LAKE ORTA/ SAN GIULIO
Once again we are hiking up narrow cobblestone streets, up through mountain villages to our next destination. To refresh your memory the Northern Lakes region of Italy covers the areas of Lombard, Piedmont, Trentino and Veneto, nestled beneath the southern foothills of the Alps near the border of Switzerland (for a deeper refresher course – reread the first blog of this series). We have ventured all around the “running man” lake area of Bellagio and Como, trekked west to Lake Maggiore and across the border to Switzerland and Lake Lugano and now have continued our westerly path to another sliver lake, Lake Orta – see F-H, 1-2 on the bigger map below:
Lake Orta is actually separated from Lake Maggiore by the Mottarone peak (Monte Mottarone is 4,892 ft high) and is the smallest of the lakes we have visited. It is not its diminutive size that makes it so captivating, however, but rather the medieval cast and palpable spiritual aura that hits us as soon as we reach our hotel, the Hotel San Rocco – which happens to be a former 17th century convent – we can almost the Franciscan chants:
Not only is the hotel lovely – it directly overlooks Isola di San Giulio, a picturesque island of tranquility (see pic at top of post and below) and one of our next stops, and one of the few that require motorized transportation in the guise of a motor launch that departs from a quaint jetty:
Upon our early morning arrival on the island we are immediately aware of a hushed ambiance – no doubt created by the Romanesque Basilica di Giulio that is directly in front of us. Going inside this feeling persists as we are told the history of the area. The Basilica was built on the remains of an earlier 9th century construction. The frescoes covering the walls were painted between the 14th and the 19th centuries, and are almost all images of saints. The sacristy houses a large fossilized vertebra hung from the centre of the vault, which according to legend belonged to one of the terrible dragons which, along with assorted serpents supposedly inhabited the island before being driven out by San Giulio. A crypt below the high altar has a glass casket of the remains of San Giulio. The most valuable work of art in the Basilica is this medieval pulpit made of black marble:
Now just because we are on a small island doesn’t mean we get a break from hiking up hills as we next trek up to visit the 1000 year-old monastery. The nuns here are sequestered in the convent, but we do have access to a series of paths between the high walls of the monastery created to encourage pilgrims to seek enlightenment. There are two ways to go: The Way of Meditation and The Way of Silence:
We chose the Way of Silence and at intervals we see signs set to help us navigate our thoughts:
It is not hard to keep silent – as the spiritual beauty surrounding us all but commands quiet contemplation:
And yes, steep stone steps make their present known constantly – and again seemingly always uphill:
Ah, but our day is just beginning – we return to the motor coach for our return trip to the mainland – and even this short excursion offered more excellent views to encourage our contemplative thoughts:
Next on the docket is another hike UP through the woods and in keeping with the spiritual theme of the day our destination is Sacro Monte – a group of 21 chapels built between the end of the 16th and the end of the 18th centuries dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. The park is hushed and sombre – as if knowing, the sun slipped behind clouds so no beams brightened the paths – it was a perfect setting:
Actually found some STEPS GOING DOWN! (initially).
Even the buildings and statues proclaimed this a special place from another time:
So all was peaceful and quiet and contemplative – and then we came to the last chapel – I will let you see the interior first before commenting – so you can have an unbiased first reaction:
These are NOT paintings – they are life-size terra-cotta figures sculpted to depict Pope Gregory IX giving the Franciscan Father General a Papal Bull of canonization while cardinals, bishops and ambassadors of kings and princes look on.
The entranceway to the chapel was dark and so it was initially hard to see but when I focussed I almost backed out thinking I was interrupting an actual religious service – that’s my shadow in the foreground of the last picture. These figures were so lifelike, so well-formed that at any moment I expected them to start moving and speaking – and that frankly creeped me out.
By this time the weather has gotten very inclement and we still had a number of miles to go before reaching the restaurant for lunch. A few very stalwart members of our party decided to hike on down, but considering the steepness of the incline and the slippery nature of the wet leaves and stones – I was happy to be offered any type of alternative. I never expected this to be my transportation salvation:
We got to the Ristorante Olina Orta San Giulio within minutes and relatively dry. The hiking group arrived somewhat later, bedraggled and wet – but was cheered immediately by copious amounts of wine and this setting:
To cap off a very full day and to continue with the much more festive mood we were now in – our guide Giampiero had us laughing and gasping at his “lecture” on the important hand and facial gestures needed to converse properly with an Italian. Unfortunately my video of this didn’t make the transition to the states – so I will leave you to imagine what was said and done
I did find this online that may help you imagine our fun – Francesco on the right was doubled over at one point. Giampiero was much more animated than the figures below (NB: there are some vulgarities):
Giampiero was so MUCH better in person – did I mention that he is an actor and has been in many movies? A matinée idol for sure!!
More adventures to come. Stay Tuned! CIAO!