Nestled in an alpine landscape, breathtaking Lago Maggiore knows no borders: it extends about thirty miles into Switzerland; straddles Lombardia and Piedmonte; and, despite its elevation, enjoys a mild Mediterranean micro-climate where beautiful gardens and exotic plants flourish. A particularly alluring feature of Lago Maggiore is its intriguing mid-lake islands, known as the Isole Borromeo. They’re named for the aristocratic Borromeo family which still owns and maintains palaces on two of the islands.
Tiny and charming, Isola dei Pescatori (Island of the Fishermen) is the only one with a year-round population: 32 hearty souls who reside along the cobblestone streets and keep their fishing traditions alive.
The “crown jewel” is Isola Bella, a baroque fantasy that resembles an elegant ship of stone, decked with flowers, that plies the lake’s glacial waters. It was built by nobleman Charles Borromeo (he also helped finance the building of the Milan cathedral) who named the island for his wife Isabella. Room after ornate room eventually leads down to the “basement” … a lavish grotto intended as an oasis of coolness in the summer heat. Even more stunning are the exquisite manicured gardens laid out on ten terraces replete with plethora of statues, obelisks, flowers, exotic plants and the marvelous “Water Theatre” with its crowning statue of a unicorn, an emblem of the Borromeo clan. And as if all of this weren’t enough, white peacocks prance about the grounds like brides posing for their wedding photos … so hard to imagine they’re fellows!)
An easy day trip from Lake Maggiore is Piemonte’s lesser-known scenic jewel, Lake Orta, with its own charming island of San Giulio.
Lake Como may attract the lion’s share of American tourists but I hope now that Lake Maggiore is on your radar screen as you plan future adventures to La Bella Italia.