You know where you are with Italy: spag bol; olive overcoats and tan brogues; nuns.
But it still has surprises in store, and one of them is Lake Orta, a secret part of this boot-shaped country, right near the top of the zip. It’s got everything: there’s culture, sculpture, highland, island, mountains and fountains. It may not be the best-known body of water in the Italian lake district – that accolade probably goes to Lake Como, where film stars such as George Clooney and other hunks in trunks hang out – but it is gorgeous.
It appears, long and skinny, as you head down a hill in the north of the country where it brushes the southern end of Switzerland.A delectable island called Isola di San Giulio sits in the middle of the lake like a little green full stop. It’s named after the 4th Century patron saint of the region, St Julius, and is dominated by the beautiful old buildings of a working monastery.
To get to the hidden gem that is Lake Orta, you arrive at Milan airport and head towards snow-capped peaks until you almost literally fall into it. The recently refurbished Hotel L’Approdo has stunning views over the lake and the foothills of the Alps, and seriously helpful staff. One of them gave us a lift up the road to a restaurant, because we couldn’t get a taxi in time for our dinner reservation one evening. Now THAT is helpful.
To go and have a closer look at the island, my easy-on-the-eye companion and I hopped on to a boat captained by a man of a certain age wearing navy shorts and a peaked cap, thus inspiring a degree of confidence. Mind you, everyone dresses up in this country, so he might have been the man who bleeds the radiators. We whipped over the water and stopped with a bump at a wooden pontoon before stepping into a quieter age. Old, terracotta-coloured walls rose into the sky, dotted with small windows and swathed in ivy. Tiny silver fish darted in the clear water. Then the blazing sunlight was left behind as we headed into the basilica.
Now, I can take or leave the average church, but this one is something else. While much of the interior is like a blousy hydrangea, in pinks and blues, there is a gorgeous 12th Century section. A medieval pulpit, made of grey-green serpentine stone from the lakeside village of Oira on the west bank, features a centaur with a bow and arrow attacking a deer, and a griffon posing victoriously by a vanquished crocodile/dragon. There is an enormous sword hanging down one side, which apparently belonged to Abbot William of Volpiano, born on the island in 962 while it was being besieged by the Emperor Otto I. Outside the basilica, worn flagstones make up a path round the island named The Way of Silence. (I managed a couple of minutes.) It winds its way along the outer walls of the monastery, past a small shop where you can buy pottery nick-nacks and ice cream, and also past a handy hostelry where you can sit and silently contemplate.
Or drink beer and noisily eat crisps. As the moon scooted up, hovered over the mountains and shimmered on the lake, we dined under a canopy of vine leaves at Il Giardinetto. You know the food is going to be good when there are big tables of Italians eating there. In true Meg Ryan style, I merely pointed and said: ‘I’ll have what they’re having.’
Lights twinkled round the lake, the wine bottle magically drained itself… and it was back to the most comfortable bed in the world. The Piedmont area is big on rice and wine. Arborio rice, the choice of risotto connoisseurs, comes from the Padana plains nearby, while Barolo and Asti Spumante are both made in the region. There’s apparently a saying: ‘Rice is born in water and dies in wine’ – a reference to the wine used at the beginning of the cooking process.
A two-hour drive from Lago d’Orta is Locanda del Pilone, where you can sample the results of the Langhe vineyards and then stay in delectable rooms.
‘This is my kind of hotel,’ said my carrier of the corkscrew, refusing to move from a table laden with bottles.
Manager Saverio Taliano told us: ‘This used to be a farmhouse like everywhere else, where people just used to make wine for themselves – essentially, it was a farm with a little winery attached. ‘Now we have 120,000 bottles a year from the estate.’
The closest town is Alba, from where large quantities of Ferrero Rocher chocolates are exported to ambassadors around the world so they can spoil their guests.
And it’s where Nutella was created because of the vast number of hazelnuts hanging about. The boss at Ferrero decided,in a happy lightbulb moment, to combine them both.
‘It is also the capital city of white truffles,’ said Saverio. ‘Right,’ said the grape-botherer, waving a breadstick in the air. ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Eventually, back at the hotel, he was delighted by the menu and we had mushroom tagliatelle, packed full of mottarone mushrooms picked a stone’s throw away. The service here is superlative, but it does mean you end up eating far more than you Orta. Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.
The next day, a 45-minute drive into the mountains over a wide river full of glacial moraine, brings us to Varallo, which proclaims itself The City of Artists. There’s a theatre, a huge church (it’s Italy, of course there’s a huge church), an art museum with marvellously gory biblical scenes, and a cable car in which, for about £2, you can pop up the mountain and meander around a spectacular collection of chapels containing tableaux with life-sized sculptures made of wood and plaster, telling the story of Christ. And this is the killer… many of them have REAL HAIR.
I particularly liked the smiley horses, grinning no matter that their master is being disembowelled. In fact, they looked as if they had trotted in from a Disney production.
The Sacro Monte of Varallo, as it’s called, was founded in the 15th Century, and it couldn’t have been built in a better spot, with glorious views over snow-capped peaks.
‘Many people round here have huts in these mountains,’ our guide Francesca told us. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ she said thoughtfully.
Our last supper was at the nearby Villa Crespi, a fairytale gingerbread mansion – all fancy curlicues and flourishes. Birds swooped and frolicked in the setting sun and a flock of smartly clad staff flitted about, as you might expect in a twostarred Michelin gaff. People ship in from miles around to dine here, and it was no surprise when my wine-wielder declared: ‘Utterly orgasmic. I’m dying right here, right now.’ Tiny squid with linguine is what did it to him. ‘Goodness is not in the heart alone,’ the chef is quoted as saying. No, it isn’t. It’s also in this sentence: goodness, this place is fantastic.
Arrivederci Lago d’Orta, I’ll be back…
The Hotel Ristorante L’Approdo (www.approdohotelorta.com) offers standard doubles from £72. The Locanda del Pilone (www.locandadelpilone.com) has doubles from £120.
You can find standard double rooms at the Hotel Ristorante Il Giardinetto (www.giardinettohotel.com) from £68, while the Villa Crespi (villacrespi.it) offers classic rooms from £200. British Airways (0844 493 0758, http://www.ba.com/milan) offers a seven-night fly-drive to Milan from £209 per person in January 2013. The price includes return flights from Heathrow and Avis car rental. Penny used the motoscafisti.com boats to reach San Giulio Island.