Arriving in Stresa as evening approached was magical. The mountains surrounding Lake Maggiori were starting to merge into the dusk, their snowy white peaks starkly contrasting with the bluish purple of the mountains.
The winding road down into Stresa provided beautiful views of the lake, the Borromean Islands, and boats heading in to the wharf.
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, and crosses the border into Switzerland. Messing about in boats is clearly a popular activity. Fishermen’s boats abound on Isola dei Pescatori, pleasure boats of all kinds jostle for space with the ferries around Stresa. Stunning lakeside residences have beautiful yachts moored nearby.
Serious hikers and cyclists were thick on the ground early in the morning, heading out to conquer all obstacles. No doubt skiers joined the early morning exodus during the season. Being among the more slothful types, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of my hotel, overlooking the lake, contemplating the leisurely activities I had planned – visiting the gardens of Stresa and surrounds.
Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands, is wholly occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo, and its extravagant garden. Work started on the Palazzo and garden in 1632, and was not finally completed during 1948-59.
The garden is constructed on ten terraces, and is Baroque Italian style. It is the most grandiose, flamboyant and fanciful garden I have ever visited. Magnificent trees, ponds and fountains, statues, obelisks and pinnacles, orderly flowerbeds and lawns, shrubs, flowers, roses, hydrangea, camellia, azalea and citrus together with expansive views over Lake Maggiore to the mountains provide a visual overload of massive proportions.
The garden is entered through the Palazzo. A colossal camphor tree greets you as you emerge in to the garden. It arrived as a sapling in 1819. There are numerous notable old trees around the garden, which help to balance the grandiose architecture and ornamentation and “carved” trees with nature.
The Teatro Massimo (the rear of which is visible in the image above) has to be the most extreme baroque architectural garden structure ever. It is topped by a unicorn being ridden by a winged figure representing either love or honour. There are 4 huge statues representing four elements – fire, earth air and water. There are statues of the four seasons, each holding a plant applicable to their season. Add some huge scallop shell decorations and many more statues, and you should get the vision.
Terracotta pots of pansies or pots of round clipped buxus lined the various steps between terraces, carpets of multi coloured poppies filled some of the formal flower beds, and everywhere statues were thick on the ground. Here a Neptune, there a Diana presiding over a pool and huge concrete vases, some filled with fruit.
White peacocks strut about on the manicured lawns in front of the Teatro Massimo, occasionally showing off their magnificent tails.
A loud voice rang out over the lawn “Oh I say Mabel, look at them peacocks – we don’t have any in England”. It made me think of a visit to Leeds Castle in Kent a few weeks earlier, where several white peacocks were strutting their stuff. If I had been able to identify the voice, I may have suggested she and Mabel should visit Leeds Castle.
Sipping a cocktail in the Piano Bar at my hotel that evening, looking out over the Lake and listening to Chopin was a perfect end to an enchanting day.
“A beautiful garden does not need to be big, but it should be the realisation of one’s dreams” said Neil Boyd McEacharn, the creator of the Botanical Gardens at Villa Taranto, Pallanza.
All very well for him – the beautiful botanical gardens at Villa Taranto cover around 20 hectares. Still, that gives those of us with city gardens some hope of creating a place of beauty.
McEacharn established the gardens in 1931-40. He travelled the world in search of rare species. There are around 20,000 plant varieties in the gardens, which include a terraced garden, a bog garden, a water garden, a dahlia garden and a herbarium.
The Villa Taranto contains one of of Europes largest collections of exotic species. McEacharn’s dream to create one of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens was fulfilled. The fountains, ponds and architectural features add to the beauty of the garden.
McEacharn died in 1964, and is buried in a mausoleum in the garden.
Gustave Flaubert, in 1845, said that “Isola Madre is the most sensual place I have ever seen in the world”, and described it as an “earthly paradise”.
Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean Islands. The botanic garden on the island covers an area of eight hectares, and is described as an English style garden, and was landscaped in the early 19th century. It is one of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens, and contains a 200 year old Kashmir Cypress and a 125 year old Jubaeae Spectabilis Palm. There is no trace of the earlier orchards, and olive and citrus groves.
The garden seemed more tropical to me than an English style garden, with its eucalypts, banana and hibiscus, although it does have wonderful azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. The ponds and landscaping were a little reminiscent of an English garden.
The modern sculpture in the garden included Velasco Vitale’s Foresta rossa (red forest) and Branco, a pack of dogs. Foresta rossa is the name of a pinewood near Chernobyl, so named because immediately after the disaster in 1986, the trees all turned red, and then died. Foresta rossa was created from concrete tar and sheet metal.
These dogs are fun. They are created from different materials, and all look different. Each dog is named after a vanished city.
Champagne cocktails in the Piano Bar that evening provided a perfect end to another day in paradise.
Giardino Botanica Alpinia
The Alpine Garden is 800m above Stresa, and provides panoramic views of the Borromeo Islands, Lake Maggiore and its surrounding peaks. The Swiss Alps can be seen in the distance.
The garden was created in 1934, and is the second largest alpine garden in Italy. It covers an area of 40,000 sq. metres, and contains more than 1000 species of alpine and sub alpine plants, and includes many rare trees.
The garden contains botanic species from the Alps and Alpine foothills and from the Caucasus, China and Japan. A wetland area has been created for aquatic plants. An Alpine garden is a pretty wondrous place – seeing the variety of plants which grow and thrive in an alpine climate never fails to impress me.
I combined my visit to the Alpine Garden with a long walk which took me through Alpinio and through beautiful trees of many varieties.
I then utilised the Mottarone cable car to reach the top of Mottarone. I felt as though I was on top of the world, looking down on creation, when I walked up from the cable car terminus. A 360 degree uninterrupted view of mountains, from the Ligurian Apennines, the Maritime Alps to the Monte Rosa Massif, and the high peaks of Switzerland, seven visible lakes and the Po Valley – this view has to be up there with the best.
Having dinner on the terrace, looking out over the lake, accompanied by a cold crisp white wine, I felt as if all was well in my world.
Parco della Villa Pallavicino
The Pallavicino family acquired this property in 1862. The park was a work in progress for many years, and in 1952 a zoo was added.
The park is approached along a line of Cypresses, tortured to form a row of arches, reminiscent of a cloister, with magnificent views over the lake.
The garden is said to be reminiscent of an English garden, which in parts it was. The rose garden is mid 20th century, and did remind me of English rose gardens, especially the rose archways in the Regents Park in London. The rose garden was established in mid 20th century.
The current flower garden layout is from the 1950’s, and is also reminiscent of an English garden. The flower garden was the former kitchen garden.
The trees are magnificent and include centuries old chestnuts, beeches, maples redwoods and magnolias. There are numerous water features from ponds and fountains to waterfalls.
There are grassy slopes, leading up to more forested areas, with rather odd, though pretty, flower beds here and there. Peacocks roam about, adding to the colour and contrasting beautifully with the green, green grass – or should I say lawns. What I have in my garden is grass full of weeds, what this garden has is beautifully manicured carpets of green.
I thought that the request from the grass was a great deal more persuasive than the usual command to keep off the grass.
Grand Hotel Des Isles Borromees
I stayed in this historic hotel in Stresa, and had the bonus of its park to wander around. The hotel opened in 1863, and the park/garden has evolved since then.
The park contains hundreds of varieties of azaleas and camellias, and is in the style of a classic Italian garden. There are pathways winding through trees. Marble statues, mostly representations from Greek and Roman mythology, are liberally sprinkled around, including Neptune with his trident, Apollo and Fortuna, Paris and Helen, Dionysus cupids, and many more.
My room overlooked a fountain and garden. Fountain doesn’t seem an adequate description. The fountain is a reproduction of a marble fountain by Italian sculptor Vicenzo de Rossi. It is much more than a mere fountain. Two levels, granite stairs, multi coloured arabesques, mosaic walls, and a superb mosaic carpet. Statues representing 5 continents (sad to say us Antipodeans are not represented as Oceana had not been discovered).
The most startling thing about this fountain is that on the hour a music box in the fountain plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the ninth symphony. Luckily it ceases late at night. I love Beethovens 9th, but a music box version of Ode to Joy every hour stretches the friendship.
There were no gardens on the Isola dei Pescatori, the third of the Borromean islands, but I hopped off the ferry there one day to have lunch. It is a very pretty spot, with the fishermen’s boats lining the shores, swans sailing around majestically and lots of lovely spots to sit and enjoy the views. However I shall never again ask for a “doggy box” at a restaurant.
Having arrived in Stresa at dusk, leaving early in the morning provided a different perspective. As my car wound its way up from Stresa, the lake was sparkling in the sun and the snow on the mountain top was starkly white in the morning sun. There were a lot more boats on the lake. The ferries were making their way to the islands and settlements around the lake and the pleasure craft were heading out the places unknown. I was sad to leave. There are many more gardens to explore in the area, so I will return.