I have friends who own a vacation condo in the town of Orta in Italy. The town sits on the shores of Lake Orta, a 10 mile long body of water located west of the more well known Lake Como. The New York Times calls it The Secret Little Sister Of The Italian Lakes. We were planning an Italian holiday to the area, so decided to follow our friends’ recommendation and spend a few days in Orta. We are so glad we did.
The town dates back to the Middle Ages. The structures feature roofs made of large pieces of thick slate, which gives them a very distinctive appearance. The center of town is a no vehicle zone, so if you are driving, be prepared to leave your car at the car park outside of town and walk down the hill to the lake. The train station is located about 3 miles away and best served by a local taxi. But be aware that even taxis are barred from the town center, so bring as little luggage as possible since you will be lugging it up and down the steep hill the town is built into.
Like all Italian towns, Orta is built around a central piazza that abuts the edge of the lake. Just a few hundred yards offshore is the sparkling jewel called Isolde San Guilio. A former monastery, the island is now stuffed with elegant vacation homes for the wealthy and is reachable by water taxi from the piazza for a few Euros. A walk around takes only a few hours and is highly recommended. The island was once under the control of the diocese of Sardinia and is still home to a convent today.
We had no reservations when we arrived but ended up staying in an apartment owned by the Hotel Olina. Our accommodations were clean if a little sparsely furnished, but our room looked out over the piazza and Isolde San Guilio in the distance and was framed by the wooden shutters used to cover the windows at night. The scene is one of our favorite memories of our time in Italy.
What the Hotel Olina lacked in furnishings — the place was funky but fun — it more than made up in two important areas. It had its own private dining room on the edge of the piazza where a sumptuous breakfast was served every morning. Freshly baked tarts, a dozen cheeses, cold cuts, fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, and vegetables kept us going all day until dinner. The dining room also had free internet access — a distinct luxury in many parts of Italy.
At night, we had a selection of excellent restaurants to choose from, many of them right on the water overlooking the lake. We had our best pizza of the trip at an outdoor pizzeria 5 minutes south of town. Indifferent service, family style seating, but extraordinary pies. Worth the trip.
While we were there, we discovered there is a walking path that circumnavigates the peninsular the town sits on. It takes about 90 minutes to walk all the way around. Bring your bathing suit. There are several places far from town where you can slip into the lake and a public beach at the southernmost part of the journey.
What made Orta magical was that our stay there was completely unscripted. On Thursday, we rode the local ferry with a collection of townspeople going to the weekly farmer’s market in Omegna, the town at the north end of the lake. Part of the fun of travelling is living the way the locals do. In Orta we were able to do exactly that.
During our three weeks in Italy, we stayed in Lake Como and Lake Maggiore before heading to the exquisitely beautiful Cinque Terre part of the Italian Riviera. But Orta was one of our favorite places. We could sit in our chairs and look out at the open air theater and concerts at night just outside our apartment windows. It was far from the fanciest lodgings of our trip, but if we ever return to Orta, we want to stay in exactly the same rooms. There was a certain ambiance there that the other places we stayed couldn’t quite match.