Isola San Giulio, Lago d'Orta - open water swimming destination

Swim Around Magical Isola San Giulio, Lago d’Orta

Posted on: BY: Saga Svensson
Tags: Italy | Lago d'Orta | lake swims | Northern Italy | Swim-it-Yourself

This post is part three of a multi-part guide to lake swimming in Northern Italy. All the routes are close together, so it’s possible to string together all the itineraries into one incredible trip, or to cherry pick your favourite parts to make a custom trip of your own.

This is the account of our self-guided open water swim around Isola San Giulio, in Lago d’Orta, Northern Italy. Often referred to as the “hidden gem” of the Italian Lakes, Lake Orta is a small, picturesque body of water with postcard perfect medieval villages. Swimming around the tranquil Isola San Giulio lived up to the hype as one of the highlights of our lakes tour of Northern Italy.

If you arrive at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, which is handily located to the north west of the city, it takes less than an hour’s drive to arrive at Lake Orta. Nestled amid the foothills of the Alps, the area enchants with its peaceful atmosphere, charming lakeside villages, and stunning natural beauty. The lake offers a more secluded and intimate experience compared to some of the larger Italian lakes, making it an ideal destination if you seek tranquility and a genuine taste of Italian lakeside life.

One of the good things about Lago d’Orta is that it is small enough that you can drive to the opposite side in about 25 minutes so you can’t really go wrong wherever you stay. We were based in Pella, which is beautiful, if slow-paced. That’s ok, slow-paced is that which we seek.

We arrived one evening in late September, as the sun set over the distant mountains. We’d been told this was the best time to come in order to beat the crowds which are unavoidable in summer. The water temperature was still a balmy 23 Celsius/ 73 Fahrenheit and dipping our toes in the water off the dockside we found it to be sparkling and pure. Lake Orta consistently makes the list for the top ten cleanest lakes in Europe, so it is an incredible place for open water swimming. There is speedboat and sailboat traffic on the lake, although speed limits are adhered to in the harbours and near the shoreline, and there is nothing like the traffic you see on some larger lakes (i’m looking at you, Lake Washington!).

Swimming around Isola San Giulio

Swimming around Isola San Giulio was one of the highlights of our trip looking back, and something we had looked forward to since sketching out itineraries back in Seattle. The idea was to swim around the island at a leisurely pace, pausing lots to soak up the serenity from a unique view not many people get to see.

We could technically have crossed to the island from Pella itself – which is only about a kilometer or so – but we try not to risk exposure in the middle of the lake despite always having our high vis safety buoys and swimcaps with us. Our golden rule is never to make a crossing in water with boat traffic without a paddler. Because we usually travel as a couple, this often means taking turns in the kayak when we intend to make a crossing – not always a bad thing, as we can carry more stuff and go further that way. When we are following the shoreline, we are cautious and stay reasonably close to land, depending on our gut feeling. For these reasons we drove the 20 minutes or so to the town of Orta San Giulio, a stone’s throw from Isola San Giulio.

The town or Orta San Giulio, which looks over at Isola San Giulio

The distance to the island from the town dock is only 3 or 4 hundred meters but it can be busy, depending on the time of year. The ferry route runs south of the island to its south-western tip. We didn’t want to annoy any boat taxis or ferries, or worse still – have our serenity deflated by getting yelled at – so we looked for a more discrete place to enter the water than the dock. As luck has it, if you walk parallel to the lake through the narrow streets, they are intersected by ancient little walled streets that literally lead right down into the lake. We were able to enter the water in this way: safe, respectful, and unseen.

We swam a little further to the north to put even more distance between ourselves and the main dock while still hugging the shore. There was not a lot of boat traffic so we started out towards the northernmost tip of the island. We did not hang about in the middle part of the crossing just in case. The total distance was 400 meters at most, dry land to dry land, and with the water to ourselves, we allowed ourselves to start enjoying the surroundings about 150 meters from the shore. To be honest, the boats are super careful and slow in this area of the lake, and we were bright and colorful, so we didn’t have any real concerns in the end.

It is less than a kilometer to circle the entire island. Plus the distance to the mainland of 400 meters makes for a total of less than 1800m if you wanted to do the journey in one shot. However, we wanted to explore the island and the monastery, so we did a little under half of that distance anti-clockwise on the way out – arriving at the boat port on the south-west point – and a bit more than half on the return leg.

The approach to this blessed isle is hands down one of my favorite ever moments. It’s not often that the travel plans we dream of before departure live up to the expectations we create at home. Quite often it’s the unexpected and the magic of luck we experience along the way that eclipse our plans, and that’s the part of travel i love. But this was something different. The stars aligned, the perfect mixture of peace, awe and respect, the incredible aura of the scenery and the sacred island, the thrill of the adventure, and above all, being in the moment with each other, combined in a perfect storm that i will treasure for the rest of my life. We were overcome with gratitude.

Of course, this is a holy place so you can’t be drying off naked or half-naked on the dock. You are politely asked to cover up completely. We were careful to be as discrete as possible getting out of the water, and we simply dried off our swimsuits and skin with the towels we carried in our high-vis dry bags and put our clothes on over the top as quickly possible.

View of the Basilica of San Giulio, Isola de San Giulio, from the water
View of the Basilica of San Giulio, Isola de San Giulio

The island houses a Benedictine monastery with some 60 nuns who have taken a vow of silence. There is just one street on the island and there are signs along the way to encourage contemplation and self-renewal. It is the perfect place to sit for a while and gather your thoughts, review your commitments, or send love and gratitude into the universe. The Basilica di San Giulio houses the remains of San Giulio in a sarcophagus in the crypt which you can visit. The buildings are old and beautiful, and the views across the lake breathtaking. It is really a 1-hour excursion, but the serenity and peace of this magical place will likely linger for a long time afterwards. BTW don’t go on Mondays because the buildings are not open to the public, although you can still walk around if you like.

We swam back to Orta San Giulio, discovering another similar, but more savoury alley by which to make our stealthy exit. Orta San Giulio’s medieval streets and winding alleys, its ivy-clad architecture and charming piazzas, are undeniably romantic. The heart of the town is the enchanting Piazza Motta, surrounded by picturesque cafes and overlooking the postcard-perfect Isola San Giulio. We walked around, ate a beautiful dinner, drank wine and watched the sunset, chatting about what we had just seen and what was yet to come.

Disclaimer: Our swimming adventure content is not intended to take the place of specific, current, local advice from qualified experts. We strongly recommend that you consult with professional safety experts and take all necessary precautions should you undertake any adventure activity, especially in open water. Swimming is a HAZARDOUS activity. Never swim alone or beyond your ability. There is the possibility of physical injury, emotional distress and/or death, and you assume the risk and responsibility for any such results.

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