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The amazing sculptures and gardens on Isola Bella and Isola Madre, in Northern Italy’s Lake Maggiore, show what aristocratic taste and plenty of money could do in the 17th century.
The islands are two of the three main Borromeans set in the largest of the Italian lakes. The Borromeo family still owns some of the islands. Isola Bella, named after Countess Isabella, was once a barren rock. Carlo III ordered many tons of soil brought in and an elaborate palace and terraced gardens built, all as a gift for his wife. It took a few generations to complete, but it became a stunning retreat.
Today, visitors can tour the baroque villa, with its paintings and tapestries, ballroom, state hall, Napoleon’s room, and Hall of Mirrors. One room is filled with puppets that were used in marionette shows, a popular entertainment. The below-stairs level is not to be missed. It’s a grotto representing a cool underwater world, with floor-to-ceiling decorations of shells and black and white stone.
The garden’s ten terraces contain many kinds of trees and shrubs, fountains and an amphitheatre. White peacocks stroll the grounds. It’s beautiful any time of year, but in spring, when the camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom, Isola Bella is especially lovely. There are several restaurants on the island. The palace and gardens are open daily, April to mid-October.
Isola Madre is the largest island, almost completely occupied by a villa and splendid gardens. The richly furnished villa includes Italian masterpieces from the 16th to 19th centuries. It is particularly noted for its theatre and interesting puppets. The spacious gardens are planted with rare flowers and vegetables. There is only one restaurant on Isola Madre, where you can also get take-out sandwiches and have a picnic on the beach.
Amazing as Isola Bella and Isola Madre are, the third island, Isola dei Pescatori, is a nice contrast. There’s a low-key fishing village, and plenty of souvenir shops, but mostly all you do on this island is wander the picturesque streets (it won’t take long; the island is only a quarter-mile long) and have lunch on a café terrace.
For peace and quiet, it would be hard to find better lodgings than Hotel Verbano, on Isola dei Pescatori. From its terrace you have views of Isola Bella and the palace, the lake, and the mountains rising around it. The hotel has 12 comfortable rooms, each named for a flower. Its restaurant is known for Piedmont specialties made from fresh, local ingredients.
Ferries run regularly to the islands from Stresa, on Lake Maggiore’s western shore.