Orta Lake (Cusio)
Discovering the alpine lake rich in history and art
Lake Orta, named after the village of Orta that overlooks its eastern shore, or otherwise known by the ancient name of Cusio,, extends for over 18 km2 and for a perimeter of 33 km on the edge of the Piedmontese Alps. The basin extends along the south northerly direction for about 13 km parallel to Lake Maggiore, from which it is separated by the Mergozzolo massif, while a mountainous group separates it from the Val Sesia to the west. The outfall of the lake is a tributary of the Toce river, which is reached at the end of the valley to the north, while many tributary streams pour their waters mainly from the west bank. Due to its position and limited extension compared to the other large pre-alpine lakes, the Orta does not have particularly intense thermal winds. This aspect, together with the reduced traffic of boats, allows a particularly easy navigation, while the beauty of the valley and the value of the historical sites that overlook it make the excursion truly memorable. The history of the lake begins in fact in ancient times and continues in the early Middle Ages when on the island of San Giulio in the middle of the lake were built basilica and castle, on the remains of which stands the nineteenth-century bishop's seminary, now a Benedictine abbey. In the last century the industrialization of the valley led to a serious pollution and acidification of the water, a phenomenon currently under control.
The kayak tour can start from the small port of Ortello south of the promontory of the Sacred Mount of Orta (the chapels, convents and seventeenth-century church that arise there are recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site) and continue along the east coast around the peninsula where the ancient town of Orta stands. The village overlooks the lake with neoclassical villas, noble palaces and old fishermen's houses. From the shore you can see the arcade Piazza Motta closed on one side by the sixteenth-century Broletto or palace of the community. From this square depart then various streets lined with medieval and Renaissance buildings. Numerous stopovers and boat shelters are set up in the foundations of the ancient buildings that border the lake. At the end of the tour of the mountain you can see the profile and the tower of the villa Crespi built in eclectic Moorish style at the end of the nineteenth century.
The route continues along the eastern shore characterized by a succession of villages (Pettenasco, Crabbia, Borca), connected by road and rail in many places adjacent to the shore. The village of Omegna is the main centre of the valley and extends into the final bend of the lake at the sides of the Nigoglia outfall, whose course is interrupted by a lock right in the centre of the village. Omegna has modern buildings and tree-lined promenades on the lake front, while inside it preserves the evidence of its medieval history, such as the soaring bell tower of the Romanesque church of Sant'Ambrogio.
Returning along the west coast, you will skirt a high bank covered with thick woodland. Here the villages are located at high altitude with the exception of small docks such as Oira and Ronco. The streams flowing into the lake descend rapidly from this side, in some cases creating real waterfalls. Almost in front of Orta and the Island of San Giulio you will find the village of Pella with a beautiful lakeside promenade dominated by a massive medieval tower. The village is dominated by steep granite hills on which stands the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso with spectacular views of the entire lake. The lower lake is characterized by a succession of tree-lined coastlines, beaches, equipped ports of call and overlooking modern residences. At the southern end of the lake on a green hill stands an ancient quadrangular tower. This is what remains of a large military complex of the twelfth century to guard the valley of the lake.
The jewel of the territory is the island of San Giulio that faces the center of Lake Orta and Pella. Already a Longobard fortress then transformed into a village, it has some particularly important historical buildings such as the Romanesque Basilica of San Giulio, whose facade faces the lake. The island is dominated by the large neoclassical complex of the Benedictine abbey Mater Ecclesiae. In some places it is possible to land in order to complete the visit of the suggestive village on foot.
The complex of the Sacred Mount of Orta is part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites for its historical, artistic and cultural value, together with the other Sacred Alpine Mountains in northern Italy and Ticino. Located among the green woods on top of a hill overlooking the lake, the Sacred Mount has 21 chapels built between the end of the sixteenth and the end of the eighteenth century with frescoes and terracotta sculptures on the life of St. Francis. The pictorial and plastic works are a real heritage of art and were created by talented artists of the time (the Flemish, Christopher Prestinari, Dionigi Bussola and the Morazzone), but equally interesting are the natural aspects of the promontory. In 1980 the Piedmont region established the Special Reserve of the Sacred Mount of Orta to protect this environment.