We stepped off the boat onto a stone wharf and walked up broad shallow steps lit with citronella-scented candles.
Past craggy stone walls studded with ancient metal rings, under terracotta eaves, around a corner smoothed underfoot with a million footsteps, we stepped into a reception hall – dark and uneven – with paintings of religious dramas, and elaborate light fittings.
We were shown our seats, halfway back in a crowd of 50 or so. Two straight-backed musicians entered the room. The pianist sat before an elegant blue spinetta; her partner rested a mandolin in the crook of his arm and spoke at length in Italian before they nodded simply to each other and launched into Bach, Scarletti et al. For two hours they spun a meandering conversation of music, tossing phrases, flinging notes with delicate, poetic energy.
It was beautiful.
Hands clasped to our hearts, we joined the audience’s calls – “bella, bella” – and won two encores.
Isola di San Giulio was the perfect setting for such music. Offshore from medieval Orta, the island is a magical place bristling with mysterious, shuttered villas and a massive, spooky monastery. Very soon after arriving in Orta we took a boat for €5 return to get a closer look at it, because it was irresistible. Around its edge, cave-like boat houses; towering over it, a spindly bell tower.
We walked the one looping path past high walls, wrought iron fences and mossy gardens crowded with hydrangeas and wild roses.
Heavy wooden doors with huge keyholes tempted with their bronze knockers; stone lions prowled and window boxes spilled bright pink and orange flowers. We expected to see crows; I caught a glimpse of a black-robed figure, I’m sure I did.
The small township of Orta is also tantalisingly beautiful, with ancient slate-roofed houses, some dating from the 16th century, overlooking the lake of the same name. It was the first base of our walking tour. The ‘tour’ consisted of detailed maps and instructions that sent us down paths, up steps, across bridges and along tracks – independent and at our own pace, yet supported with arranged accommodation and luggage transfers.
Starting before the heat of the day kicked in, we walked up and out of Orta to a smaller village where artisans repaired and repainted frescos under the eaves of an old hall and old men sipped coffee in the sun. For 16 kilometres all up that day, we walked through farm land, past cemeteries, along forest paths, then up a steep, cobbled path past Stations of the Cross to reach the 17th century Convent of Mesma. There, we lay on stone benches to rest our backs. Once revived, we walked on through more villages, stopping at churches to admire their baroque interiors, past a donkey and her big-eared baby. Before heading back to Orta, we walked up to the sacred Sacro Monte behind the town, where St Francis of
Assisi is honoured and the views of the lake are stunning.
Lake Orta, north-west of Milan, is close enough to Lake Maggiore to possibly consider walking between the two, but the plan we were following only called for us to walk half that distance and, in the heat of Italy’s early summer, that was quite enough. A pre-arranged taxi dropped us at the top of a hill and carried on to Stresa with our bags.
We crossed fields through grassy lanes alongside stone walls. Up through farm land, we came to a road and a small chapel, just as a storm broke. We sheltered under the chapel’s eaves, as thunder cracked dramatically and rain fell heavily. Inside the chapel, a fresco showed a peace dove and, on the far wall, a holy scene. We walked on through a chestnut forest, meeting forked paths and taking the left, then the right, going straight ahead at a shrine, passing tumbled-down barns, meeting a road with a cross marking the path to take, crossing a bridge, noting the views.
Finally, exhausted, we reached Stresa and Hotel du Park which, despite its excellent location, elegance and serenity was, at that moment, most appreciated for its showers.
The itinerary we were working on had the good sense to designate the next day free. We wandered Stresa, a small city with a holiday feel, where promenading, window-shopping and taking slow café meals as the light shifted the shape of surrounding mountains was plenty enough to do. Boatmen hawked rides to nearby Isola Bella, which was not nearly as bella as Orta’s gem, but fascinating all the same, with its summer palace and terraced Italian gardens, complete with baroque statues, white peacocks and topiary.
At night the lights sparkled over the lake, diamantes on velvet.
Bells woke us the next morning, as often happens in Italy. Outside my hotel window, the blue sky was full of dancing swallows.
We took a ferry across and up Lake Maggiore to The Cannero Riviera, a tiny town strung along the lakefront, boasting lush gardens, cobbled alleys and a beach of grainy shingle thick with bronzed bodies. The Hotel Cannero, where we stayed two nights, has fifth-generation owners and is a lovely, stately old thing with a lake-front terrace for civilised, end-of-day wine drinking.
Another day of walking took us up beyond Cannero, past its old port, up cobbled streets and tight stone-walled paths for views of the lake. Then, up higher, past an ancient hamlet accessible only by foot, past a 14th-century church, through fairytale territory, disturbing lizards and one snake – up, up, through the home turf of cuckoo and woodpeckers. Up we went, to see wide sky views over the lake, hills falling into the water, their colours melding from blues to greens. We walked stone steps put there a thousand years ago.
Once clear of the forest, we saw we were high above Cannero and carried on down lanes leading past big villas, secretive and intriguing, shuttered against the heat. Old orchards showed off apple trees the size of houses, and figs, nectarines and pear trees. New gardens, full of beans and potatoes and grapes, burst at the seams.
Descending, zig-zagging down, the road changed from very narrow and cobbled to narrow and tarred. Around bends, through dappled shade into bright, harsh sun, then down, finally, to the lake. We stripped off, slipped into togs and fell into the blissfully freezing water.
Around us, Sunday holidaymakers lay about in tanned skins, heating slowly before swimming. They were oblivious to the fact we’d just completed a six-hour walk. And while we could have joined them for the day, it was more than earning the swim that motivated the effort we’d made. By taking tracks away from base and exploring under the skin of the place, we were rewarded with detail – of particular scents, of the sound of distant bells, of the sight of dappled metal-like water shining from above, and the memory of music played on centuries-old instruments, in the hall of a villa, on an island, on a lake, in Italy, one warm summer night.
How to get there
Cathay Pacific flies every day from Auckland to Milan via Hong Kong
Where to stay
InnTravel provides accommodation, luggage transfer and detailed walking instructions for self-guided tours. We took the seven-night Lake Orta to Lake Maggiore option