Where to spend a weekend where you will feel like you have stepped out of fairy tales? The answer is the Borromean Islands archipelago at Lake Maggiore. An archipelago of five islands-three of which can be visited-that chronicle centuries of Italian nobility, pomp, and true luxury. Only an hour and a half from Milan, you find yourself immersed in an incredible setting of sumptuous palaces, beautiful gardens, and the magic of water.
The archipelago consists of: the Isola Madre, Isola Bella, Isolino di San Giovanni, Isola dei Pescatori, and Scoglio della Malghera. Just think that in 2019 The New York Times listed the Borromean Islands among the ten most fascinating places in the world.
In the 14th century the Borromeo family, aristocrats of Florentine origin, and later lords of Lombardy became owners of the islands and thus began their transformation. The family still owns Isola Bella and Isola Madre and the three emerged rocks known as Castelli di Cannero because of the ruins of medieval fortifications.
How to visit the Borromean Islands?
The first thing to check is whether the islands can be visited and book your ticket that allows you to enter the island and visit its palaces and gardens.
The advice is to take a tour between the main islands (Bella, Madre and Pescatori), aboard a boat. Ferry departures take place both from Stresa and from the other side of the lake, Pallanza-Verbania. But there are also companies that run tours from Arona, Angera, and Baveno. One can choose between passages from the public company (Navigazione Laghi) or a private boat if in a group, or private companies that allow more freedom of schedule.
I preferred to start the boat tour from Stresa (I stayed for 2 nights at this very nice B&B in Arona) by choosing the public line company, which I paid for on the spot to get a good understanding of their operation and schedule).
What to see
The Borromeo Islands are linked to the Terre Borromee, estates and palaces of the family distributed between Lombardy and Piedmont. This immense historical, architectural, and natural treasure is composed of the Borromean Islands; Pallavicino Park in Stresa; Mottarone Park along the slopes of the mountain of the same name; Rocca di Angera, on the Lombardy side in the province of Varese; and the Castles of Cannero, located in upper Verbano.
Isola Madre is the largest of the three islands and was the first to be inhabited. The gardens (a whopping 8 hectares) are home to rare plant species from around the world and animals such as white peacocks and parrots, which frolic freely in the greenery. Not to be missed is the majestic Borromeo Palace, a 16th-century building with period furnishings, portraits, and porcelain, and the spectacular Venetian Hall with trompe l’oeil decorations.
The fairy-tale beauty, in my opinion, is found in Isola Bella, where, in addition to the palace and botanical garden, there are some narrow alleys overlooked by small stores and restaurants. Also here you will find the Borromeo Palace where Napoleon also stayed with his wife Josephine of Beauharnais. The building is an imposing Baroque-style complex, built and expanded over three centuries.
Inside is the Berthier Gallery with more than 130 paintings by authors such as Raphael, Correggio, and Titian, and how can we forget the rooms on the ground floor, which reproduce caves of the marine environment? The highlight (especially in full bloom) are the Italian gardens that surround it. The most important monument is the Teatro Massimo, an amphitheater consisting of statues, obelisks, and ten terraces.
Isola dei Pescatori, also known as Isola Superiore is the only one inhabited year-round. The ancient village was home to fishermen so it still has the original architectural structure, which was used to dry fish. The Island boasts excellent trattorias and every year celebrates the folklore of the traditional Ferragosto, as well as Carnival.
Where to eat?
Finally, a little list of nice restaurants worth a try, with local cuisine and fair prices:
- L’Osteria d’Asti in Arona
- Amici, Bar Pasticceria Jolly and Pasticceria Marcolini in Stresa.