AMONG the many merits of the Simplon tunnel is also this, that it is reviving the interest of the travelling public in an idyllic bit of lake country, intensely Italian in character, the Riviera and Lago d’Orta. The railroad from Domo d’Ossola, going southward to Novara, runs along the eastern shore of Lake Orta and high above this unique mountain lake, which lies pensive sweet be-low in a deep basin whose sides are formed by steep cliffs and abrupt slopes, rising in an amphitheatre of mutual admiration, and culminating in great swelling mountain forms clad with forests. By virtue of the attraction of the Simplon tunnel it may happen that the traveller who suddenly catches a glimpse of this unique fairy lake may have landed but the day before in the seaport of Genoa from a transatlantic voyage, or coming from the north may have spent the preceding morning amid the glaciers of Switzerland.
East and west, delightful passes also give access to Lago d’Orta, one from Lago Maggiore over Monte Motterone, and another from Varallo in the Val Sesia over the Colle di Colma. There are also carriage roads from Arona by way of Gozzano, or from Gravellona to Omegna, and mule paths connect the nestling villages among the forests of chestnut-trees.
Little Lago d’Orta, thus set among the heights, is in striking contrast to Lago Maggiore, with its grand expanses and magnificent distances.
Sir John Lubbock, in ” The Scenery of Switzerland,” points out that Lago d’Orta, contrary to the other Italian lakes, has its outflow to the north, not to the south, the southern end being blocked by a moraine, i.e. an accumulation of mountain refuse, brought down by a glacier which has long since disappeared. The lake waters issue at Omegna in a little stream called the Nigoglia, this empties into the Strona, the latter into the Toce, and finally the united waters fall together into Lago Maggiore, and all this within a finger’s breadth on the map.
The lake of Orta is some nine miles long, and the prevalent breezes are from southeast or northeast in the morning, and from the west in the evening. It is reputed to be very well stocked with fish.
Since the railroad, running north and south, will surely whistle, rumble, and speak for itself, let our description of an approach to the lake be of that silent upland path over Monte Motterone. In due order the Colle di Colma will also be considered.
Let us suppose that the traveller has walked up the mountain from Baveno or Stresa on Lago Maggiore, has rested at the hotel on Monte Motterone, and is now pre-pared to descend the western slope of this famous mountain to Lago d’Orta. If the start from the top be made in the morning, the alpine pastures of the summit, stretching in great billows to all points of the compass, will be vocal with jubilant larks; and, if it is June, the grass will be joyously perfumed with many thousand flowers of the poetical narcissus. Moreover, if the day be clear, Monte Rosa will loom up from among the Alps with tremendous power and immanence. A cart track with an easy grade marks the way down to the rim of the timber line of chestnut-trees, which is the limit to which the villages in this region find it profitable to grow. As high as this line they still cluster in the hollows or perch on projections. Perhaps you, too, may meet the ox-cart with the patient beasts that carries provisions to the hotel.
The descent into the valley, where the town of Orta lies so snug and secure on the pleas-ant lake-shore, means added human interest with every foot of decreasing altitude. It is a change from the sweetly solitary grass-lands above to the cultivated Italian countryside below with its terraced vineyards, its patches of velvet on the slope, its crowded white hamlets, and semitropical villa gar-dens. More especially does the descent afford superb views of the lake and its lofty granite cliffs.
Passing Armeno and Miasino, then under the railroad bridge, leaving to one side the Villa Crespi, in Moorish style with a tall tower and gilded dome, we curve down to the water’s edge by a road lined with delightful villas, perched on rocky ground and brilliant with trailing honeysuckle and rock plants of strange forms and colours. The villa of Marquis Natta lies at the southern entrance of the town proper, then suddenly we find ourselves within Orta itself. At the time of the author’s visit three signs met the traveller at the entrance, one prohibiting begging, another the trotting or galloping of horses, and a third the riding of bicycles ” and such like ” (e simili). What Orta has to say of automobiles today is not yet known to the author. There is a miniature square opening upon the lake, some exceedingly narrow streets paved with stone slabs, Italian fashion, a wonder island out there upon the lake, and a wooded hill at the back laid out as a park. That is about all there is to Orta, but it is enough to make of it a tiny epitome of Italian history, art, and scenery, which will repay more than a passing glance from the railroad train.
The square is also the market-place. It is picturesquely shaded by trees and has some diminutive porticoes. At one side stands an interesting municipio, or town hall, raised on columns like stilts. If the day be Wednesday, the square’ will be alive with the weekly fair. There is the loud clamour of bargaining in the neighbouring inns and under the canvas covers of the stalls. In fact, canvas is much in evidence, for in this country every rustic conveyance on land and water, from donkey-cart to rowboat, goes under canvas, for the sake both of sun and rain. Under the arches of the municipio a mountebank is giving an entertainment and earning frantic applause from the country people, who are quick to appreciate his every look and gesture. Many of these good people have come long distances, and betray in their clothes a tendency toward many varieties of costume.
Later on, when the traveller has crossed the lake, climbed the Colma, and entered into the sequestered region of Varallo and beyond, there will be many more costumes to cause wonder. Even if it were only for the enormous rich red or dark blue umbrellas, which the visitors to the fair of Orta carry along highway and lake-shore, there would be cause for gratitude, since the very umbrellas cast further notes of colour upon the fair Italian landscape. Then there are always the donkeys to cause admiration, some-times harnessed with horses of hardly greater stature than themselves, sometimes driven tandem fashion before long funnel-shaped carts on two wheels, the latter covered, of course, with canvas. It would seem that all the spare change we may have about our persons, in the way of good-will and loving-kindness, might well be spent upon the meek and patient little donkeys of Italy, that give so much and ask so little in return.
On the market-place by the lake stands the Hotel San Giulio, an hostelry of such quaint interest that it deserves description, even in a book which does not recommend particular hotels to tourists. Hotel San Giulio has an interior court decorated with plants. Every aspect of the house is old-world and old-fashioned, and possibly even a little out of line, like an object of art made by hand and not manufactured by machinery. The two little galleries and the doors on their antique hinges give evidence of the good old times. They have the appearance of being home-made.
In the days before the usefulness of the Simplon carriage road had begun to wane, and its popularity had been largely superseded by that of the St. Gothard railroad, and long before the Simplon tunnel had been thought of, Orta saw much through traffic between Italy and the countries to the north, and much coming and going of notabilities, in public or private coaches, bound on important diplomatic and military errands, or on pleasure bent. Many of these travellers seem to have stayed at the San Giulio, and very obligingly wrote their names in the strangers’ book of the hotel, thus making a truly extraordinary collection of autographs. Beginning with 1851, this book proceeds to enumerate a list of royalties and of other persons distinguished for one reason or an-other.
The then King and Queen of Saxony head the list. There follow the names of many English lords and ladies. In bewildering array and without order of precedence, the reader’s eyes fall upon the signatures of a Prince and Princess of Savoy, of Cavour, of several English generals, the Duchess of Genoa, German countesses, Prince and Princess de Joinville, Baron Charles de Rothschild, English bishops and deans, Prince Jerome Napoleon, Russians, Belgians, le Duc d’Aumale, Louis Kossuth (twice), Professor Ruskin of Oxford, the Queen of England (from Baveno, in 1879), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince and Princess of Prussia (Oct. 12, 1883), Baker Pasha, the Count of Flanders, and Queen Margherita of Italy (from Stresa, Sept. 26, 1891).
And now to the island of San Giulio, which lies off the promontory of Orta, like a gem of special price pendent from a jewelled necklace!
You may have seen this island from the railroad, from the slopes in your descent upon Orta, or from the water-front of the market-place, but it should be seen also at closer quarters and examined from the vantage-point of the water itself. At the time of the author’s visit, there were half a dozen boatmen, organized as a sort of a benevolent society under the presidency of a fine-looking patriarch with a white beard. It was re-ported that these men had an arrangement by which their total earnings were pooled at the end of the week and a dividend declared after the fashion of real live syndicates. This arrangement at least prevented the usual skirmishes for employment among the men, and to that extent heightened the pleasure of the trip across to the island.
Orta itself is not very modern in appearance and in appurtenances, but compared with the island of San Giulio, it is absolutely recent. The row over to the island takes us back not merely through the whole of modern and mediæval history, but actually deposits us on the very edge of ancient history, in the period when Constantine, the Great, was ruler of the Roman Empire and had his capital at Byzantium, renamed Constantinople after himself.
Tradition relates that during his reign two brothers, Julius and Julianus, were born of Christian parents on the Grecian island of AEgina, and that later in life, after many vicissitudes, they reached the shores of Lago d’Orta as Christian missionaries. Before set-ding there they seem to have suffered from the persecutions of the Emperor Valens, a partisan of Arianism, but to have received official authorization from Emperor Theodosius to carry on their missionary labours in outlying portions of the empire. They are reputed to have begun their work together at Gozzano, near the southern end of the lake; then Julius, leaving his brother, is, said to have established himself on the island now known as that of San Giulio.
It must have seemed a far cry from the classic island in the Aegean Sea to this rocky islet under the shadow of the Alps.
As the boat touches the steps of the island landing, and the visitor mounts from the water’s edge into the interior of an ancient little basilica, he is reminded of the early centuries of Christian architecture. There have been many changes and restorations, but the general plan of this church recalls on a small scale the Church of S. Ambrose in Milan, the women’s gallery, or matroneum, points back to St. Sophia in Constantinople, and the primitive pulpit reliefs suggest certain ornaments of St. Mark’s in Venice. A sarcophagus of white marble has been furnished with a lid and is used as an alms-box. The style of the leaf pattern of the sarcophagus shows that it dates from the Roman period of the Antonines, but the lettering, ” Meinul,” probably refers to one Meinulf, Duke of the Island of San Giulio, who was stationed here by the Longobardic Prince Agilulf.
The principal feature of the Byzantine interior of the church is the archaic pulpit of serpentine marble, once green, now black with age, the stone having been cut from the neighbouring quarries of Oira. The reliefs on this pulpit represent the symbols of the four evangelists. There is also the figure of a man, possibly St. Paul, standing with a sword, and a number of fabulous and mystical animals are carved upon this pulpit, similar to those seen at Gravedona on Lake Como. The pulpit stands upon four dissimilar columns, now somewhat mutilated. In the church a parchment is shown of Otto the Great, dated 962, and granting the canons of the basilica of San Giulio certain lands in return for services rendered against the Longobardic king, Berengar II., this taking place in the very year in which Otto renewed the imperial office in Rome and instituted the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation.
The church also contains a Madonna ascribed to Gaudenzio Ferrari, and other paintings said to be by Guido Reni, Carlo Dolce, and Sasso Ferato. On the pillars local chroniclers have scratched bits of news, for the most part in strange Latin and setting forth the remarkable characteristics of the passing years, e. g. in 1523 there was much rain and cold, in 1588 there was no snow at all, in 1666 an extraordinary abundance of harvest, etc.
When the church has been visited, the tour of the island should be made by boat. It will not take long, for the island is a tiny affair, not more than three hundred yards in length and 16o in width. The houses, crowded together in a picturesque aggregation, rise from the very edge of the quiet water in which their every detail is clearly mirrored. The campanile of the church, the seminary on the highest part, and below the dwellings and small villas, decorated with characteristic Italian loggie, terraces, and balconies, especially the graceful archways for boats, all are faithfully duplicated in the water. The Italian love of house-tinting has found free play on the island of San Giulio, and produced results in the combinations of tones which win the admiration of visiting artists. Here a pale green house crowds against a pink one, then comes one in yellow, and even pale blue is not excluded; only the prosaic whitewash of common use seems to be barred from the colour-scheme of the island of San Giulio. None of the precious space is wasted; where stone and mortar are not in possession, gar-dens bloom and creeping plants fill the very interstices of this island conglomeration.
As the boat heads once more for Orta, the water-front of that town is seen to be pierced all along the line by the distinctive Italian archways for boats. Flowering balconies and tiny gardens make Orta brilliant, turreted villas dot the hillside at the back, and the railroad, up above, adds to the beauty of the whole by the handsome arches of its bridge and its truly superb manner of construction.
There remains for our inspection the Monte d’Orta, or sacro monte, just behind the town, intervening between the town proper and the railroad and occupying what might be termed the back of the promontory of Orta.
The monte is a finely wooded hill laid out as a park, on which twenty chapels have been set among the trees to illustrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi. There are bright laurel hedges and convenient benches for the visitor along the shady paths. Here are oaks and pines, and in their midst carpets of green lawns gleam with the sheen of velvet pile. Here and there through the branching trees glimpses are caught up and down the lake, as it sparkles under the action of wind and sun, or lies placid in the shelter of some projecting mountain. The bare solitary tower of Buccione rises in the south ; opposite Orta, the church at Boleto is perched above sheer quarries of black granite; from a tower on the summit of the hill even Monte Rosa is said to be visible.
Amid the tranquillity of the park voices come up from the market-place below, a cart rumbles on the highway, a cock crows in a village barnyard, or a church-bell rings. The tiled roofs of the town, green, red, and brown, stretch themselves in many lines toward the lake and make for rest and shelter.