Think Belle époque and you are in for a treat
Writers and poets crafted countless pages of purple prose to describe the awe and splendour of Lake Maggiore - with its dramatic shores, stately hotels and regal promenades, Italy’s second largest lake speaks the language of Belle Époque. Supremely tranquil and truly majestic, this once was – and still is – Italy’s first taste for anyone visiting this alluring area to the north of the peninsula via train or car.
Gentle waters reflect images of green hills and far away towering mountains, exotic plants adorn unexpectedly lush gardens and ancient hermitages capture one’s phantasy. An idyll indeed, where water and mountains meet to craft a picture-perfect bond to be treasured time and again.
A flower for all seasons - Villa Taranto
The world is replete with spectacular gardens, encompassing a thorough knowledge of everything floral, combined with the love and dedication for sheer beauty. Not many of them, however, organise their displays so that every season sees a different bloom. Exceptional Villa Taranto in Pallanza does just that. The brainchild of Captain Neil Mc Eacharn, a Scotsman who bought the property in 1931 and felt the area reminded him of his native Scotland, Villa Taranto was built following the principles of aesthetics and botany. Many plant species were imported from around the world over the years and the Villa now hosts about 1,000 non-native species and a staggering 20,000 varieties of flowers and plants. Admire the water lilies flowering in June, get lost in the dahlia labyrinth or simply marvel at giant Amazonian lilies, lotus blossoms and Japanese maple, among this colourful bonanza. Better still, arrive in style with a ferry – the villa has its own ferry dock – or walk from Verbania Pallanza for a trip to remember.
Baroque supreme - Isola Bella
A name that says it all, Isola Bella, off Stresa, is simply superlative. Arriving via ferry to what is perhaps the most extravagant of the three Isole Borromee, Palazzo Borromeo on the island strikes a note in any visitor’s imagination; it presides over ten tiers of terraced gardens and it is precisely the memory of these gardens that will stay with you for a long time. Think exotic white peacocks roaming free, a four-tiered series of grottoes encrusted with shells, mirrors and marble, then manicured gardens laid out with the geometrical accuracy of a Carthusian monk. No flamboyance was spared in the seventeenth century, when owner Count Carlo III Borromeo decided to create an island paradise for his wife Isabella. The palace contains masterpieces by Van Dyck, Rubens, Titian, Paolo Veronese and Andrea Mantegna; there is a faint sense of delightful decadence as you walk along the gardens, and if you throw a small stone in the water as you contemplate the soaring mountains, accompanied by the lull of gentle waters lapping on the shores, you will hear yourself wondering whether this really is the prettiest garden in Italy.
Saints and pilgrims – Santa Caterina del Sasso
A spectacular location overlooking the lake, this evocative 13th century hermitage on the east bank of Lake Maggiore is pure bliss. Legend has it that shylock Alberto Besozzi survived a storm while sailing on the lake, after having prayed for the help of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. As a vow, he then decided to give up usury and became a hermit in a cave on the hillside by Leggiuno. He had a chapel built at first and then, over time, two churches were added, making up the magnificent complex, so intriguing and mysterious as it’s perched over the lake. The monastery can be reached either by walking down a 268-step staircase from the car park or climbing up 80 steps from the ferry quay. Either way, it’s an effort worth making as the views are staggering, the gaze finding it hard to contain such a triumph of serenity amid a fabulous landscape
Animal paradise - Parco Pallavicino
Lake Maggiore is dotted with several magnificent villas, owned by wealthy and illustrious people, who chose the sublime banks of this serene lake to leave a testimony of their vision. Imposing Villa Pallavicino, between Stresa and Belgirate, proudly overlooks the lake and is set in a fabulous location. Conceived in the middle of the 19th century by the statesman Ruggero Borghi, it was then sold to the Duke of Vallombrosa, who transformed it and made it a family residence, adding a lush garden with a plethora of roses, magnolias, rhododendrons and azaleas. Then, in 1954, the Marquis of Pallavicino added a zoological park: Parco Pallavicino is now a fabulous place where 40 animal species roam free, including exotic birds and mammals. This is truly an unexpected gem, amid the many you will find discovering extraordinary Lake Maggiore