Situated on the western side of Lake Maggiore, directly opposite Stresa, the three Borromean Islands lie in a wide gulf surrounded by mountains. The islands take their name from the aristocratic Borromean family, who took ownership of the land in the 16th and 17th centuries. Only the best architects and gardeners were called on by the famous members of the family—themselves art lovers and botanists—to breathe life into their ambitious projects. The islands of Bella and Madre were transformed into grand, luxurious residences, while the third island, named “dei Pescatori” after its age-old fishing community, was left to continue its traditional way of life.
Despite their alpine setting, the three Borromean Islands share a pleasant climate, but each offers a very different experience. Isola Bella was completely transformed by its occupants, and its palace and gardens are the epitome of opulence and luxury. In contrast, the Isola dei Pescatori, with its village unchanged by time, offers a fascinating simplicity. Finally, the exotic atmosphere of the lush and tranquil Isola Madre can be ascribed to the gardens that almost totally cover it.
The Borromean Islands are easy to reach from the main ports and are a must-see destination for every visitor to Lake Maggiore.
Isola Bella (320 x 180 m), perhaps the most admired destination on Lake Maggiore, derives its fame from its stunning Baroque palace and elaborate Italian gardens. It was the crowning glory of a group of famous Italian architects in the 17th century who, thanks to generous sponsorship from the Borromeo family, were able to create a unique masterpiece.
Although Isola Bella was originally just a rocky crag inhabited by fishermen, in 1630 Charles Borromeo began the colossal building work that would utterly transform the island. The ambitious project saw palace and garden brought together in the form of an imaginary ship: the dock represented the prow of the vessel, the main palace was the bow deck and the raised terrace was the bridge. Construction lasted forty years and dramatically changed the face of Isola Bella. The results had a significant impact on the landscape and represent a triumph for man shaping nature to his will.
The four-storey palace is a typical example of Lombard Baroque architecture. The most interesting rooms are those located on the first floor, radiating from the hall of honour, with its grand architecture, balcony and dome. Around the hall you can visit the Neoclassical ballroom; the music room, with its selection of valuable musical instruments; the “Medals Room”, so-called because of the gilded wooden ornaments recounting the life of Saint Charles Borromeo; the Tapestry Hall, featuring a display of rare Flemish tapestries from the 16th century, woven in silk and gold; and many other rooms decorated with paintings, furniture, plasterwork and crystal chandeliers. The most inventive part of the palace, however, can be found underground: six natural grottos decorated with dark-and light-coloured pebbles and shells in designs reflecting nautical themes.
The Italian gardens are spread across ten terraces that form a truncated pyramid ornamented with balustrades, hedges, obelisks and statues. A stroll through the gardens will lead you to the amphitheatre, an elaborate construction on three levels with walls decorated with stones and tuff; dotted about are tasteful niches, reliefs and statues representing the triumph of the Borromeo family. From here you exit onto the upper terrace, which is 37 m up, and boasts an impressive panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the gulf. On one of the lower terraces, a lily pond, handsome flowerbeds and criss-cross box hedges lend a romantic atmosphere to the Giardino dell’Amore — or “Garden of Love” . Majestic trees, spectacular flowers and exotic plants flourish throughout the gardens.
Isola Madre (220 x 330 m) is the largest of the islands on Lake Maggiore and boasts a 20-acre park that is considered one of the most impressive and well-preserved in Italy. The rare plants and exotic flowers in these English-style botanical gardens have been enchanting visitors for over a century.
The island was first cultivated at the beginning of the 16th century, when the Borromeo family, impressed by the exceptionally mild climate on the island, began to introduce citrus trees and vines. During the nineteenth century, the orchard gradually evolved into landscaped botanical gardens. The unique character of the park can be largely attributed to Count Vitaliano IX Borromeo, who was a passionate botanist. Over fifty years, he spared no effort to expand his collection of valuable plants from every continent in the world.
The passage of time has not dimmed the appeal of Isola Madre, which today plays host to ancient trees and a delightful population of peacocks, parrots and pheasants. Every latitude and altitude, from South America to Asia, seems to be present here; so much so that a visit to the island is transformed into a multicoloured journey around the world. It would be hard to improve upon Flaubert's appraisal of the island as an “earthly paradise”.
The austere historical palace, which sits on the jutting outcrop that dominates the island, now serves as a museum: inside, furniture, paintings and tapestries recreate the magnificent rooms created by the Borromean family. The doll and china collections and the delicate puppet theatre are particular highlights. Outside, there is a neo-Gothic, sepulchral chapel with elegant terracotta decoration that overlooks a circular pond filled with lilies, reeds and irises.
Isola dei Pescatori
Isola dei Pescatori (350 x 100 m) is regarded as one of the most picturesque locations on Lake Maggiore. Its characteristic old village has been a fishing community for centuries and is still home to around fifty people, some of whom preserve their traditional way of life. The village is also celebrated for its well-preserved architecture and old-fashioned characteristics. The narrow streets and simple buildings recall the spartan but animated lives of local fishermen in times gone by. The tiny, traditional shops and fish restaurants enhance the life of the village, which is a popular destination for day-trippers. However, it is in the evenings, when silence falls and the lights are reflected in the waters of the lake, that the island is at its most evocative. Staying at one of the island's two hotels is the best way to truly soak up the atmosphere. Don't forget to book in advance.