Lake Como is beautiful - but it's hardly off the beaten track. Less than an hour's drive from Milan and made famous by celebrities like Georgei Clooney who have summer residences in the stunning region, but just next door lies the lesser known Lake Maggiore, and it's baby sister Lake Orta.
It would be wrong to say that these lakes are yet to be discovered - they're well trodden by tourists and set up for large groups making day trips from surrounding cities - but the volume of visitors is still relatively low and the villages ooze charm and retain a sleepy Italian attitude that make Como's towns seem like a metropolises in comparison.
It took us just over an hour to drive from Cernobbio to Orta San Guilo - a journey we didn't want to be underprepared for, so after a delicious breakfast at the Casa Santa Stefano and a sad goodbye to the gorgeous guest house (I will be back!) we stopped in town to stock up on snacks and caffeine. The market that had greeted us in Lenno the previous day appeared to have made it's way down the road and set up camp in Cernobbio for the morning. Locals of all ages buzzed around the stalls like flies, stocking up on their weekly supplies while others just sat back to take in the morning light over the lake.
After a quick wander we made one quick stop on our way out of town at Villa D'Este - a five star hotel and one of the finest in Como (if not Italy?!) What was a residence of local aristocracy for centuries, is now an elegant resort - think white table clothes, waiters in morning suits and fresh flowers tumbling from every orifice.
And the gardens. Oh the gardens.
With no less than 51 fountains within the grounds, we didn't have time to explore them all and only made it as far as the Fountain of Neptune and the lower gardens. I'm sure you could lose yourself for a day or two trying to take in the lot.
But we had places to be - onwards to Orta! We were back on the motorway for most of the journey making it quick and painless - especially when service stations serve up these kinds of goodies...
The town of Orta San Giulio, the lake's principle town, is built on the slopes of a steep hill that forms a peninsula jutting out into the lake. Arriving by car to our hotel, the sat nav took us off the main road via a 90- degree bend onto a near vertical cobblestone path no wider than our Fiat, down to the reception entrance. It made quite the impression as we drew up to the old converted monastery which stood towering above the little Piazza we'd pulled into.
Having dumped our bags we set out to explore - we were only there for one night so ignoring the threat of rain we donned our waterproof jackets and set off into the village centre through the tangle of narrow lanes and picturesque streets. What makes Orta different is that it's oddly mysterious and somehow magical - it's absurdly pretty with stunning architecture set against a backdrop of mountains and the light (particularly on a partly cloudy day) seemed to change by the minute.
Our first port of call (pun intended!) was a boat trip to the the little Island of San Giulio in the middle of the lake. There is a public ferry which goes every half hour, or, for an extra couple of euros you can jump on a water taxi and go anytime you like - given it was pretty much pouring with rain at this point that's exactly what we did.
Legend has it that the island, which lies not more than 400 metres from the lakefront of Orta, was once a bare rock inhabited by snakes and terrible monsters, until the day in 390 when San Giulio landed, crossing the lake on his cloak and guided in the storm by his staff. Here the Saint founded a church, which he later chose to be buried in, and transformed the island into a centre of evangelization of the whole area. Having arrived on the island, we climbed the short flight of steps to the Basilica, the bishop’s palace and the Benedictine abbey, the island’s main attraction, before walking the narrow street that circles the whole island.
It's known as the "way of silence and meditation" and along the way you'll see quotes encouraging spirituality and reflection. It doesn't take long to do the loop and tour the basilica (30 minutes max) but it's well worth the short trip, even if just to be able to look back at the mainland across the water.
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the town in-between regular stops for drinks to enjoy the ever-changing view.
Before heading back to our hotel to enjoy it some more. As dusk fell around us, the lake flattened out to a millpond and local fisherman took to the water in their tin boats. An entertaining spectacle in itself as they set about catching dinner in the soft evening light.
We headed back into town for dinner at a restaurant we'd picked out earlier - for such a small, quaint place, Orta San Giulio is actually home to a number of very fancy restaurants, all of them highly rated on TripAdvisor and some even with Michelin Star recognition, but somehow none of the menus really blew us away - overly fussy and the restaurants were hidden away in back streets - which we just couldn't justify when this was on offer.
We settled for a homemade traditional pizza (and a side of salad - day 4 in Italy and we seriously needed some greens!) to enjoy what was left of the daylight. Heading home with a cone of gelato in one hand, my husbands palm in the other and very happy heart, we fell into bed for a well earned sleep after a wonderfully romantic day on Lake Orta!