Monday, 11 April 2016

On and off the coast

Today I am taking you to Stresa, a pretty little town on the western shores of Lago Maggiore in Piedmont. Just like at numerous other Mediterranean resorts, there is a lovely promenade lined with hotels, restaurants and cafés there. The lake views with palm trees on the waterfront and the southern slopes of the Alps in the distance are magnificent.

What draws holidaymakers to Stresa and the neighbouring Baveno, however, lies in the lake some 400m off the coast. The star attraction of the whole of the Italian lake region is the group of small islands called the Borromean Islands. They lend their name from the Borromeo noble family that ruled vast areas around here starting from the 15th century and acquired the islands in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The southernmost is Isola Bella. It wasn’t much of an island before Borromean ownership. Carlo III Borromeo wanted to convert it into a paradise for his wife Isabella after whom it was then named. It took several decades in the 17th century and also the efforts of Carlo’s two sons and a nephew to complete the ambitious transformation. The master plan was to make the island look like a ship sailing across the lake. From there on, revisions and expansions continued until the mid-20th century.

The ‘bow’ of the make-believe ship if formed by a glorious formal garden with ten terraces, fountains, statues, grottos, exotic plants ... you name it. Tickets are sold for visitors to marvel the lavish terraced gardens. Should you be lucky you might even see white peacocks there. 

The other end of the island is dominated by a grand palazzo, the luxurious scene for a legion of sumptuous balls and events for the aristocrats and other ‘high-lifers’ over the centuries. Today, visitors can walk through the extravagant lower-floor halls while the upper floors remain a summer residence of the Borromeos.

North of Isola Bella lies a flat and narrow island that used to be a fishing village. It is still called Isola dei Pescatori although today its connection to fishing is practically limited to its lakeside seafood restaurants. The islands boasts a church originating from the 11th century. It is the only one of the Borromean Islands with permanent inhabitants.

The largest of the islands, Isola Madre, is located a bit further away in the middle of the lake between Stresa and Pallanza, the town on the other side of the bay. The botanical garden on this island is of the informal English style. In addition to a collection of paintings, the 16th century palace houses the puppet theatre of the Borromeos.

With the exception of Isola dei Pescatori, the islands are still owned by the Borromeo family. According to an article I read, even today an interview with them feels like a royal audience. And princely is the company they keep, both figuratively and literally.

To name a couple of examples, one of the present young heiresses is married to John Elkann, the 40-year-old head of the Agnelli Fiat dynasty. Last summer, another one wed Pierre Casiraghi, the younger son of Princess Caroline of Monaco. The civil wedding took place in Monaco but the religious ceremony was arranged on Isolino di San Giovanni, the private islet of the Borromeos just a stone’s throw away from Pallanza. (The island can be seen in the below heavily cropped photo with the villa in the middle.)

The wedding reception was held at Rocca d’Angera (above), also called Rocca Borromeo, a medieval castle the family acquired from the Viscontis in 1449. It is located on a hilltop overlooking the southern shores of Lago Maggiore on the eastern or Lombardy side of the lake. Today, the stately castle also houses a doll and toy museum.

From mid-March until late October, all the Borromeo sites are open to the public, except for the private islet off Pallanza of course. There is regular ferry service from the nearby towns to and between the islands.

I had been to Stresa before, some 25 years ago or so. That time we were driving the breathtaking lakeside road down from Switzerland returning to the rented house on the mountains off Locarno on the same day. We didn’t have the time to visit any of the famous islands then. Neither did we do so this time. Instead we took a ferry across the lake to a monastery but more about that in my next post.

Several centuries later than the Borromeos, an enormously wealthy French lady revisited the idea of a ship’s deck for her gardens. Have a look at my post here.


  1. Such an interesting post and that terraced garden on the island that looks like a ship is an amazing sight. Sarah x

    1. I've seen photos taken in the garden and it's become quite clear I cannot skip visiting it a third time if we ever return. I think there is a good chance we might as hubby hadn't been to this area before.

  2. I love Italian lakes. They have so much beauty and elegance. That drive along the lakeside must have been fabulous and no doubt with lots of stops for photos. The weather looks perfect. Looking forward to your next post. B X

    1. Thanks, Barbara. The Italian lakes surrounded by mountains are so majestic. Our peaceful lakes with their waterfront birches - although I love them, too - feel so lame compared with these views.