Von Orta An | From Orta Onwards
Lake Orta, one of the smallest and least-known of northern Italy's sub-Alpine lakes, is a place for sublime moments. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who visited the lake in May 1882 and believed that the experience changed his life forever, inscribed the date "von Orta an" ("from Orta onwards") as a preface to his masterpiece Thus Spake Zarathustra.
From the inquisitor:
Strangely, despite such praise, Orta seems nowadays to have become rather a secret place - so secluded that many Italians have never heard of it.
But to those who know its fairy-tale setting, the lake is Cenerentola (Cinderella): the beautiful, self-effacing maiden ordered to stay at home while her flashy elder sisters go to the ball. As visitors flock eastwards to the comparative fleshpots of the nearby, much larger Lake Maggiore, pretty Orta offers altogether quieter, more mystical pleasures.
At the center of the lake, there is St Julius's island, home to the haunting music that greeted our arrival at the lake,
encapsulates that mysticism in miniature. It houses an ancient basilica and a 19th-century seminary. The island is oval in shape, with the bell-tower of the basilica standing aloft at the sharper end of the landmass. Especially when floodlit in the evening, it looks for all the world like a mast or a look-out tower on some magical holy ship.
At 1,200ft above sea level and 325ft above the lake, the Sacro Monte di San Francesco national park is simply extraordinary - a hilltop plateau laid out with 20 chapels dedicated to the life of St Francis of Assis - situated among the green forests at the top of the hill dominating Lake Orta.
All the chapels are unique in design; the range of architectural styles reflecting the fact that building took place over a 200-year period. The earliest, as you might expect, are the simplest.
Sacro Monte was designated a National Park in 1980. The chapels are built like a village, amid winding lanes and woods. Walkways are tucked away behind ancient hedges or meander through scatterings of wild flowers. It's nature at its loveliest and feels a world away from anywhere. Bees buzz, birds sing - but the rest is silence.
And below you, green and tranquil, Lake Orta lies dreamily on her mountain bed - the sleeping princess of the fairy tale.