Monday, August 17, 2015


One of our trips this summer was a day trip from Milan to Lake Maggiore. The location of our hotel (Hilton) was just a five minute walk to the station. What a grand station that was.

Although the train went on to Stresa we only took the train as far as Arona and then boarded one of the many lake ferries which would take us to Stresa. It was a great day for being out on the water.
We were able to sit up top and enjoy the sights of many towns and villas as we sailed by.

It had been in our plans to take another ferry to the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso. Unfortunately, when we got to Stresa we discovered it closed from 12pm-2pm which meant that the next ferry would arrive just as it was closing. Instead, we decided to take the ferry to Isola Bella.

I didn't know this was going to be a garden tour!

We made our way from the very busy village towards the palace. Construction on the barren rocky island began in 1630 by Carlo III Borromeo. The plan was a palace and a casino ( building for pleasure, music and dancing) on the higher part of the island. The island would resemble a ship although to me it looked like a wedding cake. At various times construction was halted and was taken up by Carlo's sons. Changes to the original plans included the creation of the gardens. Entry included a tour of the palace and there was no way to do the garden alone. We paid our entry fee and I bought a garden guide.

For me the tour of the house was going to be a means to an end! I do have to admit that I am glad I saw the palace if only for its sheer display of opulence. Photos were prohibited but I did manage to sneak one or two.

Plans for the great Borromeo Palace
Rooms filled with paintings with not an inch of wall space are not really my cup of tea. I was more interested in the views from the window, some of which looked down over the gardens. The doors were wide open on one of the coolest days we had experienced in the whole 3 weeks we had been away.

View of lake Maggiore 

I puzzled for some time as to what was written in this floral display on the lawn until I realized it was the Borromeo motto, 'Humility'

 I could barely wait to get outside. I knew we were getting closer when we entered into the grottoes which connect the house to the garden. The rooms, of which there are six, took 100 years to complete starting in 1685. The walls and floors are covered with small pebbles and pieces of limestone creating intricate patterns of a nautical nature. It was a cool place for the family to spend time in the summer.

When the English did their grand tours of Europe they brought many ideas home including the idea of having a grotto in their garden plans. The word has a rather interesting origin being derived from the word Grottesche or grotesque. When Nero's Domus Aurea was discovered in 15C. having been buried for hundreds of years, they found decorations, which consisted of intricate arches of carved stone to resemble leaves, garlands and animals. In this underworld setting everything seemed otherworldly and was given the name Grottesche. At Isola Bella these were no grotty grottoes!

The entrance from the grottoes to the garden was barred forcing us to climb back up a stone circular staircase to make a grand entrance from the house into Diana's atrium.

Diana's Atrium
 From this polygonal courtyard two flights of stairs branched from either side, leading up to a further set of steps and a large iron gate. Fig ivy covered the walls. I have decided that Europe is determined to keep everyone fit by having them walk hundreds of steps everyday.

I had no idea what to expect at the top of the steps. It was not this.

Baroque at its best, this Teatro is ornamented with statues sculpted by Carlo Simonetta. On the very top is a statue of a unicorn, the coat of arms of the Borromeo family, and ridden by an amorino representing "honour" Steps on either side of the teatro lead up to a large rectangular terrace with views overlooking the 9 tiered terraces leading down to the lake.

Ornamentation with pebbles and shell carvings.

Views of the lake from all directions.

This tower, which now serves as a cafe once held a hydraulic pump to feed fountains and gardens with water from the lake.

Terraced gardens which once held citrus are filled with roses and azaleas.

Ah! The greenhouses. I knew we would find them somewhere.

Once again the interior decorated with pebbles and limestone and now holding collections of bromeliads, orchids and other tropical plants.

There are plenty of plants to be seen in the garden and sometimes they manage to distract you from the view, although in the higher sections of the garden it is hard not to look towards the lake.

 Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William, who visited here sometime in the early 1800s, called the garden "The peak of absurdity, a garden not of flowers but of stone." 200 years ago it may have been just that. Today there may have been enough plants to satisfy her. It makes me wonder what she would have thought of my garden!
This is my first visit to an Italian Garden. I hope it won't be the last.


  1. Some beautiful sights here, but the "pebbled room" impressed me the most. Wow! That's patience!

  2. Very, very interesting! So many containers in the garden. I wonder if they use lake water for irrigation and how they force so many beautiful blooms.
    Thank you for the grand tour.

  3. The lake views are fantastic and the grottoes are masterpieces (if also a bit overwhelming).

  4. I felt that I was right there with you at the top of the steps! A gasp, a bit of a laugh, and then a wow! Nothing is done half way there is it? You guys take the best vacations.

  5. Every shot could practically be a postcard. I'll confess to getting a bit of a thrill seeing plants used there that I also have in play here. You know, just me here for a couple of decades and the several hundred years old Italian gardens with their caretakers - all hitting the same marks! : ) Things look pretty fresh considering the heat they had. Being surrounded by water obviously helps.

    (Good grief those were a lot of stairs. Folks living and working there must laugh about people who go to gyms for exercise. )

  6. The gardens look beautiful...and you took great pictures! This is definitely a place I want to visit one day.

  7. Wow, how incredible! I would never have known this place existed, had you not shared. Thank you!