There is a code of silence that surrounds Lake Orta in northern Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing … well, the number of visitors. Indeed, it is astonishing how few people – even Italians – know about the place, and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore. But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty – though the place is absurdly pretty – but the lake’s mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul there as well as for the eye.
This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre (of which more below), but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting: the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk never to lift again. Sometimes the fierce sun burns for days as if no other climate were even possible. And sometimes the föhn wind thrashes the lake into fury.
The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there’s a medieval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended. You never want to leave.
My association with the place began over a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake’s principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a London place to buy an apartment there. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time there working on my second novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate.
The lake has always been popular with writers. In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all came here. A British-run poetry festival in September (poetryonthelake.org) has featured the likes of Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Poets from all over the world come to read and replenish and indulge their imaginations.
Orta San Giulio is built on the slopes of a steep hill (the Sacro Monte) that forms a peninsula jutting out into the lake. By day it looks longingly toward the beautiful island. By night, the gaze becomes even more amorous when the island is lit up and appears to float on dark water glistening with reflections.
Its narrow streets are all faded elegance and ochre charm, punctuated by sumptuous outbreaks of baroque. At one end of the square stands the town hall (1585); built on graceful columns – as if on stilts – it looks like the sort of place Caravaggio might have his cupid retire to sleep. A little up the hill, overlooking the many restaurants and cafes, stands the pale-peach parish church, the Chiesa dell’Assunta, founded in the 15th century. It looks like the sort of place where Monica Bellucci (playing a version of Mary Magdalene) would come to weep midway through an Italian film about an impossible affair.
The good news is that because Orta is far less developed than other lakes, there are a dozen small inexpensive hotels. The less good news is that they are in the main homely, family-run places with scalding-then-freezing showers and grumpy aunts on reception. Expect authenticity rather than service. The one exception is the slightly crazy Villa Crespi (Via G Fava 18, +39 0322 911902, hotelvillacrespi.it, doubles from €180), a lavish, four-star, Turkish-inspired castle-hotel, which, if you’re feeling flush, has to be worth the indulgence. I’ve never slept there – my advice is to go slightly out of season and rent an apartment (try lakeorta.com, which has two-bed apartments from £390 a week) – but I did once take my partner to the two-Michelin-star restaurant for her birthday. The food was exquisite.
Over the years, I must have eaten at every restaurant in town. Villa Crespi aside, my tip is to keep it inexpensive and simple – pasta, pizza, charcuterie, fish and unfussy straight-to-plate antipasti. The more effortful tourist-aimed cooking strains to deliver. I used to go to either Edera (Via Bersani 15, +39 0322 905534), the world’s most uncomplicated trattoria, or Pizzeria La Campana (Via Giovanetti 43, +39 0322 90211), where the plump matriarch is straight out of an Emile Zola novel.
Another good place for grilled meats (also simple) is Taverna Antico Agnello (Via Olina 18, +39 0322 905188), a rustic and atmospheric restaurant in an upper room, where we once had lamb chops for my father’s birthday.
And what of the enchanted Isola San Giulio? Well, you can catch a boat to it all year round from the square, so it’s an easy trip. The last time I was there, the villas and palazzos on the shore were lit by a low-slung evening sun in colours of pale sand and amber and terracotta and the lake was sparkling and swallows were wheeling on the water and I could smell the the flowers hanging from the balconies and trailing in the lake. (No, honestly, it really is like that.)
I was there to arrange a supper at the island’s only restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio (Via Basilica 4, +30 0322 90234, ristorantesangiulio.it), in an 18th-century building with ceiling frescoes and a vine-covered lakeside terrace. Unfortunately, the food there is another modern Italian tragedy. Many people have spent hours tactfully pleading with the woman who runs the place not to destroy her ingredients by overcomplicating the cooking, but they have achieved little. Even an unassuming steak comes either raw or leathery, and I defy you to get a sauce. Still everybody goes – it is simply too beautiful a spot to pass up.
A circular interior path leads around the vast Benedictine monastery. In one direction, the signs say “the way of silence” and in the other “the way of meditation”. The interior of the Romanesque basilica is an opulent and near-overwhelming feast of art and sculpture. There is a 12th-century pulpit carved out of serpentine marble from a quarry at nearby Oira; the figures on it are said to be influenced by Saxon carvings – I’ve never heard of this anywhere else in Italy.
I used to spend a lot of time looking across at the bell tower of this basilica (whose chimes drift across the water wherever you are in Orta). After I’d lapped the peninsula, I would run up the Sacro Monte for the spectacular view. At 360m above sea level and 100m above the lake, the jog nearly killed me, but it was worth it. The top of the hill was made a national park in 1980 and its woods and gardens (which hide a further 20 chapels, with more frescoes and statues) are the perfect place to get your breath back.
But my favourite thing to do in Orta is to go skinny-dipping with my partner at night, then to take her to Al Boeuch (Via Bersani 28, +39 339 5840039), a cosy candlelit old taverna on one of the back streets where Andreas serves too many delicious wines and too many tasty cheeses and platters of prosciutto and hot bruschetta. Don’t tell anyone.
• EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Milan Malpensa airport (an hour’s drive from Lake Orta) from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Luton from around £50 return
Edward Docx’s latest novel, The Devil’s Garden (Picador, £12.99), is available from the Guardian Bookshop, price £10.39
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