Storm Over Orta:
Compared to the sprawling Tuscan cities
of Siena or Florence, Orta San Giulio is tiny; but it is compact and
has everything a person could ask for if they were curious what makes
an Italian town somehow Italian. There is a central square (Piazza
Mario Motto) walled in on three sides by colorful and quaint
buildings opening up upon the lake; there are many exceedingly narrow
and twisting streets hand-paved in cobbles and stone slabs; there is
a miniature island monastery out upon the lake itself; and finally a
wooded hill (Sacro Monte) at the back of the town, laid out as a
park, commemorating the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. All of this
sits upon a tiny peninsula jutting out into the lake, a spit of land
so small that it takes only about two or three hours to stroll around
the entire thing.
Piazza Mario Motto
is also the market place and
for over 500 years every Wednesday is Market Day where, for once a
week, automobiles are allowed in the city center and wooden booths
are erected. Perhaps at one point the market sold other things than
t-shirts, sunglasses and “I love Orta” knick-knacks; however,
since tourism fuels much of the Italian economy Orta San Giulio seems
to have solved the problem of tackiness by limiting where and when
these things can be sold.
Every day I was in Orta, around 2 or 3
o’clock in the afternoon, a spring storm would rush over the lake.
First the air slowly changed, then came that cold, earthy musk of
alpine snow and granite and the hint of freezing rain. Then, out of
the east, above the mountains on the far side of the lake, came the
clouds: gray, bublious, heavy and fast. The wind changed a
second time, and the cobble stones braced themselves, or perhaps
relaxed, for what, other than a rain from the very mountains that
they came, from could make cobble stones happy? Thunder could be
heard, near at hand, but if there was lightning it hid itself on the
far sides of the distant slopes and would not let itself be seen.
Thunder storms back home are slow,
ponderous things, they take all day simply to move across the
landscape, blocking out the sun with their sweeping threat of deluge.
These, however, were upon us and gone in what felt like moments. And,
once gone, with the blue sky and mountain sun, it was hard to
remember that they had been there at all, save for the puddles
in-between the stone slabs and the happy cobble stones.