I’ve been working in the travel industry for almost 15 years now and when asked for a trip to Italian Lakes, most of the time Como and Garda Lake are on the top of the list of our customers’ choice.
Of course they are gorgeous, but I’ve always thought that Maggiore Lake -probably considered minor in spite of his name – worth a visit.
My romantic side is totally kidnapped by the retro atmosphere that you can feel once in Stresa or Baveno. Hotels are imposing palaces of the 19th century overlooking the Lake. Decorated by stuccos, marble columns, Venetian pavements, these elegant buildings remind of the beginning of 20th century – when Stresa was identified as the most prestigious place on the lake.
Usually I prefer small boutique hotels, simple design but I cannot help thinking of the illustrious guests that came here from the whole of Europe and somehow I’m completely involved in this aristocratic atmosphere.
It’s easy to get there, Malpensa airport is just a short drive and if you are not likely to drive, there’s a convenient shuttle bus that from T1 and T2 will take you to the main village on the lake in less than 1 hour.
Here my personal advises on the best thing to see on Maggiore Lake.
THE BORROMEAN ISLANDS
They are, without any doubt, the authentic jewels of the Lake.
The first time I arrived to Isola Bella by boat, I could not believe my eyes… An imposing terraced garden and a sumptuous palace stood up there – right in the middle of the lake.
I’m not surprised that writers and historical personalities like Dickens and Montesquieu, Stendhal and Ernest Hemingway, loved so much the Borromean Islands. They are authentic gems set in the middle of the blue of Lake Maggiore. Visiting them is like raising a curtain on the history of the aristocrat family Borromeo dating back to the 15th century.
It is said that seen from above, Isola Bella looks like an enormous redundant vessel: a magnificent building in the bow and a surprising Italian garden aft. The palace, still used as summer residence of the noble family Borromeo, is a perfect example of elegant Baroque style. You will walk though beautifully furnished halls that afford incredible views of the lake and witness many renowned artists’ exclusive paintings, precious furniture, marbles, neo-classical stuccos, shining armors and Flemish tapestries made of silk and gold.
But what I found breathtaking is the Garden – a true Eden! Composed of ten terraces overlooking the lake and rich in statues and architectural decors set amidst the perfect green geometry of botanical treasures, this Italian garden offers an impressive view. The white peacocks that calmly walk around complete a perfect picture of a heaven on Earth!
Back on the boat I headed for Isola Madre, where a beautiful palace surrounded by 19 acres of English-style gardens awaited.
The Isola Madre offers a huge botanical collection. I’m not an expert but it’s spectacular to walk among an impressive orchard, olive grove and citrus grove that offer the visitor continuous blooms and exuberant. Since 2002 the garden is part of the prestigious English circuit of the Royal Horticultural Society. Next to the Kashmir lodge rises the 16th century Palazzo that preserves prestigious furnishings of Casa Borromeo. An elegantly sober palace, built as a country house, where the visitors can admire trompe l’oeil on the walls, collections of porcelains, precious furnishings and the unusual presence of theaters and puppets, intended to the entertainment and leisure of members of family and friends.
Recently the Borromeo family has opened both Isola Bella and Isola Madre for private visits after the closure time, I assure you that discovering these palaces far from the crowd, ending with a pleasant aperitif served in the evocative and panoramic terraces is a treat you won’t regret!
Finally disembark at Isola dei Pescatori, with its delightful cobbled streets and a promenade that encircles it. The ideal spot to relax at one of the restaurants serving fresh lake fish such as lavarello and coregono.
If you love nature or are travelling with family, don’t miss the Pallavicino Park. A naturalistic oasis with a precious botany collection of rhododendrons, camellias, oleanders, magnolias and ancient plants, butespecially a place inhabited by over 50 species of mammals and exotic birds, including fallow deer, llamas, goats, Bennet kangaroos, peacocks, zebras, cockatoos and owls. A full experience in nature!
ROCCA DI ANGERA
If you like fairy-tales (like me) take an afternoon to sail to the Lombardy side of the lake, where there’s another property of Borromeo family, the Rocca di Angera. It is an example of medieval fortification perfectly preserved. In a magical alchemy of landscapes of extraordinary beauty, wide courtyards, refined halls, frescoed vaults and perspectives of rare suggestion, the medieval castle looks like
a dream location… And it’s exactly that: the castle of your childhood dreams!
Impossible not to be surprised by the size and power of this place. Every stone here recalls the great characters who passed by here, not least San Carlo Borromeo, one of the most important figures in the history of Catholicism (he was archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584). On the outside take a walk in the Medieval Garden that host a small vineyard. Not surprising that this is a perfect setting for weddings or gala dinners!
Quite impressive is The Museum of Dolls and Toys, the greatest in Europe. It will amaze you with the incredible collection of dolls and toys from a long-time-gone era.
I recently visited the Scaligera wing of the Castle – completely renewed, it has been inaugurated just some months ago. Here works of important Italian contemporary artists are exposed till the 30th of September.
When visiting Stresa, take a trip on the Mottarone cable car (which departs from the Lido) for a 20-minute ride to one of the most stunning views in Italy. At the midway stop you can stroll around the Alpine gardens and look out over the three islands set in the glittering waters of Lake Maggiore below. You could walk down to Stresa at this point, but that would mean missing the breathtaking 360-degree view at the top. Jump back on the cable car and carry on to the summit. After a short uphill walk you will be staring in awe across the magnificent Po Valley to the Alps, with the astonishing sight of seven blue lakes (Maggiore, Orta, Mergozzo, Varese, Comabbio, Monate and Biandronno) nestling into the surrounding landscape like shimmering jewels. Amazing.
RIDE THE CENTOVALLI
Last but not least! If you still have some time at disposal, catch the mainline train to Domodossola and then experience a ride on the Centovalli narrow-gauge line through magnificent mountain scenery, trundling slowly over precarious viaducts spanning ravines, admiring waterfalls plunging down the valley sides on the way to Locarno.
Enjoy wandering the streets of elegant Locarno or take the funicular to the Madonna del Sasso sanctuary, before catching the ferry back to Stresa, sitting back and relaxing in the sunshine.
Whether you are an incredible romantic like me, or you are looking for an active escape in the nature or just dreaming of some relax with family, Lake Maggiore will not disappoint you.
Author: Roberta Leverone