The Borromean islands are the jewels of Lago Maggiore and the perfect way to spend a day relaxing and strolling amongst their famed sights, which the Princess of Wales herself, Caroline of Brunswick, fell in love with. It is said Caroline did her best to convince the Borromeo family to sell her Isola Madre; her request being turned down, she established herself on the banks of nearby Lake Como at Cernobbio in the Villa d’Este instead.
Isola Madre, the largest of the three islands, is home to an English style botanical garden where peacocks, game fowl, exotic birds, funky chickens, and other avian strut, flit, and roost freely amid the gardens. The botanical gardens themselves are renowned for the collection of camellias and rhododendrons. Napoleon Bonaparte, Gustave Flaubert, and Théophile Gautier have been among some of the gardens most famous visitors and Flaubert even wrote: “Isola Madre is a paradise on earth. Trees with leaves made golden by the sunlight.”
Rising up out of the gardens is the Palazzo Borromeo, which is filled with Borromeo family memorabilia from the various historic family homes. There is an impressive collection of puppets and puppet theaters that date back from the 17th century.
Isola Pescatori, or the Fisherman’s Island, has a population of 32 and is the only of the Borromean islands not still owned by the Borromeo family. A narrow main street runs the spine of the island and little cobbled alleys branch off. Here you’ll find shops selling ceramics, local candies, spices, and dried pasta. The traditional occupation of fishing still exists and there are a number of restaurants serving the daily fresh catch such as lake trout.
There is a small church and cemetery; Chiesa di San Vittore (Victor the Moor) retains traces of an ancient chapel, which was probably constructed for the monks of Scozzòla in the mid ninth century.
Isola Bella, named for Isabella, Countess of Borromeo, lives up to its moniker. There is no doubt that this island is indeed beautiful! The Borromeo family home is open to visitors to marvel as its sumptuous extravagances. Of particular interest is the grotto with its intricate stuccoes and mosaics.
The palace tour deposits you into the luxurious 17th century Italianate garden with ornate and overlapping terraces. More white peacocks strut their stuff in front of the huge, rising pyramid of the Unicorn Ridden by Love.
Know Before You Go
- Ferries leave from Stresa’s Piazza Marconi regularly; a €12.50 3-island pass is the most economical way to visit the islands. There are a number of boat operators and we recommend Lake Tours, which also allows dogs to ride for free.
- Isola Bella and Isola Madre attractions are open daily late March through mid-October 9am to 5:30pm. A joint 1-day ticket for the Isola Bella Palazzo and the Isola Madre Gardens costs €18 for adults and €8 for children.
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