Anchored barely 500m in front of Piazza Mario Motta is Isola San Giulio. The island is dominated by the 12th-century Basilica di San Giulio, full of vibrant frescoes that alone make a trip to the island worthwhile. The frescoes mostly depict saints (and sometimes their moment of martyrdom – St Laurence seems supremely indifferent to his roasting on a grate). Step inside after mass, when the air is thick with incense and the frescoes seem to take on a whole new power.
The church, island and mainland town are named after a Greek evangelist, Giulio, who’s said to have rid the island of snakes, dragons and assorted monsters in the late 4th century. His remains lie in the crypt of the Basilica di San Giulio.
The footpath encircling the island (about the length of an athletics track) makes for a peaceful stroll, hence its popular name of Via del Silenzio. Indeed, a series of aphorisms on the wonders of silence (all very fine when screaming school groups have the run of the place) have been placed along the way. You can walk the so-called Via della Meditazione in either direction, with multilingual signs to inspire you on your search for inner peace.
Regular ferries (return €3.15) run from Orta San Giulio’s waterfront. More-expensive private launches (return €9) also run, departing when there are sufficient passengers to warrant the five-minute crossing.