usually happens, the river Nigoglia rises to the north instead of going down to the valley and goes to feed the Lake Maggiore; this phenomenon is due to a different slope of the two river basins.

However, the real soul of the lake which today makes it so alive and appreciated – in its rare harmony between environment and human being – is given by its people. You can get to know these people by visiting all those tiny villages following one another in the hinterland, among the hills and nearby. Among these, there’s Miasino: with its descreet and elegant charm of a village that does not reach a thousand inhabitants, located at the end of a slight climb which is also the end of the path starting from the famous Orta San Giulio. Its double soul: noble and popular, lies in its refined dwellings which embellish it; in fact, between the sixth and eighteenth centuries, several middle-class and aristocratic families chose Miasino as their summer resort in an attempt to escape from those pestilential diseases that throughout history afflicted cities like Milan and unfortunately came this far. Villa Nigra is the perfect example of a noble country residence: its name is linked to the Lombard architect Carlo Nigra who took care of all the renovation of the churches and palaces of the lake between the nineteenth and twentieth century. Today Villa Nigra is owned by the city hall (which opens it as a venue for exhibitions and concerts) and looks like a proud building that really makes the difference in the area. The older block from the sixteenth century made up of four rows of windows and frames painted with kettledrums of different shapes and allegorical female figures is juxtaposed to a wing from at least a century later consisting of a wide and bright double colonnaded exterior gallery which has been decorated inside with an intense blue that seems to recall the Portuguese ceramics of the “azulejos”. In addition, in the last twentieth century phase of its history a tower and a central former lemon house was added to the building. And finally, Villa Nigra has also an Italian garden framing everything for the joy of the eyes and heart. Such “unicum” in this dynamic Baroque town echoes, not far away, the parish church of San Rocco, just as monumental in its seventeenth-century forms. Its façade was finished by Carlo Nigra while of the original plant, in Romanesque style, only the bell tower remains. From its churchyard you can admire from a privileged position the town from above: a fabulous homogeneity of appearance with its grey roofs made up of “beole”. The town house is, as in Orta San Giulio, a lovely building with a garden and a fountain in the back, always located in an enviable panoramic position. Along the streets we can find several walls with vivid-colored frescoes that tell the popular devotion of the past: nothing better than to nourish the imagination in the incessant search for reasons of seduction. Leaving Miasino, among the places and breathtaking views most loved by those who lived and grew up in these areas, there it the nearby Sanctuary of Madonna dell Bocciola, in Vacciago (a district of the town of Ameno): the sanctuary is located next to the main road and rises on a panoramic terrace overlooking the entire lake, including the island of San Giulio. Its construction is due to a miracle: the apparition of the Virgin Mary with her child which occurred in the middle of the 1500s among the branches of a wild prune (“bud” in the local dialect) to a mute girl from birth, Giulia Manfredi, who was there to graze the cattle and who regained the word after this episode. The church, as it currently appears to us, turns out to be in its neoclassical forms a little dry and harsh: nevertheless, we are moved on witnessing its dialogue with the landscape that surrounds it.

This land of mountains and water, deep and cozy, has inherited from its past a spirit that is the same that we find in the people who live there today. They are often young people who, after their life experiences around the world, have decided to come back here to invest in the future of these places moved by love and sense of belonging. We like to imagine that their grandparents had the same character: hardworking and direct, honest and frank, ready for discussion and reconciliation. We enrich these precious virtues by perceiving them as inner conquests that will help us cultivate harmony and beauty in everyday life, elsewhere and everywhere, here and in places very different from here.

® Valerio Maria De Sunto