Lake Orta is a silent ambience surrounded lake found in the northern region of Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing … well, the number of visitors. Indeed, it is astonishing how few people – even Italians – know about the place, and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore. But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty – though the place is absurdly pretty – but the lake’s mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul there as well as for the eye. This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre (of which more below), but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting: the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk never to lift again. Sometimes the fierce sun burns for days as if no other climate were even possible. And sometimes the föhn wind thrashes the lake into fury. The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there’s a medieval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended. You never want to leave. My association with the place began over a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake’s principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a London place to buy an apartment there. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time there working on my second novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate. The lake has always been popular with writers. In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all came here. A British-run poetry festival in September (poetryonthelake.org) has featured the likes of Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Poets from all over the world come to read and replenish and indulge their imaginations. Orta San Giulio is built on the slopes of a steep hill (the Sacro Monte) that forms a peninsula jutting out into the lake. By day it looks longingly toward the beautiful island. By night, the gaze becomes even more amorous when the island is lit up and appears to float on dark water glistening with reflections. The Italian Lakes haven’t given up all their treasures to tourists quite yet. Our writer reveals Orta, the enchanting lake the Milanese have kept to themselves.
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