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Described by 19th century French novelist Honere Balzac as a "grey pearl in a green jewel box," Lake Orta in the Piedmont region of Italy has been the muse of poets, writers and philosophers for hundreds of years. Inspired by the 4,482-acre lake's beauty, Frederich Nietzsche used it as a writer's retreat in the late 1800's and wrote "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" looking out over the sparkling waters of what the Italians call Lago d'Orta. Today Lake Orta is a popular destination for Italians, but remains relatively unknown by the rest of the world. Tucked away in northern Italy, the lake that English poet Robert Browning wrote of as the place where "Alp meets heaven in snow," is a gem waiting to be treasured.
Lago d'Orta is the western most glacial lake in Italy and the seventh largest by both volume and depth in the country. Running north to south, the lake is over eight miles long and a mile and a half wide with a maximum depth of 469 feet. The outlet forms the Niguglia River at the north end of the lake. Lake Orta suffered from industrial wastewater pollution during the 20th century, damaging the lake's ecology and commercial fishery. Concerted environmental efforts are helping Lago d'Orta and the fishery to recover, but the process is slow since the water residence time in the lake is more than 10 years.
In addition to the arctic char introduced to Lake Orta in 1914 through 1916, today anglers will find populations of eel, pike, tench, perch and burbot. Motorboat tours are a great way to explore the lake, and there are also boats available for hire. Swimming, scuba diving, and sailing are all popular lake pastimes, and kayaking around San Giulio Island is a perfect way to spend the day.
San Giulio Island, or Isola di San Giulio as it's known in Italian, is 902 feet long and 450 feet wide. According to legend, a huge serpent used to terrorize the island until the area's patron saint, St. Giulio, chased it away. The island and the village of Orta San Giulio on the opposite shore are both named after the fourth century saint, and originally the lake was called Lago di San Giulio in Italian. It was renamed and has been Lake Orta since the 16th century. The Basilica of San Giulio is the largest building on the island, and the Romanesque church has frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries. A narrow street winds around the island and visitors can stroll around the charming island before taking the hired boat back to the village.
The village of Orta San Giulio sits on a peninsula jutting into the lake from its eastern shore. Balconies with iron balustrades look out over the lake, and slate tiles top the roofs of many of the quaint village's buildings. Restaurants, holiday villas and vacation rentals are all available along Lake Orta's shores. Omegna is at the north end of the lake, and there are a few small villages dotted on the shore. Lake Orta is not as populated as nearby Lake Maggiore, however, and stays much quieter. Olive groves around the lake give way to chestnut forests and then beech trees as the elevation climbs. Mottarone, 4,544 feet tall, separates Lake Orta from Lake Maggiore and provides visitors with a variety of winter sports including skiing.
Just 44 miles from Milan, Lago d'Orta has all the charm of a rustic Italian village with accessibility to the best in sophisticated Italian culture. It shines with the beauty of a baroque pearl, better for its rough nature, and is sure to inspire visitors for centuries to come.
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