When you're inside an oil painting, relax!

Lake Orta in northern Italy is a hidden treasure. Valerie James found it a perfect spot for watching the world go by

The traditional dish in the region of Lago d'Orta was tapulon. Donkey. Minced, well-spiced and cooked slowly in red wine. In the light of the BSE crisis, kangaroo, ostrich and alligator may all have gained some degree of acceptability, but I baulked at donkey.

My husband pointed out that perhaps the natives of Orta were not wasting their animals but simply eating donkeys that had died of old age. I was not convinced. Moreover we didn't see a single live donkey during our stay.

Donkey apart, Lake Orta is beautiful, a hidden treasure. Mention it in Milan, just 70km down the road, and most people haven't heard of it. Yet both Honore de Balzac and Nietzsche wrote of the beauty of this, the northernmost and smallest of the Italian lakes.

Orta, the town, looks across the quiet waters of the lake to the tiny Isle of San Giulio, with a backdrop of green hills and Alpine peaks. It is in perfect proportion, human-sized, enough to take it all in in a glance, nothing overbearing or untoward.

You can sail here or enjoy other watersports, and there's a park containing 20 ancient chapels. But the town, with its cramped medieval streets filled with Renaissance and Baroque buildings and more half-hidden alleys and courtyards, is the main attraction. Its central piazza is fairly accurately described in guide books as looking like a parlour. It's a small area, its boundaries defined by cafes, hotels and shops. To one side is a 16th- century colonnaded and frescoed town hall. Behind it is the shimmering, ever changing backdrop of the lake and the island.

This sometime market place is where you sit and stare, and watch the world go by. Rushing around the steeply winding streets is not an option, and perhaps the fact that we stayed in a converted 17th-century convent made for a sense of calm.

We drove into Orta in a rain storm and stopped first at the Villa Crespi, an Italian version of a Moorish folly. On a dark and threatening day their luxurious rooms looked a little too overwhelming for our taste. And there was no view of the lake. Then we arrived at the San Rocco, right on the lake and looking across to San Giuilio. Comfortable rooms, wonderful bathrooms - it is owned by a tap-and-valve manufacturer from this region, the centre of the Italian bathroom industry.

We did rush into Milan one day; it was too close to ignore, so we took the train in and "did" the Duomo, La Scala and the elegant streets - and we window shopped over the famous designer names. The designers of the Milanese underground system themselves deserve a medal for bringing people out at the Duomo on the edge of the central piazza. As you walk up the steps from the station, the cathedral, blackened by pollution, fills the sky, towering and magnificent. It is one of Milan's greatest theatrical effects.

Then we retreated from the big city, and the charmless Italian railway workers, and returned with a smile to Orta. Thereafter we did very little. That is the point of Orta. If you are living in a beautiful painting, you don't disturb it, you just enjoy it.

We would stroll into the market square, then sit beneath the trees at one of the outdoor cafes to watch the world go by. On one occasion ample, smartly dressed and coiffed ladies puffed and teetered their way up the steep road to the church. More people appeared. Men in shiny silk suits, small boys scrubbed and perfumed to within an inch of their lives. A wedding, is always a bonus. An hour later, they all reappeared for the photographs. Bride and groom posed on the jetty, a cloud of white lace next to a dark suit, with San Giuilio ever in the background. The groom carefully helped to arrange the bride's train for the picture. The ladies, now all with bouquets, looked on clapping in joy and celebration. Orta is that sort of place. But please don't eat the donkeys.

HOW TO GET THERE, WHO TO ASK

The nearest airport to Lago d'Orta is Milan. Both British Airways and Alitalia are offering a return fare of pounds 222 from Heathrow to Milan (from Manchester BA has a pounds 297 return fare). Rates at the Hotel San Rocco in Orta (00 39 322 911977) are from L240,000 for a double room with breakfast.

Italian Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254).

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