The Italian Lakes used to be an easily accessible weekend break for us when we still lived in Germany. The drive down to Lago di Lugano took just over 6 hours so it was a visit we often made in late spring or early summer. Unfortunately living in London for the last 7 years has made it almost impossible for us to make the journey there, as whilst flights to Milan are easy the timing and need for a car made it more difficult. This spring however so we had the perfect chance as for various reasons we were all in Germany giving us the chance to drive to Lago Maggiore for the May bank holiday weekend. We set out on Thursday, late afternoon and arrived in the evening, just in time for dinner in the little hillside village of Premeno nestling in the corner of the lake. This year the drive took much longer than expected, it started to snow just before we reached St Gotthard tunnel and the long winding road along the lake to reach Premeno seemed to take forever in the driving rain coming in from the lake. I had booked a room in an Airbnb, which turned out to be a true Italian Palazzo with a park like garden. The rooms were absolutely beautiful, Jerome had his own, and they were very spacious. Marina our host was a very friendly and helpful, and it was apparent that she had put a lot of time and effort into renovation the large house. The welcome made up for the drive and we enjoyed a quick dinner nearby before retiring.
After a good nights sleep we woke up to a snow covered garden. Jerome was overjoyed to see that it had snowed, as we obviously had not expected this to happen at all at this time of the year, it was nearly May after all! Breakfast was served for us in the salon, with the large double doors leading out onto the terrace that overlooked the garden. I had hoped that we would be able to sit and enjoy the early spring sun while having breakfast outside but that was not going to happen and we had to content ourselves with snow covered trees.
We had discussed our plans for the day over breakfast and decided to visit the Borromean Islands, Isola Bella and Isola Madre. These three islands still belong to the aristocratic family, the Borromeans, who acquired a string of islands, (five in total) in the 16th century. Isola Bella, Madre and San Giovanni are still owned by the family today. The islands are only accessible by boat but can be reached from a few spots on the lake by the regular ferry service. We drove into Pallanza, where we bought tickets for the next boat to Isola Bella and a return journey via Isola Madre.
We waited by the jetty for the boat, the departure times were still displayed on a clock where the time had to be changed manually and the destinations were printed on boards, no digital displays in sight yet. Jerome was excited when the boat arrived and we got seats outside to the front behind the prow. We first glided across the calm lake towards Isola Madre, glad that the previous days rain had cleared. We soon left the pretty town of Pallanza behind with the snow covered mountains visible behind and to all sides of the Lago Maggiore. Some people got off and on at Isola Madre and we stopped at Baveno and Isola Supperiore (another of the Borromean Islands) before finally reaching Isola Bella.
On our approach we could see the Palazzo Borromeo taking up the entire end of the island. Along the harbour side we could see a church and other buildings, some restaurants and small hotels among them. Once we got off the boat we went straight to the Palazzo, passing some tacky souvenir huts, which in my opinion spoiled the old traditional charm of the island a bit. The entry to the baroque palace is not cheap, but can be combined with tickets at a reduced fee for the other islands if visited on the same day.
The grand stairs led us up to the first floor of the palazzo already gave us an idea of what to expect. Carlo III of the Borromeo family had started to build this palace for his wife in 1632, when the island was no more than a few rocks and the odd fishing hut. Even today parts of the palace and gardens are only accessible to family members of the Borromeos. The rooms we entered, one after another in this sumptuous palace, were filled with paintings of famous artists, intricate mosaic tiled floors and opulent furniture. The ceilings in each room were lavishly decorated and the walls covered in stucco and large golden mirrors.
We could only gaze in wonder at the opulence, such a palace surely should have been the home of a king and queen… One of the rooms was decorated to accommodate Napoleon and his wife for a while. My favourite room was the Northern Hall with its large windows looking out onto the lake and the high, domed ceiling, although this was only finished in 1948. After a few of these sumptuous rooms Jerome could not wait to get through the palace, and not surprisingly he did not seem very interested in the stuffy, old furniture or the views through the windows. He is a nature lover and was keen to get out into the garden and the sunshine.
Even he seemed quite surprised when we had ended our tour of the first floor and walked the steps downstairs, and he considerably slowed his pace. First we stumbled upon a room full of marionettes, arranged in a variety of scenes. There were horse drawn carriages, armies of soldiers, giants and clowns, everything a child could want to watch in a puppet theatre. The children growing up in the Palazzo surely must have been well entertained. The next surprise awaited us in the rooms that followed, the absolute highlight of the Palazzo for us, the grotto.
The family retreated to these lower level rooms in the grotto during the hot summer months, which was designed as a cool retreat from the heat. The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways were all covered with intricate, nautical inspired murals made from shells, and black and white pebbles. It took workman and architects over a century to complete the grotto due to the ornate design. We were in total awe when walking through these rooms that anyone could have imagined such a living quarters. As well as the walls and ceiling the rooms were filled with rare artistic exhibits made of sea things from black Japanese coral to more local marine items. In the last room of the grotto we found the most peculiar display of horse saddles and bridles surrounding a model of the original castle of Angera.
Back upstairs we left the building to visit the gardens, however, Instead of heading straight on we discovered some steps to the right, which led us up into the glasshouse of the Palazzo. Warm and humid inside, we walked among tropical plants and ferns until we exited and found ourselves close to the side stairs into the main gardens. This was built over ten terrace levels in the Italian style, a style that focuses on the symmetry and geometry of the garden as much as the plants. The garden did not stop to impress us as much as the house had. On the perfectly manicured, lush green, lawn we could see the famous white peacocks strutting about and lazing under the bushes. Every now and then we could hear their high-pitched screeches, which could be heard through out the gardens. The lawns were surrounded with flowering shrubs in bloom.
We stood in front of the breath-taking amphitheatre, with its striking display of sculptures, fountains and giant shells and to top it off, Eros riding on a unicorn. We climbed the steps among the statues of the classical Gods to the top. From there we had an amazing view of the geometrical garden below and the villas and palazzos on the hillside of the lake.
On our stroll through the extensive garden we stumbled upon other fountains and ponds and a huge variety of plants that seem to thrive in the local climate. Jerome loved exploring all the paths and little hidden corners in the garden. I was most impressed by the bright pink azaleas, which were huge compared to the ones I had seen before. The mild climate by the lake favours many Japanese and Asian plants that have combined well with more local specimens such as the towering cypresses and citruses.
With time ticking towards our boat departure to ensure we still had time to visit Isola Madre, we reluctantly left this beautiful setting to head down the steps between the cafes for the jetty. We just had enough time for a quick snack waiting the last moments for the ferry back. Be careful to get the right jetty, as the return boats are further along from the drop off point.
You can read about the stunning gardens at Isola Madre in my next post.