Postcards from Italy

Italy's Islands: The Isole Borromee in Lake Maggiore

When considering Italy's Mediterranean islands, most people conjure up mental images of the southern yachterati hot spots of Capri, Sardinia, and Ischia...famed for their coasts lined with chic beach clubs, bustling towns full of artisan shops and designer boutiques, and luxury hotels and resorts with Michelin-starred restaurants and world-class spas. Though those generalizations are largely true for islands off the country's southern coast, as you move north the character of Italy's islands subtly shifts away from beaches and boats, and begins to favor pristine nature and historic architecture.

Dawn on Lake Maggiore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Italy's lake islands, however, are in a category of their own. These tiny outposts lording over the waters of lakes from Bolsena to Como are often privately owned, home to defensive fortresses or sumptuous villas that either stand mysterious and closed to the curious or, more rarely, welcome visitors to stroll through and admire their lavish excess from an almost forgotten age.

Isola Bella(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Perhaps the most remarkable in the latter category are Isola Bella and Isola Madre, two of the three tiny islands that make up the Isole Borromee (Boromean Islands) archipelago in Lake Maggiore. The second largest of Italy's northern lakes, Maggiore straddles the border between Italy and Switzerland and offers stunning scenery and an elegant La Dolce Vita vibe. Strung like pearls along the lake's shores are a number of delightful resort towns, including Stresa, the perfect jumping-off spot to visit the gem-like Borromean Islands by ferry or private boat.


The Isole Borromee just offshore from Stresa have been owned by the aristocratic Borromeo family since the 12th century, and the decadent 17th-century palaces and formal terraced gardens on Isola Bella and Isola Madre were built as their private pleasure grounds. The third island, Isola dei Pescatori, is instead home to a charming array of tiny chapels, art galleries, souvenir shops, and fish restaurants with lake views.

Isola Bella

Home to the baroque Palazzo Borromeo and its 10 tiers of spectacular terraced gardens, Isola Bella is arguably Lake Maggiore's most impressive sight. Visit the Sala di Napoleone, where the emperor Napoleon stayed with his wife in 1797; the grand Sala da Ballo (Ballroom); the ornate Sala del Trono (Throne Room); and the Sala delle Regine (Queens' Room) to admire artwork by Rubens, Titian, Paolo Veronese, Andrea Mantegna, and Van Dyck.

Palazzo(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

The villa's gardens date from 1671 and were dedicated, along with Palazzo Borromeo and the island itself, to the Countess Isabella d’Adda by her husband, Carlo III. The gardens have been a destination for international dignitaries and royalty since the mid-1700s, when they were visited by everyone from Napoleon to Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales. Of special note are the numerous exotic species in the garden and the outdoor amphitheater, which reflects the Borromeo family's passion for the theater.

Isola Bella(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Isola Madre

The largest of the three islands, Isola Madre is almost wholly taken up by the villa and grounds of Palazzo Madre, built between the 16th and 18th century and today a treasure trove of antique furnishings, elaborate decorative trompe l’oeil, and the odd quirk like Countess Borromeo’s doll collection and a puppet theater designed by a scenographer from La Scala in Milan and populated by marionettes representing the entire Borromeo family, their friends, and even their servants. There is also a delighfully ghoulish “horror” marionette theater, with a cast of puppet demons.

Puppet Theater(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Outside, the English-style botanic gardens are even more dazzling than those of Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella, with colorful azaleas, rhododendrons, hibiscus, and camellias. Towering eucalyptus and banana trees, fruit orchards, and an olive grove also thrive in the island's micro-climate that runs 3-4 degrees warmer than the mainland, and are protected by sturdier trees that have been strategically planted to form a windbreak. The entire garden is built on rock with just a thin layer of soil, and yet is home to massive trees, including the largest Kashmir Cypress in Europe that was downed by winds in 2006 but was replanted and is growing again.

Isola Madre(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Kashmir Cypress - Lago Maggiore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Exotic birds like white peacocks and colorful pheasants strut around the grounds, and there are spectacular views across the lake at every turn.

Peacock(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Isola dei Pescatori

Where Isola Bella and Isola Madre will wow you with their glamour, the humble Isola dei Pescatori (also known as Isola Superiore) will charm you with it's time-capsule fishing-village atmosphere. With a population of just a few dozen, the island is mostly a spot to relax, soak in the views, and enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the restaurants serving fresh lake fish clustered around the pier. Poke your head into the Chiesa di San Vittore, pocket-sized cemetery, and one-room schoolhouse that now is home to a exhibit of artifacts and information about the island's fishing heritage. Take time to browse the tiny shops and galleries before saying goodbye to this favorite haunt of conductor Arturo Toscanini before heading back to the mainland.

Isola dei Pescatori(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Lake Fish Lunch(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Isola dei Pescatori(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Lago Maggiore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Related posts:
Italy's Islands: The Venetian Islands
Italy's Islands: The Tuscan Archipelago
Italy's Islands: Ischia

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