“I am in the most beautiful place in the world.” This is how the French poet and aristocrat Montesquieu described the Borromean Islands, a group of islands located in Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, in the Piedmont region. Belonging to the Borromeo family since the 17th century, they are one of the most aristocratic and beautiful corners of the transalpine country. Hemingway also fell in love with its natural splendor, as did Napoleon, Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and, more recently, George Clooney, owner of a villa in Como, an hour’s drive away.
With the arrival of spring, the call Borromeo Stagione (Boromeo station) attracts art lovers in all their senses. And it is that this group of islands has great palaces in Baroque and Rococo style, private collections with paintings of Flemish and Italian Renaissance art, and luxury hotels with spas and restaurants recognized by the Michelin Guide . But above all, the English gardens stand out, with more than 2,000 varieties of exotic species, some of which are impossible to admire in other corners of Italy or our country.
To get to the three main islands, Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella, you have to take a boat from the towns of Stresa, Intra or Verbania. There is a service every half hour. You can also choose to take a private boat and cruise through the Borromean Islands, which can be extended to other islands in Lake Maggiore. Or take the leap to Lake Orta, where the island of Orta San Giulio is located, a few kilometers from the Val Grande National Park, bordering Switzerland.
The experience is unique. There is nothing more sensual and pleasant than observing the snow-capped mountains surrounded by spring flora while enjoying a spritz accompanied by Piedmontese and Tuscan cold cuts and smoked meats, prepared by several hotels in the area, such as Il Giardinetto Hotel & Restaurant, in Orta , or the Hotel La Palma, in Stresa.
Isola Madre, open-air botanical garden
Starting from Intra, the first island on the itinerary is the largest, Isola Madre, with an eight-hectare open-air botanical garden surrounding the Borromeo Palace and its art gallery, with Italian masterpieces of the 19th century. Built on five levels, it is an authentic English-style plant oasis where, in addition to contemplating thousands of varieties of exotic flora, the visitor can stroll among brightly colored peacocks, pheasants, parrots and parrots.
The palace, whose construction began at the beginning of the 16th century and lasted until the 19th century, was the residence of Count Lancilloto Borromeo, one of the five sons of John III Borromeo and Cleofe Pio di Carpi, the first owners of these islands. The count even decided that, despite being in northern Italy, on a lake that freezes over in winter, he was going to dedicate land on the island to the cultivation of olives and the introduction of citrus and fruit typical of Liguria, which he commissioned renowned landscapers and gardeners. Some of the palm trees that adorn the gardens also date from this period, which is extraordinary in these climatic conditions.
Wandering the richly decorated halls of the palace takes you back to the Italy of the Sforza dynasty
The Baroque-decorated palace is a museum in itself and is open to the public. Strolling through its richly decorated rooms takes you back to the Italy of the Sforza dynasty, which even employed Leonardo da Vinci and other great artists in Milan. It was precisely the role of captain and defender of freedom of the Borromean Patriarch in the first elections of the Ambrosian Republic that allowed him to acquire a great fortune and buy the main islands.
Authentic luxury stays
The islands do not have their own accommodation, so one of the best stays is that offered by the Hotel La Palma, in the heart of Stresa. He has a overflowing swimming pool which practically merges with the lake. The walls of the rooms of this luxury hotel are signed Hermès and the furniture is signed Cassina. Its panoramic spa allows you to enjoy the benefits of the Scottish shower and a break in its salt room.
In Stresa there is also the Villa and the Palazzo Aminta, a luxurious hotel complex ideal for relaxing in the most elegant and exclusive surroundings. This villa has lush gardens lapped by the crystal clear waters of Lake Maggiore and offers romantic moonlit dinners at the prestigious I Mori restaurant. The rooms are decorated with Venetian terrazzo floors, marble columns and beautiful tapestries on the walls. The ideal atmosphere to taste signature dishes or even do a tasting of wines from the region.
Stresa, for its part, is well worth a visit to admire some of its incredible villas, such as the Ducale, from the end of the 18th century, and to take the cable car which takes only 20 minutes to the top of Mount Mottarone, 1 492 meters above sea level where, curiously, hides a small ski resort.
Lovers of the seventh art will recognize some of the scenes from the film ‘La Correspondance’ in Stresa
Lovers of the seventh art, in particular the great Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, author of the acclaimed and Oscar-winning film Cinema Paradisoyou will recognize in Stresa some of the scenes of the film Correspondence (I will love you forever), with Jeremy Irons and Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko as protagonists.
Although it is called the twin island of Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori could not be more different from its sister. We are facing the only inhabited island of the Borromeans, which has managed to maintain its rich popular culture despite the fact that only about fifty people live there. It is an old fishing village with the most picturesque narrow cobbled streets, flowered windows and balconies where its inhabitants dry fish in the sun. An ideal place to taste the varieties freshly caught from the lake and cooked mainly on the grill, visit the craft shops and enjoy the panorama of Lake Maggiore from its splendid viewpoint.
Every August 15, the feast of the Madonna dell’Assunta, a procession of fishing boats takes place around the island, all illuminated like twinkling lights before the popular dinner takes place in the streets with tastings of typical products , such as trout, crab, grilled meats with vegetables and chocolate, almond or lemon pies.
The last jewel that is essential to visit is Isola Bella, whose name is due to the wife of Carlo III Borromeo, Isabella d’Adda. Its monumental baroque palace, built in 1632 and subject to continuous reforms and extensions until the 19th century, is architecturally much more imposing than that of Isola Madre. We are facing a veritable royal palace in miniature, with halls and halls so ornate that even Italian art critics preferred to use the term kitsch to designate it.
Overwhelming would be the best adjective to describe the garden and the ten overlapping terraces, with water features and statues by artist Carlo Simonetta. Pyramids of sculptures and flowers whose power of attraction succeeded in conquering the admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine. Moreover, in 1935, Mussolini chose this palace as the venue for one of his international conferences.
The visit cannot end without first visiting the cave that is located under the palace, decorated with spectacular mosaics in color and with a wealth of detail.
In short, the Borroneas contain an infinite number of secret charms, both natural and artificial, being able to affirm without a doubt that they are a paradise still unknown to many Europeans and one of the most exquisite corners of all Italy. .