10 July 2016

Orta San Giulio, May 2-4: Shhh. Don't tell anyone!

During our trip to Italy in May, we'd often be asked: Where else are you visiting while you're here? And when we'd tell them that Lago d'Orta was on our itinerary, we'd get this quizzical look.

"How do you know about Orta?" they'd ask. Then they'd usually tell us that the town of Orta San Giulio was sort of a quiet little resort town usually only visited by other Italians. I couldn't tell if they were impressed that we were such savvy travelers, or worried that their little, secret gem might get overrun by Americans. 

Lago d'Orta - Photo taken by a very nice French tourist
We got the travel tip from a friend (an American friend) who was a former travel agent and had stayed there. When we were planning our trip, we mentioned to her that we wanted to spend some time in the Italian Lakes region, probably Lake Como. She told us about Orta and the wonderful hotel where she and her husband has stayed. We looked into it and decided to stay there as well.

This was definitely the most relaxing part of our trip. Our stay in Orta followed a pretty busy week that included Paris and Milan. After those two busy cities, we were ready for some quiet relaxation. 

When we arrived in Orta (about a 90 minute drive from Milan depending on traffic), the sky was bright and sunny and the temperature was pleasantly cool. From our hotel window, we could see the Alps in the distance with snow-covered peaks. We later learned that they had had a week of cold rain in Orta before we arrived and lots of fresh snow at the higher elevations. Over the course of our 3-day stay, we saw the snow-line gradually recede and eventually disappear as the more typical May temperatures melted it. 

After we got checked in to our hotel, we took a walk around town to get acclimated. We followed a road up the hill above the town, Sacro Monte di Orta, one of a series of 'sacred mountains' in Italy. The devotional complex at the top of the hill includes 20 chapels and a church. The whole complex overlooks the town and the lake and the island (Isola San Giulio) with its basilica and monastery. At the top of the hill, we wanted a photo taken. We asked another couple to take the photo. Trouble was, they didn't speak English. But somehow, 'foto' seems to be universally recognizable, and they took a photo that's one of my favorites from our trip.

When we got done with our hike, the weather was just so gorgeous and inviting that we stopped into a little shop and bought a bottle of prosecco. We brought wine glasses from our room down to the lawn by the lake and drank it in the late afternoon sun. It was such a fun experience that we did it again each of the remaining two nights we spent at Orta. 
Our daily ritual, prosecco by the Lake

We did have our car, and we considered driving to other nearby villages. But Orta San Giulio was just so quaint and inviting that in the end, we just stayed there. Both days we hiked on the paths along the lake and into the hills above it. One day was market day in town. We enjoyed browsing thru the market and shopping. 

Our stay in Orta was ahead of the main tourist season. Still, during the day there were a lot of day-trippers in town. But they were gone by dinner time, and we mostly had the town to ourselves. 

Hotel: The hotel recommended by our friends was the Hotel San Rocco. It was gorgeous. Now, despite the fact that English-speaking tourists are not common in Orta, we were able to communicate with the staff at the San Rocco just fine. There are two buildings in the hotel complex. We chose a room in the villa rather than the main building. Our room was spacious and comfortable. We didn't have a balcony and our window overlooked the town rather than the lake. But the rooms in the villa are slightly less expensive, and definitely nice and quiet. The hotel has a very elegant restaurant and bar. We probably should have eaten there at least one night, but we didn't. It also has extensive banquet facilities, and we read that it's a common wedding venue. But during our stay, there were no events. 

Day 1: We wandered down the street from our hotel to the town square to find a place to eat. This is when we discovered that the day-trippers who had filled the streets earlier were gone and many of the restaurants were closed or had very few customers. We ended up at Ristorante Venus, primarily because it had a few customers and we knew we wouldn't be eating alone. We had an adequate but not noteworthy dinner. Linda had mini ravioli stuffed with Guinea hen. Good but kind of rich. My meal was better - lamb chops with roasted potatoes and onions. The lamb was cooked perfectly and was tender and flavorful. For dessert, Linda had a chestnut mousse that she didn't really like very much. I had a pear Napoleon that was quite tasty. Probably the highlight of the dinner was the wine. Linda had a white that she'd tasted in Minneapolis and loved (Gabi). I had a glass of Prunotto Barolo for only €6! (A precursor to our stay in Barolo coming up next on our itinerary.)

Day 2: This night we 'discovered' La Motta which turned out to be a brand new restaurant, only about 2 weeks in business. They were very accommodating, and eager to make a good impression. The menu was all in Italian, but our server (who might have been the owner) very patiently translated for us. After we ordered, we were brought an amuse bouche of buratta cheese with flakes of dried horseradish. We started with a 'salmon trout' very lightly cured in orange juice (like a ceviche) with tiny dollops of caramelized red onions and a delicate yogurt sauce. Linda's entree was a fresh fish caught from Lake Orta served with thin shavings of vegetables. I had gnoccetti with fresh perch also caught in Orta. For dessert, we split a scoop of gelato in a chocolate shell with candied walnuts. When they served it, they poured a hot orange liqueur over it. Delicious. Our wine for the evening was a local white wine.
Dinner at Cafe des Artes

Day 3: We always like to try to find restaurants that also have live music, and we'd read about one in Orta called the Jazz Cafe, but we couldn't find it in town. Finally we realized that it had changed owners and changed names. So on our last night, we ate at Cafe des Artes. When we came into the cafe, there was only one table of diners. But as we sat, others trickled in and eventually it was almost full. We really enjoyed the meal. It was more like a neighborhood Italian cafe rather than a tourist cafe. We ordered a salad to start, but they brought our entrees almost immediately after. Later we realized it was because of the Italian tradition of eating salad after the main course. We had a nice dinner and enjoyed the ambiance. But alas, no music. 

Click here to view more pictures from our stay at Orta. 

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