17 Nov The Eden on earth: Lake Maggiore
LAKE MAGGIORE DISTRICT – THE HIDDEN TREASURE OF NORTHERN ITALY
Lake Maggiore (Italian: Lago Maggiore [ˈlaːɡo madˈdʒoːre] literally ‘Greater Lake’ or Verbano [verˈbaːno] is a large lake located on the south side of the Alps.
It is the second largest lake in Italy and the largest in southern Switzerland. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy and the Swiss canton of Ticino.
Lake Maggiore extends for about 40 miles (65 km) between Locarno, Switzerland and Arona, Italy.
The lake was named Maximus by the Romans in ancient times as it was the largest of the pre-Alpine lakes.
In 1800 , after the Simplon Pass was built through the Alps to connect Switzerland and Italy, Lake Maggiore became a popular tourist destination, with its botanical gardens and stunning Villas!
These Villas belong to the Borromean family, Italian aristocrats from Milan who came to dominate Lake Maggiore’s shores.
THE “STATE” OF THE BORROMEO FAMILY
Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth centuries the Borromeo were able to gain control of many fiefs in the Lake Maggiore area. They organised them as an almost independent state within the Duchy of Milan obtaining sovereignty, jurisdictions and control over the local army and fortresses.
The “state” was quite extended, it occupied around one thousand square kilometres of the Northwest area of Italy.
The “Borromeo’s State” ended in 1797 with the invasion of Milan by Napoleon Bonaparte who revoked all the Borromeo’s privileges and jurisdictions over this area; so the Borromeo maintained there only their ample estates as the Borromean Islands.
THE BORROMEAN ISLANDS
The Borromean Islands are now Lake Maggiore’s most famous attraction and well worth a visit!
Known for their unique architecture and stunning gardens, there are three main Islands:
- Isola Bella,
- Isola Pescatori (also called Isola Superiore),
- Isola Madre.
Isola Bella, perhaps the most admired destination on Lake Maggiore, got its name from Pricess Isabella D’Adda, wife of one of the most known Borromean family member: Carlo III.
Isola Bella has a stunning Baroque palace and elaborate Italian gardens.
Thanks to a generous sponsorship from the Borromeo family, in the 17th century a group of Italian architects were able to create a unique masterpiece.
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 Lake Maggiore’s fame.
The four-storey palace is a typical example of Italian Baroque architecture. The most interesting rooms are those located on the first floor: 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 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.
Part of the austere historical palace, which sits on the jutting outcrop that dominates the island, is now the summer residence of the Borromeo Family.
The history of the cypress from Cashmir
Providing shade for the Palazzo is the imposing cypress from Cashmir, which arrived here in 1862 from the Himalayas in a bag of fresh seeds and which over the years has become a symbol of Isola Madre.
It is the largest, oldest specimen of its kind that in Europe; in its land of origin, Tibet, it is in danger of extinction.The whirlwind that hit the north of Isola Madre in June 2006 also left its mark on this huge tree.
Saving it has been an operation involving complex engineering and botanical skills. Even if it will never return to the shape that made it «the most beautiful tree in the world», the great Cypress of Isola Madre remains one of the most iconic island’s natural heritage.
Since 2002 the gardens of Isola Madre, along with those of Isola Bella, have been part of the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society.
Isola Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island), is the most picturesque of the Borromean Islands. It is also the only one to be permanently inhabited.
Distinctive features of its ancient little village are narrow lanes with characteristic two-storey houses, with long balconies traditionally used for drying fish; the island’s inhabitants earn their living mainly by fishing and tourism.
Its unique skyline is punctuated by the pointed spire of the Church of San Vittore, which rises above the red roofs of the houses; its shore is always occupied by the little boats of its fifty residents. In the evenings, when silence falls and the lights are reflected in the calm waters of the lake, the island is at its most evocative atmosphere.
On the island you can find little boutiques and renowned restaurants where you can eat freshly caught fish.
An anecdote recounts that in 1835 Mussolini and the other participants in the Stresa Conference came to the island one day on a whim, to try the area’s best-known dish: deep-fried perch fish.
Once on the island you can’t miss the Church of San Vittore, a national monument, which still has its original apse with a single lancet window dating from the 11th century. Inside there is a 16th century fresco of Sant’Agata, some 17th century paintings, and wooden busts of the apostles Peter and Andrew, the patron saints of fishermen.