The Borromean Isles: magical gardens on Italy’s Lake Maggiore

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Patricia Cleveland-Peck gazes in wonder at  Isola Bella, a baroque garden shaped like a ship  floating on the lake, is entranced by  Isola Madre, a romantic garden full of flowers and enjoys a lunch of lake fish on Fisherman’s Island

For any garden lover holidaying near the Italian Lakes in the north of Italy, a visit to the Borromean Islands is a must. Situated on Lake Maggiore and easily accessible by boat, they consist of three islands Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and two small islets. It is Isola Bella and Isola Madre which are of interest to the garden lover.

So what is so special about them?  Well, it is every lottery player’s fantasy to acquire an island in an idyllic spot, build a fairy-tale house, fill it with beautiful objects and surround the whole thing with a magnificent garden. The Borromeos did this not once but twice, when they carved Isola Bella and Isola Madre from bare rock. The Borrmomeos however were no lottery winners – they were, and still are a wealthy and powerful Milanese family which boasts cardinals, princes and even a saint amongst the ancestors. Even so the undertaking took them coffers full of cash, several centuries and isn’t finished yet – so we can only give thanks that they now welcome visitors.

Isola Bella

The islands are quite different in atmosphere. Isola Bella, named not only for beauty but for Carlo Borromeo’s wife Isabella and created in the 17h century, is pure baroque. The rocky outcrop has been transformed into a monster galleon lying at anchor on the lake. The solid palazzo, where the visit begins, forms the prow. The Borremeos were eclectic collectors: Gobelins tapestries, Venetian glass, French furniture, English clocks, antique musical instruments and scores of paintings including a room devoted to Giordano, known as Luca fa presto or Speedy Luca for the rapidity with which he turned out canvases.

There is something to interest everyone, even the groups of children on school visits seemed excited, reminding me shamefully that when I first visited the area, at the age of 16 in the company of 24 similarly-aged Austrian girls, our interest in Italian works of art was focused exclusively on the beautiful boys who came on their vespas to besiege our albergo every night.

Isola Bella

Now, of more mature years and tastes, I particularly enjoyed the soaring domed salone grande, a rococo confection in sky blue and white with pillars, balconies, stucco work and windows giving  views over the lake in every direction. I actively coveted a peitre dure table top depicting a bouquet of flowers, so exquisitely made that you can almost smell the roses. This was given by Pope Leo XII to Count Gilberto Borremeo, so I think my chances of acquiring one at the right price are slim. Almost my favourite part of the palazzo was the area devoted to the grottoes. There are six of them, originally designed as cool retreats from the sun, situated deep beneath the palace at lake level. Shimmering light is reflected onto the walls of dark and light pebbles decorated with dolphins, shells and other aquatic motifs. The atmosphere is limpid, luminous and watery: quite magical.

It is from this ‘below decks’ area that you enter the garden. Leaving a  rounded courtyard containing a statue of Diana you mount a staircase from where you can see an elaborate structure made of pink Baveno marble decorated with  pebble-encrusted pilasters, tufa-lined niches, shell motifs, statues of water nymphs –  all topped by a rearing unicorn – the emblem of the Borromeos. This is the amphitheatre which conceals a reservoir of water pumped up from the lake. It rises up five tiers to form the ‘bridge’ of the ship, an area bristling with statuary which looks like masts.  The views from this point over the gardens where white peacocks flaunt themselves amongst the luxuriant vegetation, across the lake bathed in the incomparable transalpine light, to the distant snow-capped mountains, is quite unforgettable. The  amphitheatre  itself  has both been referred to as “an abomination of taste”  and compared to  the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. What is certain is that it will not leave you indifferent. To visit Isola Bella is in fact, is to experience a concept of the garden wildly different from anything you’ve seen in this country.

On Isola Madre on the other hand, plants rather than buildings take centre stage. There is a palazzo – construction of which began in 1502 – but although it contains many fascinating objects, it has rather a sad, uninhabited air.  There is a doll collection, which I didn’t like, and a baroque marionette theatre which I adored. With hundreds of puppets, backdrops by Sanquirico, scene painter from the Scala Milan, a tiny organ and smoke machines – to say nothing of devices by which Jonah emerges from the whale, small puppets come out of bigger ones to represent the character’s virtues or vices and a sarcophagus which opens to reveal a mummy, the world in which the Borromeos and their guests enjoyed such wonderfully contrived entertainment is vividly evoked.  Other people with me, I’m sorry to say, found the marionettes decidedly spooky and lacking in appeal.

Grotto Isola Madre

The garden however, appeals to everyone. Originally olives, oranges and vines were grown on the island but the favourable climate encouraged the introduction of exotics and in the 1800s the 8 acres were laid out to show off the botanical collection which had accumulated. The result is a paradise garden which has been admired by everyone from Napoleon to Queen Victoria.

Scented and aromatic shrubs line the paths and a pergola hung with wisteria and primrose jasmine winds down from the house to the waterside. Unusual jewel-coloured pheasants scratch about under the rare trees in the ‘English’ woodland and a flock of silver and gold parrots have colonised one of the lawns. On one side of the palazzo is the biggest Kashmir cypress in Europe and on the other, a coconut palm which yields 3,000 nuts a year. Between the chapel and the palazzo, taking advantage of the warmest spot on the island, is an attractive little Italian garden with a lily pond which, during my visit was enlivened by the sound of green frogs barking triumphantly as they mated.

Part of  the pleasure is approaching these islands by water.  That being said, I must be one of the few people to have been almost  shipwrecked between Isola Bella and Isola Madre: it happened a while ago but freak storms do blow up on the lakes and very dramatic they are too.

Water Theatre

Isola Superiore dei Pescatori or Fisherman’s Island belongs to the town of Baveno, rather than the Borromeo family,and is the only inhabited (population 208) island. But it is also worth a visit – especially if you are feeling hungry – because it is genuinely occupied by fishermen and every second building seems to be a restaurant with a lakeside view. The Lake Maggiore area has produced a number of  top chefs, many passing via Switzerland to international renown and it is a good area for fruit, vegetables and of course, freshwater fish. I enjoyed home-made ravioli stuffed with new season’s asparagus, served with creamy asparagus sauce and parmesan, followed by filetti di pesce persico (perch filets) fresh from the lake. Other popular lake fish are the tasty little alborelle (bleaks) served fried and the white fish, coregone. Also worth trying are some delicious local cakes, the margheritine from Stresa and the dolce camelia from Pallanza. All told, a visit to these islands is something you won’t forget.

Isola Madre and Isola Bella are open this year from 16 March – 3 November from 9am-5.50pm. Ferries and water taxis run frequently from Stresa, Baveno, Pallanza and Intra. Isola dei Pescatori of course, is always ‘open’.



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