Lake Maggiore may be less showbiz than neighboring Lake Com0, but it is no less spectacular. Spanning the Swiss-Italian border, Lake Maggiore offers superb scenery, relaxing boat excursions and pretty alpine towns. However, down at the Southern end of the lake, within Italy’s borders, are three exquisite little islands, known as the Borromean islands. All three are stunning, but only one has been bestowed with the name beautiful – Isola Bella.
Isola Bella is a whimsical and fantastic creation, with a grand palace and tiered, geometric gardens, scupted from green foliage and dazzling flowers. Classical gods and even unicorns stand watch upon the highest tier, looking out over the water. The palace was built in 1632 by Count Vitaliano Borromeo for the love of a lady, the Countess Donna Isabella. It was for her too that it was given its name. Successive Counts added to the original plans and designed the gardens. Today, the overall effect is quite striking; it is completely absurd, but it is still beautiful.
The good thing about the Borromean islands’ location is that they can be reached from almost any of the towns which border the lake – boats run frequently between the northernmost town of Locarno, Switzerland, to the southernmost town, Arona in Italy. It stops at most of the main points along the way, including the Borromean Islands. I started in Stresa, Italy, from where Isola Bella beckons enticingly, sitting pretty just across the water. It almost looks like a painting, so perfect is its composition and design.
It was only a short boat trip to reach the shores of the island. It is not a big place by any stretch of the imagination, so planning to spend a few hours, or perhaps a leisurely afternoon, there is plenty. When you get onto the island, you disembark onto a paved path leading more or less straight to the palace, which, along with the gardens, forms the main attraction of the island. There is a $16 entrance fee to the palace and gardens and there is no option of doing one or the other, but it is certainly worth seeing both anyway.
We started with the palace, a building which dominates the island. From the outside, it is rather imposing and not the prettiest of buildings, but inside, it boasts rooms of classical grandeur with dazzling chandeliers and views of the lake. Clearly the Count had spared no expense on a home for his beloved Countess. It was all normal enough until we descended into the grottoes – a fabulous labyrinthine basement with walls covered in shells. It is certainly cool down there, a place to go and escape the heat of summer, but why there were so many grottoes was something of a mystery to me.
It took us a leisurely hour to fully explore the palace – and that is plenty of time to spend there. It is an interesting place to look at, but the gardens are the main attraction. Entering the gardens was like walking into a fairytale: here, among the high walls made of leafy shrubs, pure white peacocks wandered, their distinctive cries echoing across the island. Perfectly pruned flower displays formed stunning patterns when viewed from above and there was not a single leaf out of place anywhere. It was like a master class in topiary. Fountains of sparkling water created rainbows around the feet of the gods.
Weaving up the steps, past the statues keeping watch, I looked down to see the very end of the island and possibly the most beautiful part of all: a stone terrace featuring a lily pond. There is something very harmonious about water – and the combination of the pond and lake was just perfect. Lilies of pink and purple floated gently on the surface of the pond. I stayed there until the sun was low in the sky, then returned through the gardens to the pontoon, where I rejoined my friends. We just had enough time for some gelato before taking the boat back to the mainland.
It was an afternoon of pure enchantment. Italy’s lakes are hardly short of beautiful spots, but Isola Bella is more than beautiful. It is fantastical and magical – a fairyland in the middle of Lake Maggiore.
- The town of Stresa is a good starting point for visits to Isola Bella and there are plenty of accommodation options in the town.
- Stresa is easily accessible from Milan, it takes about 2 hours to get there by train. Alternatively, you can take a boat from your base on Lake Maggiore.
- Lake Maggiore is just a few hundred feet from Stresa and boats run to and from the island every 20 minutes at peak times. A round trip ticket costs $5, or you can get Rover tickets which include travel to all three of the Borromean islands. This costs $15.
- The island is open to visitors from the March 26th to the October 23rd; the palace and gardens are open 9 am to 5:30 pm.
Photo Credit: All photos are the author’s own.