Orta San Giulio: Stories and history


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Orta San Giulio, a tiny town on Lake Orta in Italy’s Piedmont region, is deeply steeped in both history and legend. Its streets are paved with cobblestones and its frescoed town hall dates from the 1580s.

Lake Orta itself is one of the smallest of the sub-alpine lakes in northern Italy, but is a true gem. The town has been named Orta San Giulio since the sixteenth century, before which it was called Lago San Giulio. San Giulio, or Saint Julius, and his brother Giuliano, or Julian, built many churches around the Mediterranean in the fourth century.

the place centrale d'Orta San Giulio and le charmant palais de la Communauté, décoré de fresques (1582)

Upon reaching Lake Orta he decided to build his 100th on a picturesque island, now called Isola San Giulio, about 400 metres from the shore. The problem was that the island was infested with snakes and dragons, and no local boatman would take him there. He therefore spread out his cloak and used it as a sort of surfboard to cross over the water in a storm, his staff serving as a rudder. Once on the island he made the nasty creatures disappear with a wave of his hand, planted trees and flowers, and built his church, where he’s now buried. A vertebra of some prehistoric creature is now displayed in the church’s sacristy as that of the dragon.

Isola San Giulio, Lake Orta

Witchcraft The oldest Italian document clearly mentioning the existence of a witchcraft law, called the “Consilium“, was written in 1340 in Orta San Giulio. A local authority named Bartolo Sassoferrato sent it to Giovanni de Plotis, the Bishop of Novara, and to Novara’s Inquisitor asking what penalty to impose on a local woman convicted of witchcraft. They burnt her at the stake. Since her name is unknown she’s just called Orta’s Witch.
Nineteenth Century Writers Friedrich Nietzsche visited Lake Orta with Lou Andreas-Salomé for a few days in 1882 and fell in unrequited love with her there. He wrote the year of his preface to “Thus Spake Zarathustra” as ‘after Orta’. Honoré de Balzac described the lake as a “grey pearl in a green jewel-box” and Robert Browning’s poem ‘By the Fire-Side’ describes it as where “Alp meets heaven in snow”.

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