One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops. Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.
Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.
The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns. The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times. These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.
There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation. On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.
I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church. The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again! Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.
The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings. Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built. The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari. In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.
I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.
Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.