The Borromean Islands
Isola Madre was a contrasting visit after we had explored the sumptuous palace and gardens of Isola Bella earlier that day. The short boat ride from one island to the next was over in less than 20 minutes, with a short stop at Stresa. On our approach to the Isola Madre we could see that it was somewhat larger, less built on and covered in lush vegetation, with only one stately palazzo on the Southern side and a small café on the end of the island. Isola Madre is not only the largest of the Borromean islands it was also the first to be inhabited by the aristocratic family. The palazzo Borromeo was built at the beginning of the 16th century and later extended in the Renaissance style, however it is renowned for its botanical gardens more than the house, with a variety of exotic plants from all over the world.
Jerome was looking forward to the gardens of Isola Madre and we had to promise him to leave the house until last. He loves to walk around and explore in gardens and unusually for a child loves not only all forms of wildlife but is interested by plants too. Walking up the ancient stone steps from the jetty, through an iron gate, we could see the palazzo above us and the entrance to the garden was straight ahead. We immediately realized that the style of the garden was very different to the Italian garden on Isola Bella. It was much wilder, with larger flowerbeds and big trees and bushes. The garden was constructed over seven terraces, in the English style, for count Vitaliano Borromeo and covers the entire island. They remain largely unchanged since the 18th century and have seen famous visitors like Napoeon and writer Gustave Flaubert, who named the Isola Madre “Earthly Paradise”.
We strolled along the southern side of the gardens, called the African Avenue, which on average is about four degrees warmer than the rest of the island. We could see the gardeners taking out the wilted tulips from among the flowerbeds of colourful poppies. We also noticed a beautiful staircase covered in sweet smelling wisteria as we strolled along. Further on were a lot of ferns and moss-covered stones, this part of the island was noticeably cooler due to the towering trees and the constant shade.
We looked into the old boathouse, where we could see an old, wooden gondolier, very much like the ones we had seen last year in Venice. Around the corner we stumbled upon a field of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, an overwhelming wall of flower power in shades of pink, red, white and yellow. Jerome discovered a narrow path going off into the depth of the colourful bushes that few others seemed to follow. It was a pleasure to stroll along the path, especially as we did not meet anyone else along the way. The rhododendron blossoms had formed a flower carpet underneath the bushes, which glowed in the setting spring sun.
White Peacocks and Other Exotic Birds
The narrow path ended by a large lawn, where we could see colourful birds grazing between the bushes and flowers. Jerome with his love and admiration for birds stopped in wonder to gaze at them. There also was a white peacock, like we had seen at Isola Bella earlier but also several colourful hens and some exotic pheasant like birds wandering around. At the end of the lawn we also saw an aviary with smaller, exotic birds.
Our stroll took us on past some conifers and Japanese pine trees. Life on the island must have been very isolated and shut off from the rest of the world, wandering and playing in this amazing garden, full of rare and exotic flowers and plants must have nurtured the love and curiosity for nature from a very early age. I felt that children growing up on Isola Madre must have had a very happy and hopefully free childhood compared to the children on the more formal Isola Bella.
On our round through the garden we eventually found ourselves at the back of the Borromeo Palazzo. Right in front stands the Tibetean cypress, the largest of its kind in Europe. It was severly damaged in a tornado that hit the island in 2006 and on its path through damaged the garden substantially, including this precious tree. A lot of effort and care went into keeping the tree from dying. It was not hard to notice the steel cables attached to the tree to keep it from falling over and it appeared to have recovered from most of the storm damage, it still looks a bit delicately balanced though and I do hope it recovers fully.
Inside the Palazzo
We entered the palace from this side of the garden and immediately made our way up the wide stairs, past paintings of the Borromeo family and ancestors to the first floor. This palazzo was much more down to earth in comparison to the splendor we had seen at the baroque palace on Isola Bella. It felt much more like a family home, although I felt it was much darker inside, despite the bright sunshine outside. The décor was more basic and rustic but Iam sure for the 16th century it was rich. There was plenty of plush furniture on display, a heavenly canopy bed with curtains. Jerome was curious about the curtains around the bed and we explained to him that they served as a form of privacy from the servants and to keep the cold and light out.
One room had a massive theatre with marionettes and scene set up. In the room adjacent we found display cases full of the most incredible marionettes, including a devil that breathed smoke and other scary and beautiful puppets. It must have been an absolute childhood dream to live and watch these shows. A lot of money and time must have gone into preparing these spectacular theatres and surely adults must have had fun watching them too. Downstairs on the ground floor were more rooms filled with antique furniture from the Borromeo’s estates. We knew time was getting tight before the house and garden would close and did a quick walk through the remaining salons and out into the last of the sun.
Back outside we walked down the stairs to the little chapel that has been turned into a shop and café. This was a lovely spot to sit and enjoy the view of the pretty pond whilst sipping a cup of coffee. We walked along the front of the house and exited to the back of the park. To our surprise we saw there was a restaurant, hidden away in the perfect location, catching the early evening sun. Sitting on the terrace must be one of the most beautiful places to have dinner in the area. I am not sure about the food though, on our visit it was still closed for the season.
Goodbye Isola Madre
We walked back towards the gate and down the steps to the jetty. The sun had turned the lake into a silver carpet, a magical end to our trip to Isola Madre.
Tips for Visiting Isola Madre and Isola Bella
Our only wish, would have been to have had more time to explore both islands, I would recommend considering up to a full day for Isola Bella and a good half day for Isola Madre. Children will love the boat trips, the animals on both islands and the little paths through the gardens. The houses can be a bit overwhelming but I think the marionettes and grotto can catch any child’s imagination.