We have been back in Monforte now for more than a week and have settled into the routine – T at school; Jo and I have started Italian classes (more on that later); coffee in the piazza, and excursions to explore new towns.
It is really ‘routine’ in the best possible sense, in that we are beginning to settle into living the Italian village life – the vegetable stallholder at the Monday market now recognises us and throws in a bunch of parsley, the lady at the Pasticceria is keeping close tabs on the progress of T’s Italian and our fantastic neighbours have just dropped over some freshly poached pears for us to try!
However, if I don’t complete the post from Lago d’Orta, knowing how way leads onto way, I doubt I shall come back (paraphrasing my favourite poet, Robert Frost). As you may have gathered, we thought Lago d’Orta and the surrounding areas were superb and there were many standout day trip destinations.
But, in the interests of time and space, we thought we would give a whistlestop pictorial tour of our top three spots for those of you that might venture to these parts one day (or those that would like a vicarious visit).
Thursday Market in Omegna
Omegna is sited at the northern most point of the lake and straddles the River Nigoglia – the only river in Italy that flows towards the Alps (concluding the only geography lesson that Counting to Dieci intends to give this year, although we would note that we are happy to take suggestions as to other disciplines that are not getting enough focus…!).
The town itself is relatively industrial – it is home to Alessi, Bialetti and Lagostina – but it is known for having a high quality Thursday Market. That was enough incentive for us to make the trip, so S and I drove up the western lake shore, while Jo and T caught the boat. The market spreads along the lake’s edge and we think its reputation for being worth a visit well justified.
Rimella, a Walser Town
One of the curiosities of the upper alpine valleys of Piemonte is that their isolation has provided refuge for many different people.
The valleys above Lago d’Orta are known for their Walser communities. These communities are decendents of Swiss shepherds who crossed the alps in the 13C and settled the high valleys that no-one wanted.
Their isolation was such that they remained basically autonomous until the late 19C and still speak a medieval dialect of German. Their houses are built in a very distinctive style and their communities comprise small groups of houses scattered along the mountainside.
On Maurizio’s recommendation we made the trip across to Rimella, one of the oldest Walser towns in Valsesia. Valsesia (the Valley of the River Sesia) is the next valley west of Lago d’Orta and Rimella sits at the very head of the valley. It is accessible on roads that are simply terrifying to drive along, despite the fact that we visited on a sunny and relatively warm day in early October. It is sobering to think of the isolation and hardship that must occur in these towns during the depths of winter.
The Way of Silence, Isola San Giulio
Isola San Giulio forms a natural focal point for much of the activity on Lago d’Orta. It is the only island on the lake and ferries crossing the lake all make a stop there when travelling from one shore to the other. Ironically, part of the attraction of this activity is the Island’s stillness.
Legend has it that until late in the 4th century when Giulio arrived on the lakeshore, dragons inhabited the island. When none of the locals would row him to the island, he sailed across on his cloak and gave the dragons the what-for. For completeness he then yoked a few wolves to his cart and set about building the first church.
For his efforts Giulio became San Giulio, the patron saint of builders, and the Island had its first monastery. There has been a Basilica on the site since 390.
Despite the fact that the Island is largely occupied by a monastery for a closed order of Benedictine Nuns, there is a small road that circles the island, called the Way of Silence, that we were interested to explore.
T and I caught the ferry out to the Island and, recognising the questionable logic behind taking a four year old on a “25 minute walk of silence and mediation”, wandered around the island.
As an aside, someone told me once that walking with a little boy was like walking with a cat. At the time I thought it an odd comment but, as it turns out, it was remarkably insightful. You never walk directly from Point A to Point B – there are always diversions; remarkable discoveries to be made; new paths that need investigating; trees to climb; rocks to turn over…
Needless to say that the walk was hardly silent but, to T’s credit, it was quiet and restorative. We do, however, offer our apologies to the German couple in front of us and the American family behind…