Travel /

A Corner of Italy Still Immune from the Noise of Modern Progress: Lake Orta

“While salty water makes you float, sweet water makes you think.”

My whole existence I’ve been asked one question. The usual, the first one used to introduce each other. Where do you come from? My answer, of course, stayed unvaried: I come from Lago. 

“Which Lago? I suppose lake Como!” 

“No! Actually I live between two lakes, both a little less known. Maggiore and Orta. It is in Piedmont, but very close to Lombardia. Almost Switzerland…”. 

“Ah, ok, Switzerland! So beautiful up there!” 

Of course this was just a stereotypical dialogue, though this feeling of being from somewhere so specific, touristic, and at the same time not, influenced who I became and how I perceived my roots much later. 

As a little girl, the escape to the city life felt as the only chance to affirm my identity and to become a woman. An Italian woman, surely, and forever, but more and more a ‘no country woman’, quoting Virginia Woolf’s words: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” When you live away from what is considered “home,” as it mostly represents family and the place you were physically born, your perception of it varies. It becomes almost like a myth, and coming back home feels like dying and resurrecting at the same time. 

In the past few years the place where I’m from, let’s call it Lago, started to entertain a new kind of tourism. The big hotels stayed, but a sudden development of hidden Airbnbs, rustic farmhouses, private homes and so on, drew a new group of tourists. Those who didn’t seek fancy boat trips and decent pastas but something more. The call for authenticity, visiting somewhere long forgotten, seems to have been answered. 

This new flourishing tourism talked about a ‘new vintage’ kind of tourism, maybe a modern Grand Tour, one that never ended? Somewhere the ecological tourism never landed, perhaps because there wasn’t a need for it; to look for something which is simply there, whether people will actually visit or not. 

Here the announcements of houses for sale are in Russian and German as the foreigners continue to snap up priceless real estate around the lakes. The navigators of boats little or big hurry to catch tourists and take them to the islands. 

Whether you are from these parts, or arrive from outside, a stroll in Stresa or Orta is mandatory – even if there is nothing to do but admire a postcard landscape that floods your eyes. 

Rest assured, special places hide just slightly behind the corner. Known, heard before, and yet still difficult to find on the map. The first one which feels really refreshing is Libreria Spalavera, located in Pallanza (VB). An antique and second hand bookseller dedicated specifically to fanatics of aesthetically pleasing covers’. An old tea-bar room turned library is the surprise you were probably waiting for. To find your favorite classic book in a special edition or even some unique and hard to acquire antique gems. Watch out for the Campari sign in the main corso and you’ll know you’ve arrived. 

Moving to Orta’s more intimate waters, two favorites are Fondazione Calderara, located in Vacciago (Ameno), a lovely hill village facing the lake, and Gelateria Antica Torre, in Pella, showcasing the best gelato (and crêpe) you will probably have in your life. The first, a museum house founded by local collector Antonio Calderara, hosts more than 327 sculptures and paintings mainly from contemporary Italian artists in small 7th century palace-like rooms. Here Piero Manzoni and Fontana can face an unknown graphic from the late 1960s. A perfect example of a surprise behind every corner it is worth an annual visit. The second is a simple gelateria in Orta facing Pella, a town less touristy than the city which names the lake… more authentic and less bourgeois, a town originally industrial and for the working class. Antica Torre uses the best ingredients producing the creamiest gelato. You can match it with a delicious crêpe too, just in case. Last but not least the true and only spiritual center of the lake, Monte Mesma, a 600 meter high perch located 15 minutes away from the waterfront and populated by Franciscan monks. Take a quick 20 minute hike to the top in the early morning. Lay on the stone and observe the whole lake waking up. A prayer to the earth, sun and water is sort of mandatory too. 

Lakes can be interpreted, like my father once said to me, as ‘the sea within us.” Like little internal seas, they may be perceived as mysterious, secret, and intimate. In this way, they function as a new kind of meditative action, especially when thinking about the new tourism, which escapes chaos and commercial spots. It is not a coincidence that such personalities and innovative entrepreneurs as Giovanni Alessi (founder of namesake design company based in Omegna), Alfonso Bialetti (the founder of the moka) and writer and thinker Gianni Rodari came from the little Lake Orta, as it is even more intimate than Maggiore. 

While salty water makes you float, sweet water makes you think. From the inside to the surrounding and the other way around.