Islands in general have an air of romance, and Italian islands doubly so. The five lakes we visited on our latest journey of the northern Italian Lakes all contain at least one, and I made a point of exploring as many as possible. Some were relatively small, with space for only a palace and some gardens, but others, like Monte Isola in Lake Iseo, require hours to circumnavigate on foot.
Isola San Giulio, Lake Orta
The harmonious architectural ensemble occupying this little island in Lake Orta is perhaps best appreciated from afar. Orta San Giulio’s harbor offers fine views, but even better panoramas can be had from the edge of the Sacro Monte, a leafy hilltop above town.
Inexpensive ferries take passengers on the short trip to the island (guests of the Villa Crespi can procure free tickets at the front desk of the hotel). A few steps up from the disembarkation point is a 12th-century basilica embellished with colorful frescoes. The “Way of Silence” circumnavigates the island from there, passing a huge Benedictine abbey that’s still in use. Attractive old houses, a few souvenir shops and a restaurant or two line the route. It’s easy to see the whole thing in an hour or less. Go at 10 a.m. or before, ideally on a weekday, for the most solitude.