Big is beautiful when it comes to the Italian Lakes. But small is perhaps even more beautiful, and certainly more intimate and less visited. So forgo the major lakes – the famous trio of Como, Maggiore and Garda – and consider instead the largely unsung quartet of Idro, Iseo, Varese and Orta.
Each has its charms, but none, to my mind, quite matches the all-round appeal of the last, Orta, which has a nigh-on perfect combination of picturesque shores, glorious mountain backdrop and as pretty a main town as you’ll find anywhere in Italy.
Better still, its manageable size means it’s ideal for a short break, the more so because it’s less than an hour from Milan’s second airport, Malpensa, and also within easy striking distance of Lake Maggiore and Milan itself if you wish to extend your trip.
Head there in the coming weeks, when the leaves are turning and Italy’s autumnal sun is still warm.
The perfect base
Orta San Giulio on the lake’s eastern shore is where you want to be, a place that seduces immediately, not for any great sights but for its lovely setting, intrinsic charm and glorious lake views. It amounts to little more than a single main street and a lakefront square, Piazza Mario Motta, around which life – eating, drinking, shopping, people-watching – revolves.
Among the piazza’s many eating options, Venus (ristorante-venus.it) has plenty of outside tables and prices – but also quality – a touch higher than elsewhere. For a light lunch of small plates at keener prices, plus excellent wines, opt for the nearby Pano e Vino (panevino-orta.it).
The square also has several places for gelato, one of them exceptional: Il Banco di Cannavacciulo (antoninocannavacciuolo.it), easily missed, not least because it looks like (and is) an upmarket confectionary shop. Among the small selection of homemade gelati is the best chocolate ice cream for many miles.
Cannavacciuolo is an outpost of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant at the Villa Crespi, a five-star hotel housed in an extraordinary neo-Moorish building just out of town. It’s dress-up dining, with creative Mediterranean food, but bookings are often required weeks in advance.
Getting your bearings
After wandering Orta, and dipping into the handful of little fresco-filled churches and sleepy backstreets, there are two obvious options. The first is the wonderful 2.5-mile (4km) lakeside loop around the town’s promontory. Simply walk north on the main street and keep going, following the obvious paved path for pretty views and an easy, shady stroll.
Next, and a touch more energetic, is the walk to the Monte Sacro (sacrimonti.org), a series of 17th-century chapels among the woods (with fine lake views) above the town. Each chapel contains frescoes and sculptures devoted to scenes from the life of St Francis. It’s easily found by heading either for the little church of Santa Maria Assunta off the main street and following the cobbled lane right, or by taking paths uphill towards the end of your loop around the promontory (see above).
On the water
After a day or so admiring the lake, the chances are you’ll want to get on the water. The most straightforward way is to catch one of the regular public ferries from Orta, which offer what are effectively short and inexpensive lake cruises.
Navigazione Lago D’Orta (navigazionelagodorta.it) operates two lines, the Rosso round-trip to the Isola di San Giulio (see below) and onwards to the villages of Pella, San Filiberto and Lagna (journey time 25 mins one-way; €5.40 round-trip), and the Verde, which runs to Omegna in the north (1hr; €7.90), with stops en route.
Navigazione Orta (navigazioneorta.it) offers similar point-to-point shuttles but also has lake cruises in small boats, from 30-minute trips taking in some of the lake’s villas to one-hour private tours for up to 12 people.
The small Canoe Lago d’Orta (canoelagodorta.com) in a peaceful spot five minutes north of the town rents out one- to four-person canoes (from €9 hourly), single and double paddleboards (€12), pedalos (€16) and water-bikes (€15).
Or rent a choice of power boats (no license required; five to eight passengers) from Explora Beach (explorabeach.com) from €120 for half a day, €160 for a full day, fuel included.
Hiking and biking
For an alternative to a tour of Orta afloat, consider renting a bike (ebikelagodorta.com). Towns and villages around the lake are not a patch on Orta but the views are captivating and a full circuit (25 miles/40km) easily manageable in a day. If you want a shorter ride, head south, avoiding the busy town of Omegna at the lake’s northern extreme.
For an idyllic long lunch on a sunny day, take a taxi into the wooded hills above the western shore and eat al fresco at La Topia (facebook.com/latopiadiorsanvenzo), where the menus change every few days and the cooking is light, creative and seasonal.
If you have a car, then numerous options are open, not least driving the short distance over the hills to explore neighbouring Lake Maggiore, where one of the key towns, Stresa, is just 16 miles (26km) away by road.
If you want to explore both lakes, and hike from one to the other over several days, Inntravel (01653 617001; inntravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night, self-guided “Lake Orta to Lake Maggiore” walk from £1,135 per person, including most meals but not flights.
The sound of silence
Isola d’Orta, the small island close to the main town that lends the lake a large part of its scenic impact, is easy to reach by ferry. It’s an impossibly picturesque medley, dominated by a white monastery – devoted to a closed order of around 60 nuns – built around a lovely church whose largely Baroque interior retains fragments of medieval frescoes and a beautiful 12th-century pulpit.
There are no cars, and just one cobbled lane known as the Street of Meditation or Street of Silence, depending which way round you walk (allow 20 minutes). The nuns have placed signs at regular intervals requesting quiet, to little effect, but other people aside, it remains a wonderful spot, especially at night, with Orta twinkling on the shore.
How to get there
The nearest airport is Milan Malpensa, about 50 minutes by road or 2hr 15min by rail (trenitalia.com; trenord.it) with changes at Bustio Arsizio and Novara. Ryanair (ryanair.com), British Airways (ba.com), Wizz (wizzair.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com) fly direct from various UK airports.
Where to stay
The lake is dotted with good options in all price ranges, from blowout Casa Fantini (doubles from £525) on its western shore to Giardinetto (giardinettohotel.com; doubles from around £90) on its eastern flank, but for a short break, and especially if you are without a car, it pays to be in Orta San Giulio itself.
Villa Crespi (doubles from £440) is the smartest option here, but it is just out of town. Better is the far more intimate and convenient Al Dom (aldom57.com; doubles from around £150), a stylish four-room B&B with a private lakefront garden.
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