Lake Maggiore is shared by the northern Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy and the Swiss canton of Ticino. Its beautiful lakeside cities on the Piedmont side include Stresa which makes for a perfect starting point for our Borromean Island adventure!
The Borromeo Family
The group known as the Borromean Islands include Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori, and Isolino di San Giovanni. Their namesake comes from the prestigious Borromeo family who were actually prominent merchants from San Miniato (Tuscany) in the 13th century. Amazingly, Isola Bella and Isola Madre are still owned by the Borromeo family some five centuries later! How’s that for keeping it in the family?
Beginning with Isola Bella, the must-see destination is Palazzo Borromeo. This Baroque palace was built beginning in the mid 17th century by Vitaliano VI. The twenty sumptuous rooms all decorated with the finest art, tapestries, and furnishings will astound you. Even more incredible is the Berthier Gallery with 130 masterpieces in mosaics and the grottoes which were designed to keep guests cool in the summer heat.
The gardens, which include Teatro Massimo, are absolutely stunning. Fountains, statues, obelisks, terraces, and an amazing variety of flora make this the quintessential Baroque garden. There are even white peacocks roaming around to add to the fairy-tale-like atmosphere.
Isola Madre is the largest of the group and also has a lovely palace belonging to the Borromeo family that is open to the public. Again, the furnishings and art will take your breath away but so will the marionette theater. This is one of the most prized and complete collections of marionette theater in the world.
Here you’ll also find an enormous English garden spanning 8 hectares. An overwhelming array of plant species, some very rare, thrive in this unique climate. One of the most unique is probably the protea which is native to South Africa but blooms on the island in abundance. But it is the Cypress of Kashmir that has become the true symbol of the island. Native to Tibet, it was brought here in the 1860s and now is the largest and oldest of its kind in all of Europe.
Interestingly, Isola dei Pescatori (meaning “Fishermen’s Island) is the only island of the group to be inhabited year-round. As its name implies, it is an ancient fishing village and the practice is still common. This tiny island hamlet doesn’t allow any motorized vehicles so once you step off the boat, you’ll be strolling through the tiny alleys on foot. It’s a great place to relax, try some local fish dishes, and imagine what life must have been like hundreds of years ago.
The Islet of San Giovanni is the least-visited because its palace and gardens are closed to the public.
If you stay in Stresa, you can also visit Mottarone Park and Pallavicino Park. From Stresa, you can take ferries to reach the islands. Check the official website for island hours and ticket information.
Article by Marie Contino