After its first two articles with Northern accents, TravellingMogwai.com heads south to discover the north of Italy and more precisely, the Borromean Islands, three jewels on the azure waters of Lake Maggiore, hardly an hour from the center of Milan. It’s an excuse to explore the lesser known of the three large lakes, which, despite its raw beauty, suffers in comparison with its neighbors from Como and Garda.
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Nestled at the foot of the Sasso del Ferro, Laveno was only sheltered from the sun for a few brief minutes. In the cerulean shade of the mountain, the unassuming port still slept. Its terraces under the sycamores and surrounded by the ochre and rose-colored facades of the village, remained empty. Last night’s wind had died down, and the waves from the lake gently caressed the curves of the boardwalk that surrounded the bay on this surprisingly mild May morning. Only the engine hum of the traghetto, which had been doing back-to-back crossings between Lombardy and Piedmont since dawn, disturbed the ephemeral peace of the location. Insensitive to the sleepy charm of the city, the impatient passengers leaned on the bridge of the terminal in order to make sure not to miss the departure. The ferry shook and had to get a mile away from the coast for the sun to suddenly flood the bridge and give the deep waters emerald highlights. Passing the point of San Michele, I was finally able to appreciate the beauty of Lago Maggiore in its entirety. Its Swiss and Italian extremities, mostly out of sight, gave the impression of navigating a narrow inland sea. This early spring spared us the customary misty heat of the region, and the summits of the Valaisian and Lepontine Alps, some almost as high as the Matterhorn, sliced the horizon and sparkled from their slopes so nicely that they seemed easily accessible. As we approached the other shore, the contours of the turquoise dome of the Saint-Victor Basilica became clearer and the temperatures milder. I tore myself away from my dreamy and detached contemplation of the Villa Taranto to return to the bow in order to wait for landing. I took my first steps in Piedmont and was already missing the Lombardy charm that I had left in Laveno when I spotted the greyed and empty esplanade facing the Intra station. I didn’t have to wait very long though for a second boat to rescue me from this disappointing arrival, and I headed south towards Stresa, following the peninsula that cut in deeply from Verbania toward the center of the lake. Once crossed, the bay opened up and I could admire it in all its grandeur. I finally set my eyes on the Borromean Islands. and they had the look of rocks thrown at the foot of the Mottarone and the Montorfano, which all by itself shelters them from the icy winds that stream down the alpine summits. The nearest dark mass, the Isola Madre, was set off from the desperately azure tableau that surrounded it. From this angle, and without the dazzling silhouette of the palace surpassing the peaks, Isola Madre still appeared wild, which it hadn’t been for the last half millennium. We brushed up against the dry stone walls through which shoots and flowers of all sorts grew, and leaned toward the water. I got off before the other passengers on the bridge and set off to comprehend the words of Flaubert, written one hundred and seventy years earlier: “Isola Madre, earthly paradise. Trees with golden leaves gilded by the sun.”
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If it were possible for me, as so many have tried, to equal the eloquence and the raw talent of René Boylesve in his book “The Perfume of the Borromean Islands”, it would only be because these islands inspire one to poetry and poise. As it was for the passengers of the Reine-Marguerite of the novel, our visit starts on the Isola Madre, or the Mother Island, the largest of the three bits of land that emerge on the western side of Lake Maggiore, whose grandiosity lent to it by the riches of Borromeo contrasts with its motto “Humilitas”. In spite of the baroque splendors and the architectural follies that the traveller comes across, we shouldn’t honestly hold their considerable taste and majesty against them. Isola Madre, botanical paradise. The northernmost of the Borromean Islands is also, in my opinion, the loveliest. If it were to be defined by one of its buildings, it would have to be the Palazzo Borromeo. One can’t really speak of the island as being wilder than the others as its gardens are kept up with meticulous care. The passenger’s landing is made under palm trees and in the midst of exotic plants. A flight of stairs leads to the long promenade that follows the southern coast and provides a tantalizing sneak-peek of the treasures that await at this location. A paid tour allows visitors access to the five terraces where they can admire wisteria, lemon trees, soap nut trees, rhododendrons, hibiscus as well as the « Queen of the lake », the camellia. It is however a much more imposing and unique tree that draws the eye here; anchored by cables since 2006 when it was uprooted by a tornado, the venerable Kashmir Cypress holds a place of honor in front of the palace. Around it, various paths lead to both the interior and the shores of the island. Here, between two thickets we can first see the silver highlighted azure blue of Lake Maggiore; this is a blissful garden of a thousand scents. As if in a dream, golden pheasants and white peacocks emerge from the underbrush. Once the visit is done, it is time for a walk along the west coast of the isola through a small bamboo forest that offers stunning views of the Montorfano, and even farther on, Verbania.
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“An Italian, fine and as handsome as a Praxiteles, and at whom all the girls were smiling sitting at the front, spoke with an admirable timber, the name of Isola Bella. And it could be said that he was conscious of the splendor of the marble, the flowers, the fruit and the sun that the image evoked, with a sort of triumphant shamelessness, in the spirit of all those travellers in search of sensual delights. “Isola Bella! Isola Bella!” he repeated, causing some to shiver from desire ». – René Boylesve
The origin of the name of Isola Bella, otherwise known as « Inferior Island », seemed to spring logically from its architectural beauty and the grandiose nature of its gardens. Truthfully, Carlo Borromeo took on the rehabilitation of it in the first half of the seventeenth century in honor of his wife Isabella d’Adda, or Bella. And what an honor! The western part of the island shelters the immense Palazzo, finished in 1761, while the eastern shore of the island is covered in sublime gardens and topped with the Belvedere. A meeting place for social gatherings over the past four centuries, she has seen artists and powerful players in history- from Wagner to Stendhal and from Napoleon to Mussolini, who held the Stresa Conference there in 1935; Isola Bella lends its luxury and power to all. The baroque palace draws its visitors along a great number of paintings and Flemish tapestries that are displayed throughout the richly decorated rooms; from one with a pure lily-white theme to the unexpected darkness of a basement room whose walls, floor and ceiling were created with black pebbles. The tour then takes a turn and brings visitors outside to an inner courtyard. From there, one exits by a double staircase to be suddenly faced with a symmetrical structure, the magnificent Teatro Massimo. Its statues and elevated columns on multiple leveled terraces are creations of architectural genius, a fortiori placed on the end of the island. It is surrounded by several gardens, each with its own perfume, its own rare plant, and its own hidden sculpture that brings it to the limits of luxury and overload.
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The Borromeo graciously offered the third island to the people. There, where on the noble Isola Bella, a palace of incredible spaces sheltered a family; the more humble houses of the Isola dei Pescatori are squeezed together in a jumble of tiles, ochre walls, hidden flights of stairs and odd angles. This leaves very little space for the narrow streets that tourists find it so hard to navigate on this much smaller piece of land. As if to reinforce this indescribable tableau, ducks frolic under flowered balconies and eat what they can find of the tourist’s leftovers. In this chaos that is in full view of the fair-weather crowds, only the north point offers a respite and an ideal setting to savor a gelato, or even in the spring, to sit around and do nothing (the Italian far niente) while sunning oneself with a view of the icy peaks that surround Lake Maggiore. It is true that Isola dei Pescatori, even strewn as it is with restaurants and souvenir shops, retains a certain magic and a certain charm along its narrow alleyways. Here, there is no palace, no Garden of Eden or useless embellishments, but an unpretentious village whose vesperal ambiance is magnified once the last traghetti have returned to Stresa.
Evoked by the most lauded authors of their generation, the Borromean islands were an ideal setting for many novels. From Hemingway, who contemplated them from Stresa’s Grand Hôtel in his “A Farewell to Arms” to the careful words of Dickens’ critical description of the splendors of Isola Bella, the archipelago never leaves you immune. For those who discovered the area through literature alone, the actual affluence can create a disappointing contrast with the expectations created by the authors’ eclipsing of the island’s glamorous and touristic ambitions to benefit their characters and their timeless descriptions. But a visit to the Borromean Islands in any season is a magical moment at the end of which we can’t help but feel as if we have just left a fairytale land.
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- Access: It is very practical to reach Laveno by train from the Milan Cadorna station, west of the downtown (6.70€ for the 1:20 to 1:40 p.m. direct trip). The city itself is between three principal airports, Bergame, Malpensa and Linate, that from Ryan Air to Air France cover the whole European Union and all the principal international destinations. Milan should be visited, as it is such a wonderfully historical, fashionable and touristic city. It is especially honored this year thanks to the Universal Exhibition (EXPO) at Rho, which is located only a few kilometers from the downtown. Lombardy is trending right now so don’t miss out! From Laveno, a twenty-minute ferry ride with car access crosses the lake to Intra, every 25 to 30 minutes, from dawn until late a night. From the Intra station, the traghetti to Isola Madre (4.30€), Isola Bella (6.20€) and Isola dei Pescatori (6.20€) run all day. – It is also easy to access Stresa, at Piedmont, this time by direct train from the central train station in Milan (56 minutes, starting from 8.60€). From Stresa, Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori seem almost close enough to swim to (3.40 € and 3.90€, respectively), while Isola Madre is closer to Verbania and Intra (5€). Daytrip tickets from Stresa to the three islands are available at a cost of 26.30€. The price does not include entrance to Isola Bella and Isola Madre.
- Fees: Access to Isola dei Pescatori is free, but the entrance fees for the palace and gardens of Isola Madre and Isola Bella are 12 and 15 euros, respectively. If you would like to visit both on one day, you can buy a one-day ticket for 20.50€ that gets you in to both destinations.
- Surrounding areas: I’ve previously mentioned the city of Milan, but the Lake Maggiore is mostly a natural destination. Surrounded by the foothills of the Alps and at only an hour by car from the Monte Rosa (4334 meters), the tall mountain is still scalable in hiking boots. There are many sites with beautiful views from the mountain. If you choose Stresa as a base camp, the summit of Il Mottarone lords over the lake from a height of 1500 metres. There are numerous hiking paths available to climb through the wonderful landscape and once at the top, you are rewarded by a panoramic view that, on a clear day, provides a view of the Alps to the north and the Lombardy plains to the south, with the Borromeans and Lake Orta at your feet. If you choose to stay in Laveno, the cable car at Mount Sasso del Ferro is for you! Not to be missed is the Ermitage of Santa Catarina del Sasso, which is on the side of a cliff, a couple of minutes south of the city.
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Thanks to Monique Damus for the translation.